People don't generally enjoy anticipating things that could go awry--in their businesses, their personal lives or otherwise; but nothing demonstrated with greater impact the importance of a disaster plan than recent, tragic events in this country. Although your occupancy rates may be high and you are enjoying the fruits of your labor, it's never a bad idea to consider whether you are ready to face an emergency or disaster if one should strike at your facility.
Emergencies or disasters can occur in many forms. Some examples include fire, flood, tornado, hurricane, landslide and earthquake. Disasters also include arson, environmental contamination by hazardous waste and/or criminal activity. When a disaster strikes is not the time to decide who does what and in which order. During a disaster, stress runs high. Emergency authorities are in and around your facility, and life and property are endangered. Clearly, this is not the time to decide whether you should be "breaking all the rules."
The time to create an action plan is when you and your employees are calm and thinking clearly, when everyone can understand their responsibilities and know their duties. This will help avoid terrible mistakes that can compound an already disastrous situation. There is no doubt that, during an emergency, you will be forced to operate differently. The on-site staff, management and ownership should all know their responsibilities and the new rules that apply during the crisis.
This article suggests some things to include in your action plan. Not every suggestion is appropriate for every type of emergency or your particular number of employees. For those of you with on-site staff, management and even supervisory management, a disaster plan is critical to avoid chaos and mistakes, to save as much of the facility and your tenants' property as possible, and to comply with all regulations and requirements of your insurance policy.
- You should stress to your employees that the foremost concern in any emergency is to ensure all people on the premises are accounted for and safe. Each facility has to develop its own policy as to whether personnel will attempt to provide any first aid or care for injured parties. Even being a good samaritan can involve liability, and this will vary from state to state. Under no circumstances should an injured person be left unattended, even if you do not provide first aid.
- After accounting for all human life, you should attempt to preserve as much of your tenants' property and your facility as possible. The goal of property preservation must be balanced against the issue of endangering life, staying out of the way of emergency personnel and complying with whatever regulations are imposed by emergency personnel. Entering individual spaces at any time typically violates lease agreements that state that you will not enter anyone's space for any reason. It is, therefore, important to have a provision in your lease that states you will enter if it is necessary in an emergency situation.
For example, you are not going to enter a burning building to remove tenants' possessions; however, if there is a landslide or snow accumulation causing part of a building to collapse, and the authorities have determined it is safe to enter other parts of the building to remove property, you might be able to enter. Make certain managers or on-site personnel understand no human life should be risked--whether that of employees or tenants--simply to save property.
- On-site personnel should have a list of people to call in the event of an emergency, complete with phone numbers. In any emergency, you'll want to contact the appropriate authorities immediately: police, fire department, life squads and hazardous-materials teams. In most communities, this can be done by dialing 911. If not, make certain these phone numbers are posted in a central location in the office. This list might also include the facility's attorney, facility owners and managers, facility employees who may be able to assist with the emergency, and the facility's insurance agent.
I recommend against notifying the insurance company directly because your coverage may have been pooled or split among various insurance companies. In that situation, it is necessary for all companies involved to be put on notice of a claim within the times required by their policies. If you notify one insurance company and not other pooled companies, you may forfeit coverage. Let your insurance agent handle this for you. You should also require your agent to notify you of what insurance companies may provide coverage in this situation so if adjusters call and ask to speak to you, you will know which ones represent your interests and which ones represent the interests of tenants.
- Staff not on-site at the time of an emergency should be trained to report to the facility and know their jobs on arrival. You should have a list of responsibilities to be executed in order of importance--after the emergency has been discovered and the authorities have been notified.
- When emergency personnel arrive, someone from the on-site staff should provide them a gate-access printout for the day. This will help them determine whether there are any tenants or invitees at the facility who are not accounted for. They will want this information before they go to work on the disaster issues, such as firefighting, earth stabilization and hazardous-material cleanup. Also make certain the gate is open so emergency authorities can enter the premises. Have a staff member posted near the gate to guide the emergency personnel to the appropriate area.
- Make certain to move everything you can out of the way of emergency personnel before they arrive. If a building is collapsing next to RV and boat storage and it is safe to move the vehicles, tow them to another part of the property. Once the emergency personnel are in, close the gate. Unless it poses a violation under your state's statute, turn off the gate and suspend all access to the facility during the disaster.
You can post notice at the gate that due to an emergency, entry and exit can only occur by sign-in and sign-out procedures at the management office. Permission to enter will be determined on a case-by-case basis. The last thing you want is anyone other than actual tenants picking through the property pulled from the building. Further, you want to make certain you keep reporters and others seeking to survey the damage from coming onto the property.
