Before Disaster Strikes

Before Disaster Strikes

Before disaster strikes: these are three powerful words that every property manager in every asset type around the nation must take into consideration. The sad fact is that we live in dangerous times, and all buildings offering public access are vulnerable to threats either from nature or from human beings. It is the latter, including the robberies, the assaults and, in frighteningly increasing numbers, the incidents of random shootings, that can take us most by surprise.

Given this disturbing sociological backdrop, in an industry that places such a premium on networking for professional advancement, I believe it is a priority for property managers to expand their networks to include close associations with their local first responders. An ongoing dialog with your local police or fire department, FBI representatives and other first responders is key to your ability to predict what is otherwise unpredictable, and remain in your rightful position as the voice of calm and authority in the midst of chaos.

But it is not enough to simply know the right names and phone numbers and to keep this list updated, although this too is important. Giving all local safety authorities the opportunity to educate themselves on the uniqueness of your properties, including their layouts and current configurations, can save precious time, lives and assets. In the life cycle of a building, interiors change multiple times. Walls appear and disappear. Hallway and lobby configurations change. Desks, cubicles and filing cabinets—all potential hiding places—move. It is critical that first responders know what they are getting into when they react to a threat at your property.

To consider what I believe is probably the best example of property management and first responders collaborating for the safety of the local community, we need to go back to 1994. It was in San Francisco, a year after a mass shooting had taken place at 101 California Street, leaving eight people dead and six injured. It was a truly devastating incident that was marked by chaos and confusion, underscored by a circuit-clogging number of 911 calls.

In the year after the shooting, IREM San Francisco and nearly 800 police and fire department personnel, paramedics, 911 operators, negotiators and other authorities staged a mock shooting at a downtown financial district building, a high-visibility, single-user asset. People had come from as far away as Texas to participate in the event, some even volunteering to portray victims in various degrees of distress. The purpose was to give first responders and managers alike a real-life training experience. First responders had no idea where the event would occur or what type of incident they would be responding to until the 911 calls started flooding in early that morning.

I was fortunate to be in the lobby observing as the mock crisis unraveled, and more fortunate, I thought at the time, that this was just an exercise. There was an overwhelming sensation of being helpless as waves of first responders, then SWAT teams, poured in to establish a command center and asked building management to surrender keys, floor plans and other documents.

But even though we were private citizens, we were not totally helpless, and here is where the property manager’s unique knowledge of his or her asset—and our ability to help protect lives—is critical. I recall hearing an officer say that the first responders knew what floor and what phone extension the “gunman” was at, but they still did not know what the he looked like. I remember offering to the commander that, since it was a single-user building, the manager knew who was assigned to each phone extension, as well as what the employees looked like.

The tenant’s human resources department had photos of employees in the building, so they could be provided to the law enforcement officials. This was critical information to them that clearly informed them of the importance of the property manager’s role in such situations.

We learned from each other during the course of that event. And I truly believe that none of us will ever feel totally helpless again in the face of unforeseen crises, a critical consideration for property management as a whole, since we carry the responsibility for providing a voice of calm and direction in a crisis.

But I offer this for consideration: according to a newly created IREM white paper, since 1982 there have been roughly 69 mass shootings in the United States, occurring in no fewer than 30 states, from Massachusetts to Hawaii. Thirty-two of these, nearly half, have occurred since 2006, implying a disturbing trend.

And, as stated above, this is only one conceivable threat, and only one example of man’s inhumanity toward man. Add the other possible threats, man-made and natural, that we face every day, and the need for a close and active association with your local first responders becomes very clear. The random nature of these horrific acts means that preparedness in all public spaces is critical, as is a working familiarity with the layout of your building or buildings on the part of those who would keep us safe. This is especially true as these buildings undergo massive changes from year to year. And while the staged event in San Francisco occurred in an office setting, the same proactive initiative is possible in multifamily and retail settings as well.

As we enter a new year and go about our professional lives, especially as we read the increasingly frightening news headlines, keep that mock incident in mind. Everyone involved in that event walked away informed in a way that would not be possible otherwise.

Such an interaction between building management and local first responders goes a long way toward strengthening community involvement. More importantly, it goes a long way toward ensuring the safety and confidence of the people in your care. With all of this in mind, here is a question: how prepared are you for the unpredictable?

In addition to her role as IREM 2015 president, Lori Burger, CPM, PCAM, CCAM, is senior vice president of Eugene Burger Management Corp. in Rohnert Park, Calif.

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