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After the towering inferno: fire and its aftermath.

After the Towering Inferno: Fire and its Aftermath

The TV journalists are gone, the firemen are reeling in their hoses, even the smoke is drifting away. You stand now without lights or utilities, in a building flooded with soot, debris, and water. Obviously it falls to the property manager to secure the property, to coordinate emergency work, and to complete the restoration. But where does one begin?

Despite all precautions and prevention equipment, catastrophes do occur. Floods, earthquakes, and fires wreak more damage in minutes than most buildings (or managers) withstand in a lifetime. However, careful planning before and after a crisis can minimize property losses and reduce inconvenience to your tenants.

Three-sixty East 72 Street, a 35-story Manhattan residential tower managed by our firm, faced catastrophe in January 1988. A three-alarm fire raged out of control for 2 1/2 hours, requiring 100 firefighters to extinguish the flames. The fire totally gutted the seventh floor of this modern, 500-unit, fireproof property. In addition to direct fire losses, there was heavy smoke damage in the 28 floors above and extreme flooding conditions in all apartments below. Loss of electricity, heat, elevators, telephone lines, water, cooking gas, and other services added to the confusion.

Eighty-eight apartments sustained damage exceeding $1 million, not including loss of personal property, apartment furnishings, and rental income. Because the building was occupied, renovations had to begin at once.

Our company had written emergency plans in contemplation of such a disaster, but the lessons we learned in "crisis management" would still fill a book.

Most important, we redoubled our faith in fire prevention tools and emergency planning techniques. Although these precautions failed to prevent a fire entirely, the preparations truly saved the lives of our residents.

Preparing for emergencies

Most commercial and large-scale residential properties will meet construction codes detailing proper egress, fire retardant materials, and structural integrity. The role of the property manager is to develop a plan for systematic risk reduction.

This plan includes adoption of crisis prevention techniques, installing emergency equipment, training staff, and establishing procedures to follow if a problem does arise.

Prevention equipment includes more than just fire extinguishers and hoses. For example, electrical panels in basements can be raised to minimize the effects of flooding or kept in water-tight enclosures. Well-marked exit signs, smoke detetors, emergency lights in fire stairs, and fire doors with selfclosing hinges all save lives, too. Such precautions are simple and inexpensive but extremely effective.

Routine testing is so simple and yet so often forgotten. Underground garages often mount sandpails on columns, only to let them accumulate trash and cigarette butts. It is not unusual to find emergency exists improperly locked, halls carelesly blocked with furniture, or sprinkler heads left rusted or ddeteriorate. To avoid such stupid errors, good property managers compile a safety checklist to be completed weekly or monthly, as part of routine maintenance. At least once per year, an independent safety inspector should walk every property and suggest further improvements.

Creating evacuation plans

Except for certain specialized properties (vacant buildings, computerized warehouse, and so forth) danger to people is your paramount concern when an emergency arise. The actual movement of people and the method by which you communicate with tenants will determine your success in clearing a danger zone quickly.

Unexpected problems do develop. For example, many building manaagers notify residents of problems via an intercom system. At 360 East 72 Street however, heavy flooding short circuited the central intercom panel. How do you contact residents? how eill they know what to do? Such questions require discussion before a crisis arises. We had prepared a master list with the home telephone number of each apartment in advance, and we assigned a staff member to call every unit, relaying directions from firefighters. Of course firefighters still checked every unit to ensure it was evacuated, but residents were informed, aware, and calm.

A successfull evacuation is made easier with good staff training. People are naturally comforted by the presence of orderly, knowledgeable staff members. For this reason, property managers must discuss issues presented by potential emergencies with the staff and develop specific responses for employees. meetings should be held periodically to let employees know their proper role in a crisis and to communicate the importance of level-headed actions.

If staff members panic, residents are likely to follow along. The result will be chaos and disaster. During the Manhattan fire, one employee became so concerned over trapped residents that he rushed into the amoke-filled fire stairway in hopes of assisting. His courage was desirable , but he caused more damage than good. He was overcome with smoke and required rescue by firefighters who had already cleared the stairwell from above.

An evacuation plan is essential for any property, no matter how small. Every community has access to the services of a local fire marshall, who will work without fee to help set out a formal evacuation plan to be used in case of fire, flood, bombing , or other dangerous condition. During a short inspection, the fire marshall can identify drawbacks of the building design, suggest additional security systens, and define emergency stations for your employees. Instituting an evacuation plan assists tragfic flowing out of the property and eliminates possible confusion.

After a catastrophe, property managers must focus their immediate attention on four areas: juman needs, security, insurance procedures, and emergency renovations. Creating an emergency plan in advance enables the property manager to marshall resources quickly even under catastrophic conditions.

Written plans tend to be most useful, contain more detail, and may be utilized mor effectively despite changes in managing agents. Nonetheless the plan must be flexible, must be simply organized, and must be widely understood by all building personnel. Mostly importantly, the plan must be familiar to the on-site staff, and the basic pronciples must be widely understood by all building personnel.