- On-site staff should use stickers to mark all property with the unit number from which it was removed. If it becomes necessary to store property in a different storage unit, it will then be possible for it to be identified by individual owners. This is an odd step to be taking at the time of an emergency, but the extra time spent will help keep items organized and make the tenants feel better about the actions you have taken to safeguard their property.
- The manager must obtain an incident-report form from every person who was involved or in the facility at the time of the emergency. These forms should be ready on a clipboard to leave the office with the manager at the time of an emergency. The form should be dated and include the name, address and telephone number of the witness. Ask the witness to write in his own words what happened. Make certain the incident report is signed. Nothing is less useful when litigation begins than an undocumented recollection.
- After the incident reports are completed, they should be kept in a safe place for management, ownership, the company attorney and insurance adjusters to review. The manager should interview anyone who has filed an incident report to see if there are any additional recollections not listed. The manager should be careful to note the names of the people he spoke to and what he was told. These recollections should not be added to the incident reports, but included in the manager's report, which should be completed as soon after the incident as possible. It is amazing how many details and other important facts escape memory within 24 hours.
- All of this leads to a detail that is most often overlooked: safeguarding evidence. In every case of disaster I have been involved with, my clients have let the police take tenant records, incident reports, managers' statements, even video-surveillance tapes--all without keeping a copy. This can later hurt your position in litigation. In a recent fire case, my client turned the videotape of the surveillance cameras over to the police, who promptly lost the tape. This made it a much more difficult case for the client's insurance company to defend.
With the declining cost of technology, it is imperative to have a photocopier and a VCR with two decks in your office so a copy of evidence can be made and given to the police on demand. Once you turn your records over to the police, they are potentially lost forever. Your insurance company, attorney, management and ownership will need these records, so it is an absolute mistake to part with the originals.
- One employee should be charged with the duty of determining all available, unaffected space on the property so tenants who are affected can be moved. If space is not available at your facility, spaces in nearby facilities should be located and held for those tenants. This type of preparation along with communication with tenants will go a long way toward avoiding litigation and restoring tenants' confidence in your facility.
- Once the disaster is under control, one employee should be responsible for contacting all affected tenants. If they have not heard or seen about the disaster on the news, you will need to let them know their property was involved in the disaster, the condition of the property, where it is located, and whether, when and how they can get into the facility to inspect it. Also make sure you have a list of who is authorized to enter into the damaged premises. If possible, schedule tenant visits to the facility so you can accompany tenants to their property. Try to have staff available to help them move or remove property that can be salvaged.
- If appropriate, temporary fencing or other security measures should be ordered and placed around the damaged building(s) to ensure other tenants are not wandering around the area picking through leftover items. Once the damaged area is secure, reactivate all appropriate gate codes.
- Make certain employees know they should not under any circumstances speak to the media. Only one person from the company should be authorized to speak to the media, and that person should never admit fault or responsibility. No one should speak to any insurance adjuster or attorney without an owner's or manager's consent. Adjusters and attorneys representing tenants should only be granted access to employees, witnesses or records with the consent of your insurance company--and then only with your legal counsel present.
- In the days following a disaster, it is important to communicate with all tenants to explain, in limited terms, what happened. You should avoid making explanations about how the incident occurred unless it is obvious (i.e., a tornado). You should avoid making any representations about safeguards you have taken to prevent the incident from happening again. Do not admit responsibility, liability or remedial action. For instance, if an air conditioner on a climate-controlled building caught fire, you would not want to say you are now having all of your air conditioners serviced. This is a fine line to walk because communications with tenants will help preserve the relationship, but admissions against interest can be a problem.
The worst thing you can do is keep tenants completely in the dark, because they will feel you are not responsive and will begin looking elsewhere to rent. You can tell them about the condition of their property and what arrangements are being made to care for or preserve it without discussing the event that caused the disaster. This is the kind of training your employees need before a disaster takes place so they are not making mistakes in communicating with the tenants afterward.
With a solid plan in place, any disaster will be handled more smoothly and appropriately. While we all hope there is never a disaster on our property, a much bigger disaster can be created in not being prepared. A well-trained staff will carry the day and allow you to be back in business much quicker.
Jeffrey Greenberger practices with the law firm of Katz Greenberger & Norton LLP in Cincinnati, which primarily represents owners and operators of commercial real estate, including self-storage. Mr. Greenberger is licensed to practice in the states of Ohio and Kentucky, and is the legal counsel for the Ohio Self Storage Owners Society and the Kentucky Self Storage Association. He is a regular contributor to Inside Self-Storage magazine and the tradeshows it sponsors. For more information, Mr. Greenberger can be contacted at Katz Greenberger & Norton LLP, 105 E. Fourth St., Suite 400, Cincinnati, OH 45202, or by calling 513.721.5151.