While driving cross-country on vacation very unusual weather patterns caught us off-guard: a fluke snowfall in Nevada, early tornado season in the midwest, and a hail storm in the high desert. Although unexpected, the many years of handling the unexpected as a property manager the instinctive reaction was calm and caution.
Although calm and caution can carry you far in an emergency situation on a vacation, a well thought out disaster preparedness plan is vital to the protection of your property investment and care for the safety and well-being of your residents; not to mention, depending on your local laws, may be required.
Before Disaster Strikes
The key is to expect the unexpected which begins with evaluating the type of properties you maintain and their vulnerabilities. Apartments, mobile home parks, HOA’s and commercial buildings will have different needs during an incident compared to a single dwelling or vacation home.
As earthquakes, landslides, tornadoes, and hurricanes are regionally specific, note what hazards and risks would be most likely in your area. From there, the depth and breadth of the disaster preparedness plan is in your hands, but it is advised to check with your insurance provider and other outside agencies to ensure your plan is complete and compliant with any policies, rules and/or regulations. Ask their advice for other types of emergencies and contingencies to add to your plan such as: wild animal encounters, power outages, national crisis, terrorism or home invasion, resident created events, and/or property related incidents.
If you don’t already have monthly and yearly property rental safety checklists, now would be a good time to create them. Some areas and items to consider for your checklists could include: falling and tripping hazards, fire extinguisher fill dates, alarm and equipment checks, updated contact numbers, etc. Remember to include your office in your evaluations (even if you work from home) as your safety is important.
Now that you are ready to design and or update your plan, you will want to create two specific versions. A tabbed section binder is useful for office use whereas the tenant version might be designed as a separate handout or included in the welcome packet along with the rules and regulations. It’s advisable to have both available electronically and saved within cloud storage for online/offline access.
Common section ideas for the tenant version to consider:
- Contact list for local agencies (including a point of contact for the property)
- Exit plans and diagrams
- Call and check-in plans
- Health, safety, and security tips and local resources
- Pet Safety
- Environmental, mechanical, utility, and plumbing issues
Additional items to add to the office procedure document might include:
- Maintenance checklists
- Fire Extinguisher locations
- Breaker and electrical panel locations
- Contractor contact list by service type
- Emergency Agency Telephone Numbers
- Location and instructions to shut off water, gas, and electricity
Some routine items of concern and importance to note when planning:
- Have all emergency exits and fire-safe stairwells clearly marketed; diagrams and maps are imperative.
- Use a routine maintenance check (at least yearly) on smoke, fire, and CO2 detectors, as well as all fire extinguishers. Make sure they are strategically placed, clearly visible, with clear and easy-to-read instructions.
- Many neighborhood watch programs in community settings such as an HOA, apartment complex, or mobile home park include safety and crisis teams. Those leaders can prove to be an invaluable asset.
- Know the safe spots on the property and/or within the community and have those designations well documented.
- Plan for the different types of special needs of your tenants as some may need additional assistance and support.
- If you allow pets on the property, there are many associations and tools to support those four-legged family members. Consider offering pets stickers to identify homes with pets. You can also offer contact information for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), American Humane Association, Red Rover, and National Animal Poison Control Center.
Steps to Take in an Emergency
Communicate: Although there may not be much time, make time to communicate. Find a good property management software that has built-in text messaging and emailing blast capabilities. Have templates in place so that it only takes a moment to get the word out. You may also want to include social media posts as well. Lastly, consider creating a calling chain or door-to-door campaign to disseminate information. Advanced planning regarding communication can save not only your investment but potentially lives as well.
Listen: Keep informed with the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), use short-wave and traditional radio stations, social media, or whatever sources are available during the event. In addition to being well informed on the situation, listening to the residents and local community support is paramount. Finally, listen to your instincts. You’ve planned, you’re prepared, just remember to breathe.
The Recovery Phase and Beyond
Typically agencies such as The Red Cross or FEMA will inform you when it’s safe to reenter a property. Do not attempt to go into or near a building that has been compromised without the go-ahead from an agency or your insurance company. Safety comes first.
Once cleared to enter, your insurance carrier will work with you on what needs to be restored and repaired. Having good relationships with reliable contractors ahead of time is useful but again, take the advice of your insurance carrier during this process. Keep clear communication with your residents along the way.
Once the restoration is underway and life is finding its routine, be sure to schedule a time to maintain code compliance, continue with meeting and communicating with your tenants, and updating the tenant handbook and binder as needed.
Statistics confirm that being under-prepared can have severe consequences in terms of property damage or harm to those tenants we aim to serve. To avoid or diminish those risks, partner with your local services, networking groups, and agencies and take advantage of the many resources available (see below). Of course, keeping a clear mind and calm demeanor day-to-day will serve you well during an emergency event whether you are on vacation or caring for your property portfolio.
FEMA offers many programs from information useful for your residents, to training and volunteer programs such as the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) geared to prepare you for hazards and catastrophes. These resources and training courses are free and offered by FEMA at ready.gov.
Other useful websites:
- Hurricane Territories: https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/
- Real-time data for earthquakes, floods, landslides, volcanoes, drought, and wildfires: https://www.usgs.gov/products/data-and-tools/real-time-data
- Weather storms, watches, and warning map: https://www.weather.gov/
- Not only does The Red Cross offer training classes in first-aid and CPR, but they also offer multiple free mobile apps and/or text messaging alerts.