Clearly then, the written emergency plan forms the basis of a continuing training program for site personnel. A plan should outline what actions staff members are to take in emergencies. In additioon, such a plan should list 24-hour contact numbers, names of insurance brokers, emergency plumbers, and all other data likely to be required at the worst possible moment. We have found that a plain loose-leaf folder marked "EMERGENCY' best serves this purpose because so much of the data is subject to change or revision. And we keep copies in several locations.

Human needs take precedence

Page one of your plan must list the proper data for getting emergency assistance. fast. The building's proper address, fire district, police telephone number, and related emergency contact number must be prominently displayed Pertinent notes on evacuation, on special problems (e.g., whellchair tenant in 12B, and the home telephone of the manager should be kept ther.

It is important to remember that the buildings exist to serve people. After a catastrophe, where will the displaced persons sleep? How will friends and family contact them?

Luckily community groups such as the Red Cross and the police department attend to most humanitarian concerns. But keep lists indicating where any displaced resident goes, as both police and family members inquire about missing people on a continual basis.

At our Manhattan fire, we had coffee and sandwiches delivered by the hundreds. Since the fire began at the dinner hour, we knew people were cold, wet, and hungry. These few dollars spent created tremendous good will, were reimbursed in full by our insurance company, and made us all feel both better and in control.

Think about security

Every looter within 20 miles arrives at a disaster scene within minutes. In our case, firefighters ripped 45 apartment doors right off their hinges to ensure that nobody was trapped inside. obviously we needed security guards posted on each affected floor at once, and we discourage thrill-seeking fire buffs from wandering inside.

In our company-wide emergency planning, we had made contingency arrangements with security guard companies precisely for this purpose. By placing just one phone call, we had guards on duty within a few hours. That was a great example of how pre-planning makes the job easier. Naturally the guard service's name and phone number goes in the loose-leaf binder, along with any account reference number required.

There are additional security matters to consider. When large numbers of workers are required to repair the property, additional security measures can reduce property vandalism or petty thefts. Designing steps to eliminate problems before emergency workers arrive on-site permits you to review alternatives with your staff in advance.

Security and safety are interwoven issues. All possible precautions must be taken to ensure emergency repairs are undertaken in a method safe for residents and for workers alike. For this reason, the advice of a professional engineer or an architect is essential. Determining the extent of structural damage and the method by which it will be safely restored are primary concerns for the property manager.

Emergency preplanning includes identification of safety experts available for consultation about crisis conditions. Those individuals should be contacted before accidents occur. Check references in advance, and continually update your files.

Insurance Coverage

One thing is immediately clear at the emergency site: restoration and clean-up will cost money. Most property owners will seek cash reimbursement damages form their insurance carrier Therefore, the first telephone call made after the firefighters arrive should be to the insurance broker of record.

As part of emergency preparation planning, many managers engage an independent insurance consultant (not a broker) to review property values, replacement costs, and the entire package of insurance policies in force. Such a review locates coverage inadequacies before it is too late.

A review also serves as a thorough check of the insurance broker's work. Consultants can identify high proces, unusual clauses detrimental to property owners, and similar problems. Because the consultant does not rely on insurance carriers for a commission, an independent review provides an honest appraisal of your insurance needs and limits.

At a crisis scene, individuals deluge the manager with questions on liability, coverage, perhaps even ask the underlying cause of the accident. None of these questions should be answered by the property manager. Instead, each resident should be promised a prompt and accurate response as soon as emergency conditions permit. Remember, as the property manager, you too will be under extreme stress and will be emotionally affected by events at a catastrophe scene. Statements made in innocence or good faith may prove to be disadvantages if lawsuits arise.

All insurance coverage questions should be answered by a professional in the field, preferably an attorney who has had time to review the existing insurance policies and applicable state laws. Insurance coverage does vary according to the situation and from state to state.

As soon as conditions permit, distribute a letter on applicable liability law to all residents. The letter should also explain procedures for filing insurance claims in clear, precise language.

Attach a copy of the insurance certificate listing policy number, coverage limits, broker's address, and the name of the actual insurance carrier to the emergency plan folder. In addition, it is a good idea to have the home telephone number of your broker. You may need immediate answers to important questions, even in the middle of the night.

While it is best to alert the property insurance carrier at once, the days when adjusters rushed to the emergency scene are over: most company adjusters now work strictly 9 to 5.

Since we wanted to begin our repairs right away, we assigned a staff memeber to take photos of all the damages. Thus we documented the losses in a graphic manner. Because we spoke to our insurance broker at his home, we already had verbal approval to go ahead, but this step protected us from future disputes. Check every action with insurance company representatives in advance, especially if the anticipated repair costs are high.

Public adjusters, licensed professionals who prepare insurance claims on a contingency basis, can be extremely useful during emergencies. Insurance filings are a laborious and complicated affair. A public adjuster prepares a claim using professional estimators, who calculate repair costs from industry averages compiled in a variety of construction publications. This adjuster represents the claimant and sells his or her services according to ability to negotiate favorably with the insurance company on your behalf.

