Property managers in the Greater Toronto Area are no strangers to putting out proverbial fires. In fact, it’s not a stretch to suggest property managers tackle some form of crisis on a weekly basis, whether it’s addressing facility safety concerns, building security issues, or — more commonly — responding to interruptions to building services.

Fortunately, property management organizations are now asking the right questions in advance of these incidents to better prepare their buildings and, in so doing, recover from interruptions faster than their competitors.

More importantly, recent years have seen the Canadian property management industry as a whole take a greater responsibility in embracing the responsibilities of crisis management. Property stakeholders are learning from past events and turning to the internationally recognized principals of emergency management, applying them to daily operations within their organization in order to prepare, prevent, mitigate, and recover from these interruptions.

As such, much is being done daily in the protection of both public and tenants, and many are recognizing that how they respond to building crises’ can ultimately impact the bottom line through considerations under legal, operations, customer service, reputation, and client retention.

The 2013 Storm: A Study in Crisis Management Success

Extreme weather has and always will be considered a major hazard within the realm of property management professionals. Storms have a long history of impacting public safety and property operations, and often with little warning.

Take, for instance, the ice storm of December 21, 2013; an event which equipped organizations with hard-won insights and strategies to better prepare for future weather-related disasters.

As many will recall, facilities across the greater Toronto area received an extreme weather movement producing freezing rain, hail and high winds. Over 30 millimeters of ice accumulated on trees, wires, and municipal infrastructure. In total, 27 municipalities across Ontario were declared disaster areas, and public and private sector building managers across the region were forced to make rapid decisions to protect both their family of employees, building occupants and their respective operations.

Thankfully, organizations with active and tested crisis management plans, effectively maintained their building operations with limited impacts to operations, and responsibly communicated to building residents, commercial tenants and workplaces, and provided for a safe and secure building.  Unfortunately, unprepared organizations experienced heightened safety & security concerns, coupled with extreme delays in regaining “normal” building operations.

For example, the storm prompted many of Toronto’s high-rise property managers to demonstrate the importance of placing high-rise building domestic water pumps on emergency power. As in other emergencies, this permitted the continued use of washroom facilities and potable water during this extended emergency on higher floors.

On a similar note, the GTA storm also left more than 600,000 electricity customers across Ontario without power, with outages lasting up to 10 days in some areas.  Power outages like these cause significant concerns with respect to building security and the protection of tenants and residents.  During this extreme weather property, managers recognized whether or not their respective CCTV and critical systems were powered by emergency generators or — at minimum — by battery back-up in the event of a power failure.

Understanding this, many of Toronto’s resilient property managers had practiced crisis management plans in place to increase property security patrols, as well as ensuring the documentation of these patrols. After all, one must remember that anytime that a fire, safety or security system fails, property managers must implement alternative measures so that the level of safety and security provided does not deviate or decrease. This practice has long provided the highest of due diligence to the industry, in allowing property teams to proactively identify, respond, and document safety concerns such as slip, trip, and fall hazards, as well as vast array of security concerns within the property that exist during extreme weather.

Major Event Preparedness Storm preparedness is but one side of the disaster preparation coin. As the city of Toronto proudly hosted Pan Am Games, both public and private sector building managers reviewed and updating their internal crisis management plans. This includes strategizing how to be prepared to prevent, respond, and recover from operational challenges due to security and life safety concerns. As with all major events within a localized community, certain risks to buildings, staff, and occupants that are located near major events, both incidents and their impacts tend to increase. With this in mind, it’s important to draw from lessons learned in the past and consider the following strategies:

Continuity Of Building Operations

Proper life safety training within any building security program provides teams with the tools and support required to proactively identify hazards and risks during patrols – they are already conducting on a daily basis.

Operational disruptions due to accidents, system failures, and workplace emergencies often provide evidence – after the fact –  that there were obvious signs that if previously identified and reported, may have prevented the incident, or at the very least – mitigated the impact and associated costs.  This is a powerful tool for property managers that are underutilized by many.

Crisis Communications: Don’t forget employees

The focus of Crisis Communications during emergencies is often spent on communicating with the tenants, media, public, and authorities – Unfortunately employee communication is often neglected.

