Emergency Planning for Gated Communities and Home Owners Associations
Roger Mason PhD
Efforts to prepare a community for emergencies are often overlooked and under supported. When the sun is shining and budgets are tight, it is hard to expend the effort and money for preparation. The tipping point for real chaos caused by a disaster or emergency is often much less than people anticipate.
Take for example the winter storm disaster in Atlanta last week. The total snowfall was only two inches, but the melting and refreezing of the slush to ice brought the entire metropolitan area to a standstill. Atlanta was not only isolated from outside help but from mutual aid within the Atlanta metropolitan area. First responders heading in to work became trapped in the “snow out,” unable to provide emergency response in their own jurisdiction. The need for private stakeholders to prepare for an emergency has never been more apparent.
In Southern California the greatest threat is from earthquakes. In the past five years there has been a definite shift in thinking about the way to prepare Southern California for a major seismic event. First there is the recognition that damage by a major earthquake could isolate the region by destroying airports, freeways, rail lines, communications, and pipelines which supply and allow access to the region. Foundational support people and first responders could be stranded and unable to respond. In addition, the impact of a weak economy on government operations has led to cuts in preparations by governments at the local, state and national level. Citizens can no longer rely on the government to care for them the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
Housing properties contained within gated communities and condominiums are unique. The properties are often high density and contain a mixture of full time, part time, and vacation use owners. The partnership between the agency and residents/property owners provides the oversight needed to maintain their community. In the face of greater urban density and a weaker ability for the government to provide protection, residents will be looking for protection in new places. Management companies need to develop a plan that will provide protection to its property and residents during a disaster.
Conducting a Risk Assessment
The first step in planning is a risk assessment of the property: determine what factors in the property environment pose a risk during a disaster. Is the property in an earthquake liquefaction zone, is it near a body of water that can flood, is there a brush fire threat, is it subject to a tidal surge? By understanding the risks it is possible to determine the steps needed to mitigate their effects.
The second step is to conduct a review the business practices of the home owners association (HOA) and the property management company. This would include the arrangements for emergency contracts and expenditures and a procedure for the preservation of key documents and files. All contingency agreements for possible contract assistance with additional equipment or supplies need for repairs should be reviewed. Agency communications and continuity abilities should be assessed. The training provided to the property management employees needs to be reviewed to ensure they are prepared to assist their clients.
Developing a Plan
The purpose of the plan is to address the threats uncovered during the risk assessment. Local government agencies often provide information about their emergency plans. These sources should be reviewed and the information included in your community plan. Contingency agreements should be developed with contractors or other persons/firms that may provide services needed in the aftermath of an earthquake. If the security gates on your community are damaged during an earthquake you may need a contractor to open them and another contractor to repair them as soon as possible.
The plan should include procedures for evacuation and shelter in place. There should be a communications plan for the residents. This is a procedure to inform community members on what is happening during an emergency. For members with special access or functional needs challenges there should be a system to check on their safety and provide assistance if possible.
In any community there are often people with professional experience or training that may be useful during an emergency. If you have residents with building trade experience, retired public safety professionals or persons in the health care industry, they may be able to provide professional expertise during the initial hours after a disaster while your community is waiting for a response from local authorities. Keeping a roster of potential resident responders can be an important way to maximize protection of life and property. Your plan should identify tasks that can be fulfilled by residents after the disaster occurs. Typical tasks would be periodic checks on vulnerable residents or manning an information center where homeowners can get the latest information about the disaster (Ex: When will the power be restored? Are the streets out of the area still blocked?).
Include tasking for employees: facilities crews, security force,and administrative personnel. Include recall procedures if the employees are off duty and a list of specific tasks once they arrive at work. Take into account the potential for increased staffing needs. If security gates are damaged and dysfunctional, you will need to have additional security to man the gates to insure only residents, responders, and contractors that have been requested are entering. There should be annual training for staff members regarding emergency operations.
Preparing Your Community Members
Besides preparing the overall community, every resident should be encouraged to prepare. Materials are available for free that provide simple recommendations for disaster proofing homes. A plan has limited value if the people the plan protects do not understand it. Every resident should receive a summary of the plan and homeowner meetings should be scheduled to discuss the plan. Each resident needs to know what services will be provided by the management company and by the on staff employees.
By preparing now, the impact of a major disaster can be successfully mitigated.