We all hope that we never have to navigate through an emergency or natural disaster, but everyone found themselves unprepared when the 2020 pandemic hit. The pandemic taught us that it’s impossible to plan for every emergency, but it’s equally important to be proactive when possible.
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Condos and HOAs, much like businesses, must do all that they can to plan for emergencies ahead of time. That’s because they will be responsible for guiding hundreds, or even thousands of people, during a stressful and uncertain time. It’s far easier to have a plan in place before something goes wrong and make small adjustments as needed than design a strategic plan on the fly. It’s also easier to coordinate with board members, insurance companies, and property managers when you’ve got time; working with a group when stress is high can be unproductive and less effective.
With a current and detailed emergency or disaster plan, condo and HOA communities can better prepare themselves for unpredictable events. Emergency plans outline what the community should do in case of an emergency, as well as how to proceed following the incident. It includes standard procedures and a chain of command to follow. At its core, an emergency plan serves as the community’s road map when normal life veers off course. While associations hope they won’t have to use these plans often, they’ll be glad they have them when they need them.
When preparing for an emergency, most condos and HOAs plan for natural disasters. California, Florida and Texas are all susceptible to natural disasters, and communities here almost certainly have prepared for the dangerous weather that impacts these states. But there are other emergencies that associations may need to factor into their preparedness plans.
- Pandemics (we hope we don’t see another in this century, but have a better idea of how to respond now)
- Toxic chemicals or gases leaking near the condo or HOA
- Building collapse
- Violent threats such as active shooters
Associations aren’t expected to create a plan for every scenario (though it never hurts if you can have plans for a number of different emergencies). It’s up to the association to identify which emergencies have the greatest probability of impacting the residents and property. Every condo and HOA should have a fire plan since people and nature can start fires, but not every community needs a detailed plan for earthquakes.
Creating a preparedness plan
After identifying the emergencies that could have the most immediate and/or significant impact on the association, the next step is to create plans for each emergency. Make sure to include the following items in each plan:
Chain of command
Leaders need to know who is responsible for doing what if an emergency hits. That way, instead of wasting valuable time trying to determine responsibilities and roles, everyone already knows what is expected of them. Many communities will elect to have the president as the primary leader, but that may not be the best option for your community.
The phone numbers and email addresses of your property manager, attorney, insurance company and board members should be in every plan. Condos and HOAs will also need to have an up-to-date list of residents, and their contact information as well.
Having a property management software like Condo Control is particularly helpful during emergency situations because boards and managers can reach every resident who has an account in seconds. Residents can also update their own phone numbers and email addresses at any time.
Every second counts in an emergency, and the faster you can reach your community members, the more likely they are to avoid danger.
The site plan should highlight where lift stations, generators and shut-off valves are located so that someone can get to them quickly.
If there is a natural disaster and people need to leave their homes, the evacuation plan will help people get out safely. The plan should include instructions for an organized evacuation, and locations for shelters and gas stations. Include a map to make it easier for everyone to get where they need to go.
Make sure you keep a copy of the association’s insurance policy online, ideally on a cloud-based platform. This way, the policies can be accessed even if there is no way to get to the physical copies. Make sure to also include information on how to file claims.
Debris management and removal
Some disasters can cause significant damage and will leave the association in complete disarray. Have at least two debris management vendors in your disaster plan. Chances are they will be in high demand and it may be hard to get an appointment right away. Consider designating a specific area for temporarily keeping debris as well.
Highlight the tasks that will need to be completed when the emergency is over. If the emergency forced residents to leave their homes, make sure to coordinate with local authorities before allowing residents to return to their homes.
Powers and limitations
A condo/HOA may have access to additional powers during an emergency. These powers will be dependent on the community’s governing documents, state law, and the nature of the emergency. Associations cannot simply grant themselves additional powers in an emergency, and these special powers do have limits.
The board will need to balance its obligation to prioritize the best interests of the community against the limitations on the association’s authority as a non-governmental actor.
Emergencies can be costly. Repairs aren’t cheap, but they must be completed, and the condo/HOA will need to find the money somehow.
Monthly dues paid by owners are always essential to the well being of the community, but they become even more significant after an emergency has occurred. While it is a tough ask, owners should make every effort to pay their fees during and after an emergency. If payments cannot be made, owners must reach out to the board or manager so that they can work together to see what options are available.
Some condo owners were very unhappy about having to pay fees during the pandemic since they were unable to use the amenities for many months. But fees go towards much more than the pool and gym. Moreover, cleaning fees went up by a lot for many condo communities, and associations had to be very careful about staying within their annual budget.
Emergency events that cause more physical damage may force associations to look at other options so that they can secure larger amounts of money in a short time.
When available, reserve funds may offer some or most of the money needed after an emergency. However, not all condos/HOAs maintain adequate reserve accounts.
Associations can apply for loans, and since they have a regular revenue stream (monthly fees/dues) and can pledge association property as security, they can usually take out a loan with a relatively low interest rate. A short-term loan can be helpful for condos/HOA that have insurance to cover damage; once an insurance claim is adjusted and paid out, some or all of the loan can be repaid from the proceeds. If insurance won’t cover the loan, the association may need to increase regular assessments to pay it off.
Owners are never happy to receive notice about a special assessment, but sometimes associations have no other choice. Many jurisdictions require special assessments to be approved by member vote, though some states allow boards to impose a special assessment without approval from members.
Insurance can sometimes provide adequate funds to help an association recover from an emergency. But not all losses are covered and it can take a while for a claim to be paid out.
There’s a lot that goes into planning for an emergency. Creating a preparedness plan requires many people and several hours of work. But a good plan will help save lives, and give everyone peace of mind when it matters most.