Proper preplanning for this type of event can allow for an appropriate, timely, and – a proactively considered corporate communication response. This not only enhances employee safety, it protects, and potentially enhances corporate reputation at the employee level – which is a direct pipeline to the public.

Medical Emergencies

An unfortunate crisis like a critical injury or medical emergency on the property is rarely considered during the corporate planning stage, yet medical emergencies are a common, and impact both the victim, witnesses and building first responders. This significantly impact employee mental welfare, with downstream impacts potentially affecting decision making, production, and costs.

To mitigate property damage during facility emergencies, consider cross training security personnel on the locations and safe shut down procedures for building sprinkler systems, standpipe systems, and domestic water lines in the event of an accidental release or leak. Broken sprinkler heads can release water at a rate of over 190 litres per minute. This training should be documented so that your organization may benefit on insurance premiums.

Ensure that your emergency response strategies include consideration for those with special needs. This includes visual, mobile, auditory or other difficulties. All buildings, both commercial and residential, are required to maintain a list of occupants who may require assistance during building evacuations. It is a requirement under the Ontario Fire Code.

Consider developing comprehensive communication strategies with commercial tenants to prevent or mitigate incidents and learnings from actual responses. An example includes hosting a debrief with tenants after an evacuation drill to acknowledge best practices and practices that were found to be unacceptable.

Direct benefits of a well-appointed Building Crisis Management Plan

Corporations looking to lease space in commercial buildings are being proactive in their due diligence and are considering the status of building life-safety systems, safety procedures and emergency management programs in their decisions to lease space for their employees.

Building Generators; Know Your Manual Start ProceduresThey should be kept current and updated at least annually, and each employee should be aware of building life safety features, trained on their safe use and on the emergency procedures contained within this document. In the midnight hours during the 2013 storm, many high-rise building emergency power generators failed to start and only required manual assistance in order to bring power to the building. Unfortunately, many building superintendents were not aware of manual start procedures for their respective generators.

Building Security Staff – The direct link of vital information to Emergency Services.A simple test for your crisis management plan is to review questions that arriving emergency services may have when they arrive on site when responding to an emergency in your building.  Will your building security, concierge, Superintendent or Ops Manager be able to answer the below sample of questions? –  There is an emergency down the street that involves hazardous chemicals.  Can you quickly isolate your building air intakes for the building so that your occupants are not harmed ?   –  There is a report of an armed man on the 12th floor of your building.  The Police are asking for building & tenant floor plans in order to assist them in their response.  Can you readily provide these?  Are they accurate? 

Going One Step Further

Operational disruptions due to accidents, system failures, and building emergencies often provide evidence (albeit after the fact)  that there were obvious signs that may have prevented the incident, or at the very least – mitigated the impacts and associated costs, if they previously identified and reported.

No doubt, ignoring or simply not being aware of those hazards due to a lack of training is simply unacceptable from a regulatory and / or shareholder perspective. Until recently, however, specific and recognized training for property managers in the field of Life Safety has not been available.

Upcoming in 2017, an unprecedented designation  program will be launched for property managers in Ontario; The Certified Safe Building Manager. The program is currently being finalized by a group of dedicated volunteers & industry experts in Fire, Safety & Security, and coupled with vital contributions from facility operations professionals, led by Resilient Communities Ontario.       In short: it is designed to address a major educational gap in the industry, delivered by highly experienced experts in their field, delivered through a recognized college and internationally accredited training facility.  Strgthening the skills and experience of those who look after thousands at time in their building’s….will provide the community with a direct ROI.

All told, Canada’s property managers are taking their roles as crisis managers to heart, learning from past events and applying those lessons to future challenges. Of course, there’s always room for improvement, and understanding where threats lie, and how they’ve been managed in the past, is key to enhancing one’s crisis management strengths.

To that end, proper security and life safety training within any property management program is essential. It provides property managers  the tools to maintain their status as recognized crisis managers.

Jason Reid is Principal Consultant with National Life Safety Group. For more information, visit www.nationallifesafetygroup.ca.