THE EARLY EVENING REPORT stopped me cold: two men with guns and masks were in the public washroom at a shopping mall my company managed in Anchorage, Alaska. It was Halloween. Hundreds of children and their parents — most wearing costumes — were weaving their way through the mall's 90 stores collecting candy.
The situation demanded immediate action, but the choices were difficult. An immediate evacuation would send a large, and possibly panicky, crowd into the dark, cold and snow. Waiting could put people in danger.
On that cold October night in 1983, the actions we took included calling the police, alerting the mall's jewelry stores and placing guards at all exits. The jewelry stores were the only retailers to close that night.
As for the little ghosts and goblins, their happy shouts of “trick-or-treat!” were not interrupted during a quiet and fruitless search for the gunmen. Were they for real, or simply trick-or-treaters? It's likely we'll never know. But we continue to be prepared for another emergency. Are you?
Get Everyone Involved
Responding to emergencies requires a highly coordinated plan. Such work is a full-time job for the police, fire department, FBI and medical and military personnel. Most of us who manage real estate don't have the training of these professionals. Over the years, I've worked with federal, state and local authorities to learn how best to prepare for disaster, either natural or man-made.
Is it possible to protect yourself fully against disaster? No. But there are strategies to incorporate into an emergency response plan that will help safeguard your commercial tenants, residents and property. Building owners and operators must consider and plan for fire, explosions, floods, high winds, bomb threats, bombings, civil disturbances, hostage situations, chemical and biological terrorism, and nuclear or radiological terrorism.
Each of these threats requires careful planning. It's a good idea to meet with police and firefighters to review procedures before they are needed, particularly in major metropolitan areas with a high concentration of people and high-profile targets.
The success of a building's emergency procedures depends largely on the cooperation of the property's tenants. Their attitudes toward emergency response and preparedness, and their willingness to cooperate during a disaster, can make the difference between a successful program and a catastrophe.
Since Sept. 11, commercial tenants have been quick to cooperate with management regarding emergency drills. But with the passage of time, some tenants are likely to revert to viewing the drills as a time-consuming inconvenience. It's the manager's responsibility to convince them otherwise.
There are five critical components to any emergency preparedness plan.
Know Local Laws and Building Codes — Many municipalities have adopted new emergency and evacuation procedures. Just as important, managers must determine requirements for reporting such emergencies.
Maintain Accurate Records — Include current blueprints and incorporate “as built” drawings that show the locations of mechanical equipment, utility and water shutoffs, power mains, elevators, stairwells, roof access, emergency generators and communication equipment.
Stock Emergency Equipment — Stock equipment as it applies to your property's specific needs and maintain enough supplies. A group of people may share a flashlight, but not boots or safety belts.
Set up an Emergency Operations Center — Designate an area for decision makers to gather during an emergency. Ideally, this area should be equipped with communications equipment and reference materials such as floor plans, tenant lists and evacuation plans.
Install an Emergency Management Team — This team will assume command in the event of a disaster and is equipped to restore normal operations as soon as possible. Provide team members with CPR training.
We hope we never have to endure another tragedy like Sept. 11, but in a world fraught with risk, we must plan for the worst and hope for the best.
Richard Muhlebach is a senior managing director with Kennedy Wilson Properties in Bellevue, Wash.