Associations must prepare for emergencies before they happen

Published: 7/9/2010 12:00 AM

Your building may not have gallons of crude oil bubbling up through the basement drain, but like any other emergency, waiting too long to react can result in a worse disaster. Condominiums and townhouses do have emergencies, and when they do, there should be a contingency plan in place for emergency expenditures, repairs, essential services, etc.

When disaster strikes an association, the board must react quickly to implement damage control. A crisis management plan should already be in place, not created at the time it is actually needed. While practical problems need to be addressed ongoingly, sometimes the consequences of a disaster have far-reaching results. Therefore, crises of all size need a "preparedness strategy" in place.

A board should confer with its property manager and legal counsel to discuss crisis communications and planning issues. Even trained professional managers or experienced board members are not necessarily trained to understanding all of the legal ramifications and financial risks associated with certain situations.

First, in the face of impending emergency, the board should meet and consult with its property manager and maintenance provider. Then, if it appears that there are legal risks or potential liability, the association's lawyer should be consulted. Plans can then be initiated for the prevention of more serious problems. An example of advance preplanning would be regular updating of emergency planning policies, and frequent communication with all owners and residents to create an awareness of problems before they accelerate.

In order to prepare a plan to effectively respond to emergencies, a board must address:

• Identifying a problem that is in fact a crisis.

• How to effectuate an active and viable response.

• Expeditiously handle the situation once the plan has been approved.

• Have an emergency contingency fund in place for window board-ups, flood abatement, snow removal, etc.

• Preparing to deal with the interruption of essential services.

• Showing compassion and assistance for the parties involved.

• Presenting consistent and unambiguous communication.

• Following up on the initial response(s).

When it is necessary to consult legal counsel, the lawyer's job includes:

• Establishing the scope of authority in which the lawyer can initiate action without going back to the board for further direction.

• Analyzing the situation and making sure it is in fact a crisis and not an overreaction to a problem.

• Identifying who is the property spokesperson for the board and the extent of their authority.

• Establishing guidelines and specifics for appropriate communication.

• Diffusing the emotions as soon as possible.

• Preparing appropriately drafted communications to be distributed to owners and any third parties (media, village, police, etc.).

• Recommending agencies, contractors, officials, etc., that can offer assistance.

• Meeting as needed to direct strategy and refine tactics.

• Sending concluding recommendations with advice in dealing with additional consequences or preventive techniques to avoid a repeat of the situation.

What is most important is that the board designate a "crisis management team" as much for the strategic planning as well as for all other solutions. Dealing with a crisis generally requires an instant analysis as to whether a bona fide state of emergency exists or whether a problem can merely be addressed in the ordinary course of business.

Prioritizing emergencies: In establishing a "disaster plan," the most common situations should be addressed from worse to worst.

• Water - floods, seepage, leaks. A flood can knock out the electrical or HVAC, whereas a leak may be more of a maintenance problem.

• Insurance - Is there coverage, to what extent and what is excluded? What you don't know can hurt you.

• Ice - Freezing and thawing, impassable streets and driveways, 10-foot-high snow drifts, floods caused by ice melt. What are the possible scenarios and what are they going to cost to solve?

• Lightning

• Tornadoes/High winds

• Ground/Foundation collapse

• Terrorist attack - Not the property itself, but regionally. How will utilities and centralized services be delivered?

A "drop everything" mentality cannot be applied in every situation, because if everything is a crisis, then nothing is a crisis.

Lastly, the most important thing the attorney can do is be frank and not just tell the board what they want to hear, but offer good, sound, objective advice. By preplanning and by utilizing a systematic approach to problem solving, the crisis itself can be contained, consequential damages can be minimized and legal expenses can be kept under control.

• Jordan Shifrin is an attorney with Kovitz Shifrin Nesbit in Buffalo Grove. Send questions for the column to him at This column is not a substitute for consultation with legal counsel. Past columns can be read at