by John Salustri — (Originally published in the September/October 2018 issue of BOMA Magazine.)
This past July, there was what the local news media in New York City reported as a volcano-like pipe explosion in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. Fear of asbestos and other toxins flooding the air, as well as disruptions to building systems, kept local businesses and homes shuttered for days.
“We heard people on TV saying they didn’t know what to do, that they had no contact with authorities and didn’t know when they would be able to return to the area,” says Louis Trimboli, who co-chairs BOMA/New York’s Emergency Preparedness Committee. Avoiding this sort of confusion is something the committee is hard at work trying to prevent. “It’s part of crisis communication, making sure your tenants are safe and informed when disaster strikes,” he adds.
It’s a responsibility that seems to be growing, according to Trimboli, who also is senior real estate manager for CBRE, overseeing the 600,000-square-foot 825 Third Avenue in Manhattan. “When I started out in this business,” he notes, “we had garden-variety robberies or fires to deal with. Now, we have to concern ourselves with active shooters, suicide bombers, white powder in the mailroom and all sorts of things we never even thought of.”
A Double-Edged Sword
A rock-solid communications program has to address all of these outside threats. It also has to take into account the modern nature of communications, which has changed since
Trimboli first started his career. When access to social media is as near as the smartphone in one’s pocket, information—including false information—can travel quickly. “Awhile back,” Trimboli recalls, “a train was pulling into a subway station on the Upper West Side and struck a tool a workman had left behind. It hit the third rail and created a huge pop and spark. The train came to a halt and people began running off the train.
“Within a few seconds, someone on the train began texting that it was a bomb,” he continues. “The first responders hadn’t even gotten there yet.” When people are frightened and don’t know what’s happening, they often assume the worst.
“If there’s a communication vacuum, it will be filled,” says P. Marc Fischer, BOMA Fellow, CCIM, CPM, LEED Green Associate, RPA, president and CEO of InspiRE Commercial Real Estate Services in Baltimore. And, as the aforementioned story indicates, it won’t always be filled by the most reliable voices. “In the absence of clear information coming from an authoritative source, Twitter begins to fill the void with information that might—or might not—be factual,” cautions Fischer.
So, what is a property manager—caught between easing the fears of a shaken tenancy and communicating proper, accurate information—to do? An emergency preparedness strategy is crucial, and communication figures heavily into that equation.
But, so much of communication hinges on the nature of the event, the pre-emergency training of tenants and the ability of a property manager to get out in front of social media. These are all variables at work that could threaten to disrupt any preset protocol. As a result, each event also must be met with a healthy dose of common sense and an ability to think on one’s feet. And, often, it isn’t so much what you say as what you don’t say.
First Responders, Last Word
“The key is to get the right information to the right people at the right time,” explains Fischer. He ought to know. In addition to his career in property management, Fischer is a veteran volunteer firefighter and paramedic in Howard County, Maryland—and he also is the public information officer (PIO) for the county’s Department of Fire and Rescue Services. “The challenge for a property manager is that the information the tenants need will be different from what the public needs and different from what the owner needs. Ideally, you should have methods to communicate quickly, effectively and simultaneously with all of those parties,” he says.
And then, you add in first responders. “As the property manager, you may be privy to information from the fire or police department, but you may not be able to release that information to anyone,” notes Fischer, adding that first responders are the ultimate authority—even though tenants and even the press may turn to the building manager for answers.
Don’t Get Caught Unprepared
All commercial buildings are at risk for emergencies big and small. For building managers, that’s simply an occupational hazard, although the range of potential threats seems to be growing from Mother Nature, including floods and wildfires, to human nature, with active shooters and terrorism threats. It seems no locale or property type is immune to crises.
BOMA International’s Emergency Preparedness Guidebook: The Property Professional’s Resource for Developing Emergency Plans for Natural and Human-Based Threats provides pre-emergency checklists and straightforward guidance to create an emergency preparedness strategy that will guide property professionals and their tenants through a wide variety of emergency situations.
BOMA International’s Emergency Preparedness Guidebook is available on store.boma.org.
It has been Fischer’s experience that most reporters are sincerely interested in getting out the right story. But, with limited air time and a quickly moving news cycle, a two-minute interview with a property manager may turn into a two-second sound bite that may or may not be the message that the property manager intended.
Thankfully, such communication is largely out of the hands of the property manager. “In all honesty, my hands are full in any crisis,” says Trimboli. “I can’t also be in front of the building talking to the media. And, why would I want to when I have a great team at 200 Park [CBRE’s headquarters] who do media relations for a living?”
He advises that even a simple message, such as, “At this time, we are monitoring the situation and we will keep you apprised when we have further information,” can go far to relieve the anxiety that is part and parcel of any building crisis.
