Note: This blog article was updated in June 2023 to reflect new information.
To keep your community informed during an emergency, it’s important to have an established communication plan. A well-thought out communication plan helps to create a sense of comfort and peace of mind for your residents. During times of crisis, your residents rely on timely and accurate information to make informed decisions and stay safe. This communication plan should include how you plan to keep employees, board members, residents, vendors, and any other parties informed. When you communicate well with residents, it allows you to build trust with them.
In this post, you’ll learn about what your emergency community communication plan should cover and how technology can be a valuable tool for communicating timely, accurately, and with compassion. We’ll also be referring to the experiences that Karl Kuegler (Imagineers Management) shared in his interview with Pilera CEO Ashish Patel and his talk “Recover and Respond: Emphasizing Community after a Disaster” at the 2022 CAI Annual Conference.
1. Internal communications
Whether you are a board member or a manager, training is a critical step in the community’s emergency plan. Karl Kuegler explained that while individual staff may not have direct experience handling an emergency, a plan should draw on the skills of upper management and others who specialize in emergency management. It’s equally important to document the training process:
A practice drill helps staff and board members understand the steps they need to take in an emergency. Be sure to outline the steps, how often the drill should take place, and who has been trained.
Manager-Board Internal Communications
It’s vital for board members and managers to communicate regularly before, during, and after an emergency. The Board has a duty to make sure the community is safe, but it’s also important to understand that they may be stressed too. Even more so, if they live in the community. Set up a meeting with the board to discuss their current operations and any gaps you can help to fill. That way, they can perform their duties, remain calm, and help keep everyone safe.
Communicating with Local Agencies
Keep a list of who staff needs to contact during an emergency. This includes local emergency response teams, Red Cross and other nonprofits, insurance agents, lawyers, vendors, etc. Karl Kuegler talks about how it is important to identify yourself as part of the HOA board or community management company when speaking to the emergency response teams. That way, they know that you are there to support residents and are not getting in the emergency response team’s way.
Communicating with Vendors
The community’s vendors are also a critical part of your emergency response or restoration plan. Before an emergency, ensure you have the most up-to-date contact information for your vendors. It’s also critical that your vendors’ certificates of insurance and other licenses are up to date. Having this information at hand keeps your community, employees, and vendors safe while reducing any potential for liability if someone is injured. A vendor management app will allow you to keep track of vendor information such as contacts and license expiration dates. In Pilera’s vendor app, for example, managers receive an email notification when a vendor’s license is about to expire.
During a community’s restoration phase, it’s also important to keep vendors informed of the current situation and what they can expect when they get on site. This includes any safety hazards, building/community access, etc.
Store your training documents online
Once you have the document(s), store it in an online repository. This could be your company’s Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive, or an HOA software with document storage included. For example, you can store these documents in Pilera at a client level and then share them with managers across your portfolio.
2. Educate residents on emergency preparedness
Educate residents on the weather-related emergencies that are likely to occur in their area. It’s essential to communicate with residents throughout the year, not just during an emergency. You can provide helpful tips and resources to residents based on the season as well. Weather-related events a community could experience include:
- Damaging winds
- Large hail
You can distribute resources through a document-sharing and communication platform. A document library allows you to organize files, set permissions, and notify residents. Through a communication platform, email residents about best practices to stay safe.
3. Build and maintain a resident contact database
Building and maintaining a database is a crucial part of your plan to keep residents informed before, during, and after an emergency. This includes a resident’s email, phone, address, and emergency contacts.
On the night of the fire at Stonewoods Condominium, the Imagineers management team met with residents to verify their current contact information. Karl from Imagineers shared, “Had it changed or there was an additional individual that wanted to be added, we were able to do that within Pilera and then that evening to be able to send a message.” They printed two copies of the resident contact information. They gave one copy to the emergency responders at the scene. They also added the fire chief, police chief, mayor, and other local community contacts in Pilera so they could receive messages too.
How to collect and verify contact information:
- Web Portal – As residents move in (or on a frequent basis), encourage them to update their contact information and emergency contacts in a web portal.
- Paper Forms – Keep paper forms at the office for residents to fill out and then update your database.
- Identify invalid contacts – Make sure your communications platform gives you a way to identify invalid contacts. In Pilera, managers receive automated reports on invalid emails and text numbers. Each resident’s profile gives additional information on how to correct them.
- Postal mail – Send postal mail to residents on a regular basis asking them to confirm their contact information. Phone numbers and emails can change over time, so it’s vital that you have the most up-to-date information.
