Some days it rains, some days it pours — and some days, there’s a Category 4 hurricane. And while the latter is relatively rare, it can be a true disaster, and any community or homeowners’ association worth its salt should be prepared for it. Whether storm, fire, earthquake or freak accident, a board must take into account anything that may confront its community and put property and personal safety in danger, and come up with a plan to best lead its constituents to safety. And while this seems like quite the undertaking, there are guidelines in place and experts on hand who can help steer an association through disaster preparedness.
The Roof Is on Fire
While extreme weather events get a lot of media play, nationwide data points to fires as being the most common cause for evacuation of residential properties. An association needs a firm policy in place for what to do in this type of stressful situation.
“The Red Cross responds to more than 60,000 home fires per year,” says Kevin F. Kelley, senior director of community preparedness programs for the American Red Cross. “Although they’re a little under the radar, they can happen in every community, and nationally they add up, so this is always a smart thing on which to work with residents. We have a campaign currently underway called 2 Steps 2 Minutes, and those two steps are basically to check your smoke alarms monthly and to practice home escape fire drills, where you try and get everyone out of the home in two minutes, as research indicates that it’s at that point where a person will be overcome by smoke and potentially killed.”
In condos and HOAs, there may be municipal codes or language in a community’s governing documents that speak to fire safety requirements, and a board should consult those accordingly and make sure that they are, at minimum, adhering to the law of the land. But as Kelley observes, “The general rules are to check the smoke alarms, make sure they’re working, and to practice a home fire escape drill that includes a meeting place that is well away from any potential fire. The reason being that when everyone gathers at the same place, no one — including firefighters — risks their lives trying to go into homes to rescue people who still may be inside. If the first responders know that they don’t need to undergo a search and rescue, they can just handle the suppression of the fire itself.”
The responsibility of an association is to anticipate foreseeable events, says Robert C. Griffin, Esq., a partner with Griffin Alexander P.C. in Randolph, New Jersey. “Some disasters, like fires, are foreseeable. If you live at the shore and there’s a hurricane in the forecast, you can foresee a flood. So when you fail to have a plan at all, you are running the risk that, by failing to anticipate and take action to protect persons and property—with respect at least to the common elements—you could be considered negligent. Of course, not every emergency can be anticipated. We don’t get many tornadoes around here. But if failing to have any evacuation plan introduces a risk of chaos that could cause injury should people need to escape a fire, that could be considered a negligent act in certain circumstances.”