In the case of the subway incident, Trimboli explains: “When the city posted the correct news, I took that whole message and sent it out to my tenants. In the end, you have to say something. But, you can’t speculate.”
Like CBRE, Liberty Property Trust has an ironclad corporate communications protocol. “Liberty has a very clear policy that all media requests be directed to our corporate office,” says Joseph M. Reilly, a general manager with Liberty Property Trust who manages four buildings in Washington, D.C., totaling to roughly 900,000 square feet. “A mistake some property managers make is to think they need to be their own emergency broadcasting service,” he says. But, as Reilly points out, in a place like the nation’s capital, “there are so many great professional resources that already exist.”
Reilly divides crises into two camps: municipal and building-specific. For the former, “I always recommend that my tenants subscribe to local services that are better equipped to push this information than I am.” He cites AlertDC, an early-alert app managed by the District of Columbia’s Homeland Security and the Emergency Management Agency, as well as a number of similar call-to-action sites run by the various business improvement districts (BIDs).
“I have three buildings in the Golden Triangle BID and one in the Downtown BID,” Reilly explains. “The Golden Triangle, in particular, is amazing with the alerts they push out, and they do a great job updating all contact information. So, whenever there’s a gas leak or a Metro station is closed, I’m quick to know because I’m getting alerts—and I’m getting them as soon as my tenants do.”
When a crisis is building-specific, good old common sense comes into play. If it’s a gas leak, there are authorities to help manage the event. If an elevator is out, the determination is what communication method to use. “It comes down to the type of event,” says Reilly. “Do we have to go through the phone list or is an email to everyone okay? Do we need to go suite-to-suite?” As always, the content—and the proper authorities—dictate the message.
“The property manager’s role is to interface with the authorities,” notes Reilly. For instance, “We won’t necessarily dump the building just because we smell natural gas. We’ll check with the police and the gas company. We might actually be safer in the building. We don’t make that call. We seek out the proper authorities and respond to their direction.”
That doesn’t mean the property team fades into the background. “It’s important for the property manager to liaise with the incident commander and, in larger situations, the PIO, and make yourself available,” Fischer adds. “In the case of an active shooter or building fire, having the chief engineer and property manager there with drawings and an understanding of building systems can help first responders mitigate the situation. And, in many cases, the property manager can work with the PIOs as a conduit for getting information out—especially if your company has the embargo that all communication has to go through the corporate office.”
Tenants: A First Line of Defense
In a best-case scenario, tenants—aware, alert and apprised— are the best defense against confusion or threats to life and limb. (The problem is that no crisis, whatever the situation, is a best-case scenario.) Tenant-chosen fire wardens are assumed to be all three of the above characteristics. And, one can only hope the building occupants they lead weren’t fully asleep during building management’s periodic emergency drill sessions.
“There needs to be planning, naturally, a checklist of sorts, so everybody knows what they’re supposed to do,” says Fischer. “But, a lot of times, people put systems and procedures in place without providing the necessary training. Then, there’s the apathy. People have to take the drills and preparation seriously. Even after 9/11, I was amazed how many people didn’t evacuate the building after a fire alarm.” Ironically, there is a good news/bad news dynamic at work here. As Fischer points out, nine times out of 10, it’s a false alarm or the potential emergency doesn’t amount to anything. And this, of course, can diminish the sense of urgency.
But, that doesn’t relieve the manager from any moral responsibility. “Tenant organizations pick certain people as fire wardens for specific reasons,” adds Reilly. “Hopefully, they take it seriously. Regardless, we have the responsibility to ensure they are prepared.”
“You still need to be as sure as possible that the tenants understand the basics,” says Trimboli. These include such obvious things as “listening to the announcements, knowing what stairwells lead to the lobby floor or not propping a door open during a fire.
“We talk about communication systems and emergency management plans,” he continues, “but you have to elevate the awareness of the people who are going to execute those plans. At the very least, if I get a good turnout on all my tenant floors for all the drills, I know my folks have a very good chance of surviving whatever happens.”
When all is said and done, crisis planning and communication is, quite literally, no accident. And sometimes, at the end of his day, “driving home from work and looking back at the Manhattan skyline, it hits me that its survival and the safety of the people in those buildings don’t happen by luck,” Trimboli says. “There are a lot of good people across various trades—the managers, the operating engineers, the security staff, the first responders—working very hard to keep it that way.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: John Salustri is editor-in-chief of Salustri Content Solutions, a national editorial advisory firm based in East Northport, New York. He is best known as the founding editor of GlobeSt.com. Prior to launching GlobeSt. com, Salustri was editor of Real Estate Forum.