Guarding Against Disaster

Businesses benefit from disaster preparedness programs.

By Robert K. Shibuya

While disasters may seem infrequent, the reality is that they occur every day across the nation. From earthquakes and fires that periodically threaten entire communities to more isolated incidents that affect only a single building, disasters take a toll on businesses as well as homes and individuals. For commercial tenants and property owners, it is essential that--after lives are protected--facilities be put back into operations as quickly as possible following an emergency. After all, every minute in the recovery process translates into a dollar equivalent of lost productivity for tenants and owners.

Take, for example, the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco during which 4,000 businesses were either damaged or destroyed. Many companies struggled to recover, and hundreds of businesses filed for bankruptcy as a direct result. On a smaller scale, consider the impact on productivity at a 400,000-square-foot industrial building in Southern California, where last winter tons of hail quickly built up and overloaded the roof. Until the damage could be assessed and repaired, the entire operation had to be shut down, costing time and money. In both scenarios, businesses that had prepared for the unexpected were likely to fair better than those that hadn't.

The Importance of Preparedness

While cool heads and resourcefulness are valued during and after a disaster, they are no substitute for preparation. Today, most office and commercial properties are managed by professional property management companies. Because these companies focus on facility-related issues, the responsibility for implementing a building's emergency preparedness program often lies with such service providers. Even so, all parties should take an active interest in the readiness of a property to react in an emergency. Because while many of these functions may be carried out by a property manager, they also have a dramatic impact on both owners and tenants.

Recently, a commercial property management firm based in Irvine made a significant effort to identify the issues related to and solutions for dealing with disasters--especially disasters such as earthquakes that are specific to the region. Managing more than 50 million square feet of office, retail, and industrial property, Insignia/ESG's individual managers have had to respond to emergencies ranging from fires to plane crashes. At the same time, the entire company has had to respond to major emergencies such as earthquakes. Having learned from these experiences, the company has identified three areas that are crucial to the success of any disaster preparedness program: communications, support, and testing.

Critical Steps

Because few true emergencies in a disaster can be handled by on-site personnel, secure communications need to be in place to contact vendors and emergency services. At the same time, creating close relationships with key allies and vendors prior to an emergency ensures that you'll have the support you need when you need it. Finally, an emergency preparedness plan is only valuable in its ability to resolve real situations, making realistic testing and constant improvement of any plan a vital necessity.

[ital]Communications[ital]. Communicating with key personnel and service representatives is critical following a disaster. One of the most valuable tools in reacting to a disaster is an up-to-date phone list. It may sound like a rather basic concept, but its benefits are clear. For instance, when an unusually intensive hailstorm caused the collapse of a building earlier this year, all of the key personnel who needed to assess the damage and begin repairs were on-site within the hour--even though the unexpected event took place in the middle of the night. This was possible because emergency phone numbers for each critical service were on hand.

A second example of such a resource being used in an emergency was during the Northridge earthquake, when one property manager grabbed her emergency contact list and used her cellular phone to call the services needed to assess and safeguard the site. By the time she arrived at the building, the key vendors were already there or on their way. Within hours, those vendors' services were overwhelmed by requests from hundreds of building owners, tenants, and managers facing similar situations. By having the phone list easily accessible and placing calls to each contact as quickly as possible, the property manager was able to ensure that her business would be one of the first attended to.

This latter example also demonstrates the need to create depth as well as breadth in the list of allies during a disaster. Invariably, a primary vendor may be unavailable to provide service. In this situation, a prepared property manager can simply move down the list of names and numbers until services are secured.

It's important to note that communications--especially in major crises--may not always be reliable. Recognizing that phone service may be lost means that investment in multiple lines of communications should be a priority. If land lines fail, cellular phones, pagers, and two-way radios can provide viable forms of communication, as they did in the Northridge earthquake.

