Expecting the Unexpected

Expecting the Unexpected Preparing Your Property for an Emergency


Nearly fifteen years ago, Pam Schramm had just begun a new job managing an office building in Austin, Texas, when a tornado came tearing down I-35, dangerously close to her property—and her tenants. “That’s when the importance of preparedness really hit home for me,” recalls Schramm, now a senior property manager with Stream Realty Partners. “Back then, the building staff still was using walkie-talkies to communicate, and I didn’t know when the emergency e-mail list had been updated last.” As it turned out, her team was able to notify the building’s tenants quickly about the hazardous conditions outside and implement the emergency plan, keeping everyone safe. But Schramm never forgot how she felt when she realized that they were in real danger. “I didn’t feel prepared,” she admits. “On that day, I decided I was never going to let that happen again.”

In fact, nothing reveals gaps in emergency planning and training faster than an actual emergency. A commercial building might be well stocked with emergency supplies, have a cutting-edge security system in place and even employ security personnel and still not be ready when something unexpected happens. “Property managers need to know what kinds of risks they might be facing, what resources are going to be available to them, who they will be working with and how best to communicate with them in an emergency,” explains Joe Donovan, director of Operational Risk at Beacon Capital Partners in Northern Virginia. “All of those concerns will change over time, and property teams need to adapt. It’s important to stay aware and stay vigilant.”

Know Your Risks

Natural disaster preparation can be prioritized in order of likelihood for a specific area, but ultimately nothing should be ruled out. Someone like Schramm working in Austin, Texas, for example, should spend more time preparing for a tornado than a snowstorm, but there should still be a plan in place for a deep freeze. When it comes to man-made disasters, on the other hand, evaluating risk may seem more daunting. “It’s tempting to think that it could never happen in your building, but the truth is you never know,” Schramm says. With the help of her security vendors, she regularly factors in how her tenants, the tenants in neighboring buildings and her location affect her building’s risk. “We have a lot of lobbyists and lawyers in my building, and sometimes their work presents a security concern if someone is unhappy with a court case or a piece of legislation, sowe work with our tenants closely to evaluate any possible threats,” she explains. “When you take on a tenant, you need to know exactly what you’re getting into.”

Deb Pyznarski, senior general manager for Lincoln Property Company in Suburban Chicago, follows a similar approach within her building. “I regularly check in with each tenant to find out if they’re worried about anything. Let's say an employee has been let go recently by a tenant or one of their employees has filed an order of protection against someone. We make it clear that we will respect their privacy, but we need to know those things if we’re going to be prepared,” says Pyznarski, who also happens to be chair of BOMA International’s Preparedness Committee. If someone does have an order of protection, Pyznarski files a copy with the local precinct, so that nothing slips through the cracks. She also has a copy of the order along with a photo kept at the front desk. “The goal is to avoid an incident before it starts. I want to know that if someone walks in who shouldn’t be there, my staff, my security personnel and the local police immediately know that they need to respond.” She also encourages her building staff to let her know if they observe a change in a tenant’s behavior. “If a tenant has never felt the need to lock their office doors before and suddenly that’s changed, I want to know why.”

Property managers need to be aware of what’s going on outside their buildings, too. Schramm knows that her property’s location near the state capitol and the University of Texas at Austin means an additional set of possible emergency scenarios can arise nearby and affect her building. For example, a few years ago, she was meeting with tenants when an active shooter situation arose on the UT Austin campus. She was able to keep her tenants informed until there was no longer any threat.

Build Your Team

It’s also important to be familiar with the other commercial buildings in your area, as well as their staff members. Beacon’s Donovan recommends that property managers who work on the same block check in with each other to share neighborhood news and building updates—and to factor in vendors as well. “Ask what vendors your neighbors are using and have their contact information on hand in case yours become unavailable,” says Donovan. “The more resources you have at your disposal, the more prepared you’ll be.”

And it’s not enough for property professionals to simply know who they might be working with in an emergency – they need to have a strong working relationship with them. Donovan suggests monthly meetings with your building team to discuss possible emergency scenarios. “You can pick up any newspaper and read about an emergency that no one expected. Sit down with your team and talk about how you would handle a similar situation. Learn to develop a response plan quickly as a team; practice making difficult decisions and employing best practices,” Donovan says. He also recommends scheduling meetings with vendors and local emergency responders to ensure your response plans work well together and to run through a hypothetical emergency. Once you have a solid plan in place, invite your tenants to join the group. “Talking through a scenario together will give you insights you can’t get from looking at emergency plans on paper,” Donovan explains. “And by bringing all these groups together, you can have the emergency responders advise your tenants directly, which can carry additional weight. Tenants need to know that they are active partners with the property management team and first responders in ensuring their own safety.” Spacing out these meetings every six months will avoid overloading stakeholders and keep attendance high. After each meeting, take time to record lessons learned and adjust the building’s emergency plan accordingly. Including local emergency responders in preparedness meetings and emergency plans can be a great way to become better acquainted with them–and it shouldn’t end there. “Tabletop drills with first responders really help my team to put a face to our emergency response team, and it also helps the first responders to get to know us and our property,” Schramm says. “If an emergency does happen, we won’t be strangers – we’ll know who we’re working with and we’ll have experience working together.”