- Post emergency verification – When Karl Kuegler’s team sent out their emails, they would view the delivery and open status. If a resident did not open the email, they would call them to ensure they received the message. If a resident did not receive the message, Imagineers could reach out to them through other means such as a phone call.
4. Assemble a communications response team
To keep your message accurate throughout an emergency, it’s important to assign roles and responsibilities. Assign one person the responsibility of sending out messages. It could be confusing to your residents when there are multiple people or board members sending out messages. Worse, it could lead to liability.
Your communications platform should provide a way to set roles or different levels of access for different people. In Pilera, managers can assign those who are in charge of communications the message admin role. These individuals can send out messages and view the message center for information on open, clicks, and responses.
5. Identify communication methods you’ll use
Before sending messages to residents, you must figure out which communication methods you’ll use. To effectively communicate during an emergency, it’s important to utilize various channels so you can meet residents’ needs and preferences. For example, elder demographics may prefer to receive phone calls over text messages and emails. By diversifying your communication channels, you can reach a wider audience. It’s important to refer to the community’s CC&Rs and local/state regulations to understand what the requirements are.
Most effective tools during an emergency
During an emergency, phone calls and text messages are the most effective tools to use. They are fast, have high open/listen rates, and are interruptive.
What your communication platform should include
- Multiple communication options – Keep your residents informed through many ways such as phone, email, and text.
- Resident preferences – Send messages in residents’ preferred communication method and language. For example, Pilera supports email and text translation in more than 100 languages.
Other communication methods and when to use them
- Social Media – During an emergency, one should avoid posting emergency messages on social media. Because it is an interactive platform, it can cause panic, leading to misinformation and even liability. However, you can use social media to post helpful tips on how to prepare for an emergency.
- Email – Email is often not the best tool to use in an emergency because people may not see it immediately. The average open rate for emails is 21% compared to text, which is 99%. However, email can be a powerful tool to prepare residents for an upcoming weather event or days/weeks after an emergency.
6. Careful and compassionate messaging
An emergency situation is a very stressful time for residents. It’s important that your message is timely, accurate, and understanding of your residents’ situation. During the Stonewood Condo emergency, there was a lot of information to disseminate to the residents. To ensure that residents wouldn’t feel overwhelmed, Imagineers created multiple short emails, each focused on a certain topic instead of one long message.
It’s also best to have an extra set of eyes review your message before sending it out. Imagineers had numerous staff members in the organizations review the messages before they sent them out.
When you’re ready to send a message, be sure to create a template for it. That way, you can save time when an emergency arises. In Pilera’s communication platform, you can create templates for email, phone, text, and PDF letters. You can create specific templates for certain types of communication methods.
7. Fast and reliable communications software
Fast and reliable communications software is essential to keeping your residents informed before, during, and after an emergency. Throughout this guide, we referred to how technology is critical to every aspect of your emergency communication plan. As a recap, your communication software should have the following capabilities:
- Fast messaging – Send thousands of messages out within minutes.
- High deliverability rate – Many software platforms can send messages, but many have deliverability issues. Pilera has a 99.9% delivery rate. Our communication platform also has a retry algorithm that will make multiple attempts to send a message if it didn’t reach the first time.
- Multiple communication methods & preferences – Having multiple ways to communicate helps you to reach residents more effectively. In Pilera, you can send a combination of phone, email, text, and PDF letters. Residents can choose from 100+ languages to receive text and emails in.
- Accurate contact information – Your software should track invalid emails and text numbers. In Pilera, managers receive a monthly automated email on invalid email addresses and text numbers. Each resident’s profile also gives you more information on how to fix incorrect contacts.
- People and unit-based Distribution groups – Creating contact lists ensure that you send messages to only those who need them. Your software platform should enable you to create any combination of people and units in your distribution group. Your recipient lists in Pilera maintain themselves as residents move in and out so those who left the community won’t receive messages. In our interview with Imagineers, Karl Kuegler shared that the self-maintaining nature of the distribution groups was invaluable to them because whenever a homeowner’s email is changed, the list is automatically updated.
- Contact database – Allow your residents to self-manage their information through a portal so you always have the most up-to-date information. In Pilera, residents can manage:
- Contact information and language
- Emergency contacts or guests
- Other occupants in their unit
- Alternate contacts
- Alternate addresses
- Community directory settings (where they can also view other residents’ contacts)
- Unit documents
Watch Interview: How Imagineers Handled a Community Emergency with Pilera
Handling an emergency situation such as a fire or weather-related event is tricky as you’re dealing with very human emotions. However, communicating with care and at the right time can provide a little bit of peace of mind in a stressful situation. With a well-prepared communication plan in place, your HOA or Condo community can navigate emergencies effectively, together.
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