Finally, because even large-scale disasters are localized geographically, establishing communications support centers in different regions is also advisable. Ideally, these distant support centers could be used to store critical computer files and information and would be prepared to carry out critical tasks following an emergency. Additionally, such centers can aid in coordinating recovery efforts and may prove invaluable if, for instance, local telephone lines become inoperable during a major disaster.

[ital]Support[ital]. From minor incidents to major structural damages, there are hundreds of potential allies who will be needed before a building can resume operations. If a cooling tower is damaged, for instance, HVAC experts need to be on-site immediately before computers and other essential operations overheat or a business is forced to shut down. Similarly, gas and water lines may rupture, requiring quick action from multiple services and vendors to not only resolve the initial hazard but repair the damage and get the facility back into operation.

At a minimum, a good emergency response plan should identify key resources--from emergency services and elevator repair companies to structural engineers, plumbers, electricians, and janitorial and other clean-up services. Ideally, strong relationships with crucial allies have already been developed, further ensuring that the needs of the building can be quickly met. In addition to developing these relationships with vendors, relationships with emergency services organizations should also be strengthened. One opportunity for doing this is to have local fire departments use annual evacuation drills as part of their own training, thereby increasing their familiarity with both the building and the staff. In an isolated incident, these relationships may speed up recovery by hours; in a major disaster, they may prove invaluable.

[ital]Testing[ital]. A real emergency is the worst time to find out whether your plan works. Each misstep in the process of recovery invariably results in delays and can sometimes unnecessarily threaten the health of the building, businesses, or, even worse, the safety of tenants. Testing is crucial to finding the weak points in any plan.

In the case of emergency preparedness, testing means much more than conducting annual fire drills for tenants; it also means testing the system that will put the building back into operation as soon as the immediate danger has been eliminated. Realistic training will help turn an intellectual exercise into a dedicated attempt to put tools into the hands of managers and ensure that support is there when it is needed. For Insignia/ESG, this testing is done at both an individual and division-wide level, which involves more than 450 buildings. From minor emergencies to major disasters, every part of the process is tested, and key questions are asked and answered. Can each property manager be contacted? Do they have the tools they need to achieve their task? Can they respond effectively if phone lines are lost? Are owners and tenants kept informed?

In the end, such drills highlight deficient areas that individual managers or the company as a whole must work to correct, making emergency preparedness truly a year-round activity.

Seeing Real Results

The benefits of realistic testing are incalculable. Each year, Insignia/ESG's tests have identified additional equipment and resources that may be needed in the event of a disaster. By keeping a $12 all-purpose wrench in the trunk of a manager's car, for example, gas and water lines can be shut off in an emergency. Similarly, an emergency backpack containing medical supplies, flashlights, and hard hats can be a small investment that offers a tremendous potential return. The company also discovered that secondary items, such as signage to quickly block off a building or mark areas needing attention, should be added to its preparedness materials.

Equally importantly, these drills have reemphasized the value of communications and support. With each drill, the level of preparedness grows. Forced to improvise when one drill eliminated the use of telephones, Insignia/ESG personnel identified alternate means such as two-way and even ham radios. These individuals' creative solutions were then improved and incorporated into the emergency plans for every building.

Already this year, the emergency procedures and support systems created through Insignia/ESG's program have been tested in real emergencies impacting facilities. For the owners and tenants of these facilities, the benefits have been immediately apparent. Downtime for the building and tenant operations have been minimized, and problems that weren't immediately apparent have been identified and rectified before causing long-term consequences. Equally important, owners and tenants have been continually updated on the situation because the plan addresses their need to plan their own actions accordingly.

While this focus has proven invaluable in emergency situations, a property manager's commitment to emergency preparedness is also valued by owners and tenants who have never had to depend on the plan. Like insurance, they can feel confident that they will be protected in the event of a disaster. This is, after all, what a property manager is retained to do: manage buildings so owners and tenants can manage their business.

[ital]Robert K. Shibuya is executive managing director for Irvine-based Insignia/ESG's west division[ital].

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