Lincoln’s Pyznarski has gone a step further in cultivating a relationship with her local first responders. “We have some vacant space at the moment, so we invited our police and fire departments to train there. It’s set up as an occupied floor, which makes it a great training space for them,” Pyznarski says. “When they’re in the building, we let our tenants know that there’s training going on, which gives our tenants a keen sense that their local responders are familiar with their building and that building staff are really working to keep them safe.” Setting up recurring meetings and preparedness exercises will keep everyone ready. “Preparing for an emergency is an ongoing process,” says Alan Stein, vice president at AlliedBarton Security Services. “Property managers are extremely busy people, and it’s easy for security and preparedness to slip down the list of priorities. Don’t let the fact that there hasn’t been an emergency in years keep you from staying vigilant,” he adds. Building teams can fall into a pattern of simply going through the same checklists and conducting basic fire drills, but Stein recommends continually challenging your team—and your tenants—to learn something new. “Conduct a security drill, block off one of your stairwells and test your tenants’ response,” Stein says. “Cycle through different scenarios so the knowledge stays fresh.”

Leverage New Technology

Depending on the jurisdiction, property managers may be required to collect emergency plans or coordinate safety training, but tenants should not assume their building staff will be available to them during a crisis. However, advancements in emergency response technology are allowing tenants to feel informed and connected in a crisis. Experts recommend that property teams use a dedicated emergency messaging system reserved only for high-priority communications. “If we send an alert out through our emergency system, our tenants recognize it immediately and know that it’s important,” says Pyznarski.

Beyond standard emergency messaging systems, there are other modern tools that can be helpful during an emergency. Curtis Massey, president and CEO of Massey Disaster Planning, spoke at the 2015 BOMA International Conference & Expo in June about how new software applications allow building plans and layouts to be safely stored offline on tablets and smartphones, which means staff and tenants alike can quickly bring up the information they need in an emergency. “Smartphones are comforting to people. When something happens, the first thing most people do is pull out their phone,” Massey says. “If someone is panicking, if they’re alone, if they’ve forgotten what they need to be doing, there is now an app that can tell them exactly what to do and where to go that can be stored in their pocket. With the press of a button, they can access the knowledge and experience of a seasoned police officer, a firefighter or a paramedic.”

Schramm believes that supplementing an emergency plan with technology will create better-prepared tenants. “We need to embrace the fact that many of our tenants, especially our younger tenants, are going to respond better to information that’s delivered via their smartphone. We need to communicate with them in a way that makes them comfortable.” She herself has a number of alerts set up on her phone – notifying her of everything from road closures to weather emergencies to security warnings – which allow her easily to monitor possible concerns as they arise. Many property managers are now leveraging social media, particularly Twitter, to send out notifications to their tenants even if the power is out or e-mail is unavailable, and even first responders now tweet out updates to their communities.

Prepare Yourself

As property professionals scrutinize their emergency plans, they should not neglect the final component – themselves. “Building owners and property managers have such an important role to play in a crisis,” says Leonard Marcus, PhD, co-director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard University. “When people think about preparedness, they focus on logistical preparations, which are very important, but you also have to prepare yourself to lead.” Property professionals should take every opportunity to refresh their skills and knowledge by seeking out training on emergency responses, but they shouldn’t overlook leadership skill development. “People think that attending leadership training means they are deficient, but even the best leaders need to develop their abilities,” explains Marcus. “We find that exceptional leaders anticipate the kinds of decisions they’re going to have to make. They anticipate the resources, people and assets they are going to need in order to make those decisions.” Nowhere are these skills more important that in an emergency situation.

In the past decade and a half, Pam Schramm has taken this advice to heart. “I don’t know if anyone is ever fully prepared for an emergency, to be honest,” she admits. “But I know what makes me feel calm now when an emergency strikes: it’s being able to fall back on all of the training I’ve had and the preparation I’ve done, and knowing that I have some exceptional people to help me.” Schramm adds, “You have to stay vigilant, but you don’t have to be afraid.”

Is Your Building Ready?

Looking to beef up your property’s emergency preparedness plan, but not sure where to start? The best-prepared property professionals expand their knowledge with guidance from industry sources. “For property managers who want to try tabletop exercises, I really recommend checking out BOMA International’s Emergency Preparedness Guidebook,” says Beacon Capital Partners’ Joe Donovan. “It’s a great resource, particularly for putting together group scenario training.” The guidebook also walks readers through the four phases of emergency management—mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery and contains valuable checklists to help ensure tenant safety and building security during a variety of emergency situations.

BOMA International’s Emergency Preparedness Guidebook is available at store.boma.org.

This article was originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of BOMA Magazine.