emergency communications
From: katie-henry (katie-henryatt.net)
Date: Tue, 1 Nov 2005 13:40:42 -0800 (PST)
> We are a young cohousing community deep inside the city of Boston. We have
> just survived our first major emergency - backed up city sewers flowing into 
> our basement! - and as we are going into our first winter we are looking to 
> create procedures to cope with building emergencies - from sewer overflows to 
> broken pipes, power or heating failure, etc. Even should we decide to 
> outsource this to a management company - and there is reluctance to take this 
> route - we would still need a method for reporting, communicating, 
> investigating, trouble-shooting such problems. Can you offer us some guidance 
> from your experience?
My favorite topic! I would love to be in touch with other communities who are 
managing large multi-family buildings. 
I am the self-appointed building manager for a 56-unit building in Silver 
Spring, MD (a suburb of DC). It?s an old office building that was gutted and 
converted to residential use with a lot of sophisticated technology, including 
geothermal heating and cooling, a high-efficiency central hot-water system, 
building-wide fire-alarm and sprinker system, etc. 
We took occupancy exactly a year ago today. And it?s been an interesting year. 
We?ve had sewer backups, flooded units multiple times (site drainage issues), 
false fire alarms in the middle of the night, a gas leak that required the fire 
department to break down a resident?s door and shut down all gas to the 
building, residents trapped in elevators multiple times, another gas leak that 
meant no hot water in the building for three days, a medical emergency where 
paramedics couldn?t figure out how to get into the building ? the fun just 
never stops! 
It was my belief when we moved in that we needed as much knowledge about the 
building as we could possibly get and we also needed a single person to act as 
building manager. I had the time and the interest, so I assigned myself. I 
spent countless hours shadowing the contractors and the subs, asking questions 
and watching what they do. I also maintain the punch lists and warranty lists 
and serve as the community liaison to the developer and the construction 
company, so I know everything that?s going on. I also spend time reading 
manuals and looking at the plans. This has taken a lot of time ?- between 20 
and 40 hours a week for the last year. 
The advantage is that I?m now prepared and able to deal with pretty much any 
situation quickly and effectively. I know what breaker to check or what valve 
to shut off or what vendor or government entity to call. I have pumps and hoses 
stashed around the building, etc. 
The disadvantage is that I?m just one person, and I?m not always home. I don?t 
know how to make my knowledge accessible to the community in a useful way. It?s 
easy to define troubleshooting procedures for a minor recurring problem, such 
as a CH dishwasher that?s prone to overflowing, but a lot harder for something 
you haven?t anticipated. And the best emergencies are always unanticipated. 
Also, in my community, very few residents are interested in building issues. 
And who can blame them? The whole point of condo/apartment living is that 
someone else takes care of the building, right? So hardly anyone is interested 
in, say, studying the plans and identifying the location of every water 
shut-off valve in the building or verifying all of the directories in the 
circuit breaker panels.
At this point ?- while we are still in the new-building shake-out stage ?- I am 
totally unwilling to hand over any aspect of building management to our 
management company. We use the same company as Takoma Village and find them 
just as useless. (Sharon posted earlier today about their experiences.) The one 
time I asked them to send a plumber, it took two follow-up calls and 26 hours 
before the plumber arrived.
Even if I were willing to outsource building management, I don?t understand how 
it would work. For example, let?s say there?s a broken pipe in the middle of 
the night. What would happen? The owner of the unit would call the management 
company, who would notify their on-call plumber. Let?s assume this plumber has 
never been to the building. How would the plumber find out where the shut-off 
valve is for the affected unit? (In our four-story building, it?s behind a 
trapdoor inside the ceiling of the first-floor unit for each stack.) Do you 
keep a copy of the plumbing plans at the management company?s office? How does 
the plumber get to the plans in the middle of the night? Or do you keep them in 
some resident?s unit? What if that resident isn?t home? What if the occupant of 
the unit that has the shut-off valve isn?t home? How do you get in? Especially 
if the key box is in the management company office and it?s still the middle of 
the night? I just don?t get it. Maybe someone can
  tell me how it works in other buildings that use remote management.
In my opinion, we need a part-time building superintendent who knows the 
building well and who can do light maintenance and call out the vendors for 
service and who can have an office where all of the plans and manuals and 
repair histories are stored. My community isn?t following up on this proposal 
with much enthusiasm, probably because I?m doing the work now and why should 
they spend money to hire someone when they?re getting it for free? 
Anyway, enough rambling. Happy to discuss further if there?s any interest, or 
to answer specific questions about how I do things.
Eastern Village Cohousing
Silver Spring, MD

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