Condo Association Safety and Security 101

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Condo Association safety and security is one of the big three.  As a Board, your job is to facilitate a safe and secure environment.  The nuances of this are highly variable – your Condo’s location, local ordinances and laws, your Owners’ desires, and your budget will have a large impact on how you address this issue in your Association.  This article will serve as an introduction to the core items related to Condo Association safety and security.

Ensure your Life Safety Systems are Functioning and Up to Code

This is the singular most important thing a Board must do – it is the heart of Condo Association safety and security.  When we were recently making upgrades to our out-of-date fire alarm system, it was one of the few times it hit me how important the Board’s job is.  This is the stuff that matters.  An inferior or malfunctioning system could get someone hurt or killed.  Life safety systems are the core integral parts of your building that protect you against fires, and to a lesser extent, other hazards.  The three core life safety systems are:

  • Automated sprinkler systems. This is what sprays water on fires, typically triggered by high heat, although sometimes linked to your fire alarm system as well.  This technology has done a tremendous job in containing fires in buildings, particularly high rises.  
  • Your fire alarm system, which is a combination of detectors, manual pull alarms, audio alarms, communication systems for the fire department, and more.  Note that in many buildings, the smoke detectors in a unit that an Owner is responsible for are different than the overall building system.
  • Physical infrastructure, such as self closing doors, fire rated doors, exhaust fans in stairwells that suck smoke out in the event of a fire, etc. The easiest way is to find out what minimum features you have, if your management company doesn’t know, is to check the fire code from the year your building was built and see what was required at that time.  If your building is older, you likely have had upgrades along the way, and you’ll need to find documentation of that.

All of these items are rigorously managed by your county and State’s codes, laws, and other regulations.  You can also read more about the National Fire Protection Agency, which is an influential body in these standards.  Often, your current system will be “grandfathered in” until you need to upgrade.  You should ensure that you are contracting with an appropriate service to regularly test all relevant systems.  For physical improvements, you’re less likely to spend money improving these systems unless you have to.  Nonetheless, it is good to know what features are built into your building and to identify opportunities for cost-effective improvement.

First responders - there when you need them. (credit - Sunnyvale CA Government)
First responders – there when you need them. (credit – Sunnyvale CA Government)

Have a Security Plan

Make sure you’ve got a plan for how you handle your security in your Association, or at least some guidelines.  Start with what you want – which is known as the requirements process – and then seek out ways to meet those requirements.  A quick example of the requirements process: Say you need a wall.  What is the wall supposed to keep out?  People?  Rabbits?  Deer?  Zombies?  A tall iron fence might keep out people (and zombies), but rabbits might slip through.  Maybe that’s ok – you don’t care about rabbits.  But maybe you have a garden on the other side and those rabbits will eat your prize-winning carrots.  If you don’t define your requirements, you might end up spending money on a product that doesn’t fit your needs.  If you want to learn all about building a security plan – here’s an entire article dedicated to it.

Often Associations will go with what they know best.  For example, if you have security cameras around the building, your solution to increase security might be “more cameras,” where what you really need is self-closing doors.  By having a rough set of requirements for your building – i.e., our priority is to control the entry/exit points of the building, so we want self-closing doors, key-controlled access, and cameras only at entry/exit points – you at least will have a goal and a strategy rather than a patchwork of measures.  

Your management firm may be able to help you with this process, but if you need a more formal starting point, the best thing to do is hire a qualified firm to perform a security site assessment.  This will help you structure your response and ensure you’re spending your money most efficiently.  I’ll cover my personal thoughts on site security in a future article, but the top items are:

  • Get a site security assessment.
  • Ensure that you’re not overspending – you can build a fortress and still not be secure.
  • Consult with your legal counsel.  The more security you add, the more liable you can be, so make sure that any extensive security upgrades are done as a joint discussion between the Board, Management, a security consultant, and your legal counsel.  
  • And of course, as always, communicate with your Owners as to why you’re doing things.
This puts condo association safety and security into perspective. (credit - The Walking Dead, AMC)
This puts condo association safety and security into perspective. (credit – The Walking Dead, AMC)

Don’t forget the People

Finally, remember, Owners also need to be responsible for themselves.  Your role in this as a Board or Management is to encourage them to be informed and responsible.  Here are some things you can do to support this:

  • Make sure Owners are aware of what’s going on with regards to security incidents in the Association and can easily access relevant information.
  • Send out email blasts on crime statistics in the neighborhood to educate Owners as to what’s going on.  You can usually get this information from your local police department – they usually publish crime stats for communities to share.  
  • Encourage Owners to get first aid/CPR training.  Owners will be the first to respond to an incident and will be protected by good samaritan laws.  You have a lot more Owners than you do staff, and your staff may NOT be protected under good samaritan laws.  
  • Make sure Owners are replacing their smoke detector batteries and the detectors themselves – smoke detectors need to be replaced every 10 years.  While you can’t compel them to do so, you can encourage and remind them.  Many people don’t know this, or feel intimidated by changing smoke detectors that are hard-wired.  
  • Ask Owners who need extra assistance (i.e., those who have reduced mobility for whatever reason) in the event of an emergency to register with Management so that first responders can be aware of those Owners in the event of an emergency.  
  • Make Owners aware of resources like ready.govwhich provide good information for hazard preparedness.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start.  You’re not going to be able to control the behavior of all of your Owners, but you can give them the tools to help them succeed.  

Conclusion

Condo Association safety and security is a deep topic – so deep that you can learn even more tips in the 201 article.  For now, remember the Condo Association safety and security takeaways: maintain your Association life systems, don’t go down security rabbit holes, and empower your Owners to be responsible, informed, and ready.  


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