Most insurance company settlements include the public adjuster's fee as part of the fire damage costs, so this expense does not come out of the property owner's pocket.

Needless to say, a property manager should retain copies of every bill paid to contractors or suppliers in connection with the fire restoration. And do not forget to keep track of staff overtime, including your own.

Many companies prepare computer-generated management statements for each property. Bookkeepers assign individual computer codes to each invoice, indicating general ledger account numbers which tie in to annual financial statements and budgets. These systems can easily create a special ledger account titled "Fire Damage 1988." In this way, you can immediately separate all special expenses when planning the property operating budget and keep an accurate running tally of all fire expenses at any point in time. This proves especially helpful in preparing insurance claims.

Cleanup and restoration

Standing in a lobby knee deep in debris, surrounded by firefighters, police, and distraught residents, it can be difficult to focus on where to begin. Yet this is the area where the property manager is most needed, and where an organized management team really makes the difference.

Advance planning really helps. Our company keeps a list of every regular service contractor's emergency number, including the home telephone number of the president of each construction firm. We also have a policy of using vendors who provide 24-hour service. While 24-hour firms charge a bit extra, emergencies tend to occur Friday nights or on Christmas Eve.

Many property management companies go to great lengths to create such a list, but then keep it locked away in a secret place. Clearly this data belongs in the emergency manual and should be kept both onsite and in the off-site management office. Property managers should keep a copy at home, as well.

Naturally, our own apartment building fire occurred at 6 p.m. on a cold January Friday night. Thanks to our advance planning and 24-hour contact numbers, we assembled a strong emergency team on-site by 7 a.m. Saturday morning. Indeed, we had certain crews on site before the fire itself was extinguished.

The real key to successful cleanup and renovation is organization. Without tight controls, you can have crews standing around without direction or sitting idle waiting for others to complete sequential tasks.

We posted very simple, clear charts indicating what needed to be done and who was doing it. We made it clear that for any contractor who fell behind we would bring in more help to balance the load and speed up production. Whenever we brought in complementary crews, we tried to do so in a way that did not penalize the crews presently working. But we made it clear that lagging schedules led to reduced assignments.

To ensure quality control, we assigned our four building staff maintenance workers to check the work of outside contractors, not to undertake tasks themselves. If you do not have adequate staff, bring in specific persons to check and supervise work. Keep in mind, however, that during a major cleanup, it is impossible to check every item as you normally would do. There is just too much going on.

Motivation is important

During cleanup of our Manhattan fire, we provided sandwiches and sodas and encouraged all the workers to eat together. We bought plenty of newspapers which described the fire and gave them out to workers.

Most of the outside contractors caught the spirit created by the emergency nature of this job and felt proud to be involved. This showed both in their speed and quality performance and in the sensitivity with which they treated our residents. We encouraged this team spirit, and we remain loyal to those contractors who pitched in to help.

With the exception of one burned firewall, we completed all the emergency repairs within 12 calendar days. However, the cosmetic repairs (wall-paper, painting, and plaster) took considerably longer and may only be described as a terrific pain in the neck. Persistence, disciplined scheduling, and accurate punch lists finally got this job done as well.

A major catastrophe restoration is an appropriate time to review the entire decorating scheme of a building. Instead of simply matching previous styles, bring the entire property up to date. Often it is possible to create a new, modern look for the same price as replacing the drab, old design.

Ideally, a loss should lead to a general improvement in the property. At 360 East 72 Street, long-time residents reported that the replacement wall-paper and carpet made the property look even better than on its opening day 28 years before. Despite these compliments, none of those involved has any wish for a repeat performance.


Property managers benefit most by preplanning emergency procedures. Having an emergency plan simplifies the manager's task. Review those guidelines, update them, and keep them handy. Chances are it is you who will do most of the extra work in the event of an emergency.

If you do face catastrophic events, keep a level head and assess damages carefully. Be sure to implement safety rules and precautions for all onsite personnel as well as residents. The danger of loss of life or limb is still very real even after the primary dangers have passed and should not be under-estimated.

Notify your insurance agents of all planned actions, and document both the damages and the purchase orders issued to repairmen thoroughtly. Carefully monitor workers, schedule jobs realistically, and try to enlist construction crews in the spirit of the task.

Buildings, whether industrial, commercial, or residential, exist to meet the needs of human beings. After a catastrophe, people depend on the skills of the property management team to get them back in their factories, offices, and homes. It is up to the property manager to meet those demands.

PHOTO : Although the fire destroyed only one floor of the apartment, billowing smoke invaded all of the building's upper stories.

PHOTO : Firefighters struggled to douse persistent flames and ensure that all residents reached safety.
COPYRIGHT 1989 National Association of Realtors
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:property management
Author:Bergin, Donal
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:May 1, 1989
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