Photo of Emergency Preparedness Checklist with a hand holding a yellow pencil.

Here in the midst of the growing coronavirus crisis, we’re reminded of the truth of that old saying: The best time to plan for an emergency is before it happens. That made us think that now would be a good time to look at emergency planning for landlords. What kind of emergency plans do property owners need? And how should you communicate these to tenants?

A good emergency preparedness plan helps everyone respond better in case of natural disasters or other emergencies. In addition to outlining what tenants should do, a good plan also spells out what steps to take under different conditions and identifies who is responsible for each.

Getting Started

First, consider where you are. The likelihood of different weather events varies from place to place, so build your plan around the hazards that are the most likely in your area. And if you haven’t created an emergency plan before, check with your insurance agent. The insurer probably already has an emergency planning checklist or other resources to help you get started.

Your local fire department will probably perform routine inspections of commercial tenants’ spaces, and they might also have a helpful checklist you can draw from.

Professional property management associations are good sources of information, and so are local business organizations and networking groups of other property owners. It always helps to find out what other property owners in your area have used.

Review the Basics

The basic elements of any emergency preparedness plan should include:

  • Emergency Notification—Identify how 911 is notified in case of emergency for each of your properties. Do you have fire alarms or other detection systems in place that automatically notify emergency services? Or is someone responsible for calling 911? If so, who?
  • Emergency Exits—Make sure all emergency exits and fire-safe stairwells are clearly marked. For large properties, place diagrams in prominent locations.
  • Fire Extinguishers—Place extinguishers throughout the property, with easy-to-read instructions posted nearby. Inexpensive signs and instructional posters are easy to find online. Also be sure that all extinguishers are inspected once a year.
  • Safe Spots—Identify “safe spots” in case of an earthquake, tornado, or other serious weather conditions.
  • Life Safety Systems—Make sure you or your tenants have installed whatever systems are appropriate for your property—sprinkler systems, smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, etc. And stay on top of regular inspections and maintenance to ensure that everything is in working order before it’s ever needed.
  • Emergency Lighting—In larger buildings, be sure to install emergency lighting in case of power failures, and check them periodically to be sure the sensors and bulbs are working properly.
Who’s Responsible?

The most important thing to provide for your tenants, whether it’s residential or commercial property, is a clear understanding of who is responsible for what. Is the landlord or the tenant responsible for installing and inspecting smoke alarms and fire extinguishers? Who is responsible for backup power?

If there are special considerations for any particular tenant—such as a special type of business (day care center, art gallery) or individual special needs (handicapped or mobility-impaired individuals)—make sure the safety requirements and lines of responsibility are clearly spelled out.

Write It All Down

Next, using the Basics above as a starting point, write out a simple list of what’s in place at each property you own. Write down who is responsible for each item, and cross-reference any equipment and safety systems with the contractors you use for inspections and maintenance. A simple spreadsheet works fine. If you find any gaps or inconsistencies, now is the time to get things covered.

The Emergency Action Plan

You business needs a plan of action in case of emergency, and your tenants need a plan. How much you choose to provide for tenants depends on the number and type of properties you have. At its most simple, a plan for tenants will list who is responsible for what in case of an emergency and will provide an emergency landlord contact. It’s also good to include numbers for local emergency agencies, as well as any exit plans or diagrams needed for your building.

Your internal plan should also include the steps you’ll to take in different types of emergency situations, and who in your office is responsible for each. Unless you have only one property or a very small office, it’s also good to include a list of electrical panel locations, fire extinguisher locations, local emergency agency numbers, and instructions for shutting off water, gas, and electricity.

Finally, consider your emergency communications plan. If you have property management software with built-in text messaging and eblast functions, have your text and email templates in place and ready to go. If you don’t already have these capabilities, consider inexpensive texting and email platforms, and keep your contact list updated. Communicating quickly in an emergency is what makes a plan work.

Current Considerations

Even if you already have an emergency preparedness plan in place, it’s likely that it doesn’t include the new coronavirus. Now is the time to review how to handle maintenance and repairs and how to respond to other tenant concerns. How will you keep your contractors safe? What measures will you take to protect your tenants and your staff? Virtual showings, online-only payments, and other changes in procedure are suddenly upon us. In these challenging times, we all need to stay up to date on safety precautions and community guidelines. Check out the COVID-19 recommendations from the National Association of Residential Property Managers and the Institute of Real Estate Management’s COVID-19 Statement for recommendations and resources.

In Conclusion

Getting an emergency preparedness plan in place for your rental property will help you spot vulnerabilities before you’re exposed to danger. It will also make your insurance company happy, and—most important of all—give you and your tenants peace of mind.