Vulnerable Residents Safety at Any Age

Vulnerable Residents

Whether we’re talking day-to-day safety or emergency planning, most multifamily buildings and HOAs have something on the books to address both standard operating procedures and things like alerts and evacuations. And that’s great if you’re a relatively young, able-bodied resident – but what if you, or a loved one or neighbor, are elderly, or live with a mental or physical handicap, or are a kid with working parents who takes care of younger siblings? Who looks out for the safety of these folks, and makes sure they’re accounted for should a fire, power outage, or other emergency arise? How can boards, managing agents, and residents promote the safety and security of the more vulnerable members of their community, both day-to-day and in emergency situations? What happens during a major weather event? Or an electrical blackout, when power goes off for 24 hours or more?

First, let’s examine who the “vulnerable residents” really are. According to Allan Fraser, senior building code specialist at the National Fire Prevention Association based in Quincy, Massachusetts, generally speaking, there are five categories of disability: lack of mobility; impaired vision; deafness or impaired hearing; speech disorders or inabilities; and cognitive disabilities. Each of these categories represents a different challenge when it comes to managing emergency situations. 


“Folks with mobility disabilities use one or more devices—things like canes, crutches, manually-operated wheelchairs, scooters—whatever they need to maneuver through their environment,” Fraser explains. Anyone who has difficulty walking—or indeed, is even extremely uncoordinated—is considered disabled in this way for our purposes. “A mobility disability can be an issue with any part of a body. Maybe you can’t open doors, or you can’t go down stairs, you can’t press keypads, whatever that might be.”

An important consideration here is that not all mobility issues are obvious to the eye. Fraser himself mentions this when he gives lectures on the subject. “I played hockey in high school and college and have had operations on both knees,” he says. “So if I had to run down 10 or 12 flights of stairs in a hotel, I couldn’t run. It might take me too long - and you can’t see that. I also happen to be Type II diabetic as I’ve gotten older, and what else you can’t see is I had heart surgery in 2007 and I’ve got two stents in my heart.” In his case—and there are many, many more like him—someone who looks perfectly able to walk down 70 flights of stairs may have extreme difficulty doing so.


“When you get into blindness or low vision, that includes people with partial or total vision loss,” Fraser says. “Some people with this disability can distinguish light and dark, sharply contrasting colors, and very large print, but can’t read small print and have trouble negotiating dimly-lit spaces, or tolerating hard glare. Many people who are blind depend on their sense of touch and their sense of hearing to perceive their environment, what’s around them. There’s a risk that a person with a visual impairment could miss a visual cue such as a new obstruction that occurred during the event that could affect egress, so if something falls off a wall of a building or gets moved because of an earthquake, they’re not going to see it.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that a visually-challenged resident will not be able to read certain handouts. “If you’re handing out information, it needs to be in multiple formats. So you can’t hand someone an 8 ½” x 11” piece of paper with 12-point font on it and say, ‘Well now I gave this to all the residents.’ It needs to be available in large print, and probably in Braille.”


This category includes the deaf, and also those with partial hearing. The latter often use a combination of lip-reading and hearing aids to understand spoken communication; both of these are often disrupted during emergencies.

“If you’ve got fire alarms going off, you’ve got sirens going off, it can seriously affect whatever hearing they have,” Fraser says. “People who are deaf or hard of hearing must rely on reading for information, and must be able to clearly see the face of the person who’s speaking if they’re lip-reading. Those who use sign language—and, by the way, American Sign Language is the third most common language in this country, behind English and Spanish!—so people who are hard of hearing or deaf may have difficulty understanding oral communication or receiving notifications by equipment that is exclusively auditory, such as telephones, fire alarms, or public distress systems.”

Speech and Cognitive Impairments

Obviously, a speech disability would not hamper a person’s ability to shimmy out a fire escape, or quickly descend ten flights of stairs. But a speech impairment is still relevant to this discussion. 

“One example that’s very clear is telephones in an elevator,” Fraser says. “Say the elevator gets jammed, the person gets stuck, they pick up that phone and can’t tell anybody what’s going on. So that can be an issue.”

Cognitive impairments, Fraser explains, can be caused by a wide range of conditions, including but not limited to: developmental disabilities, multiple sclerosis, depression, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, traumatic brain injury, chronic fatigue, stroke, and some psychiatric conditions. “All result in the decrease in ability to process and understand information,” he says. “They impair a person from accessing building features due to the inability to process and understand the information necessary to use those features.”

Helping Out 

So how to plan for everyone in your building – regardless of age or physical limitation? 

“One of the things I say that should be done is emergency contacts,” says  says Susan Birenbaum, founder of  Humanittude, a national organization that deals with issues for seniors. “Every building should have a list of emergency contacts for individuals —and on this list should be an indicator of whether people need emergency assistance. Whether there’s a need for a wheelchair, or if they have young children or older adults, or children with special needs. Everyone should be aware of this, and everyone should have this list.”

As for what to do with this information, management and legal pros caution that identifying who might need additional help doesn’t mean that an association manager or building staff member bears direct responsibility for physically rescuing or otherwise rendering aid in a time of crisis. Boards and HOAs can take the lead in having emergency contact lists, making sure vulnerable residents are accounted for during an emergency, and so on, but Steven J. Weil, Ph.D., EA, LCAM, president of Royale Management Services, Inc., in Fort Lauderdale, Florida,  says there’s a fine line between attempting to provide services, and providing information about services. “As residents get older, if necessary, they should seek additional services which are often provided by the city or county, or through other local outside agencies. While managers should be able to direct those needing help to local services, it is not their job, nor is it up to the association to provide special help. To do so would only create liability for the manager and the association.” 

Crisis management pros advise individuals with conditions that might complicate their evacuation or put them at increased risk during an emergency to make a personal emergency plan that could include picking a ‘buddy’ who will help you as you help them.  “Don’t go through an emergency alone,” says one expert. “Ask at least two people to be in your emergency support network — family members, friends, neighbors, caregivers, coworkers, or members of community groups. Remember, you can help and provide comfort to each other in emergencies.” 

Second, write down instructions. “Pre-written cards or text messages can help you share information with your support network or emergency responders during a stressful or uncomfortable situation. You may not have much time to get your message across,” according to the pros. “Phrases can include: I may have difficulty understanding what you are telling me. Please speak slowly and use simple language or pictures. I use a device to communicate. I am Deaf and use American Sign Language. Please write down directions. I speak [insert language below].”

Professionals who work with the senior community also emphasize individual responsibility. In the event of a disaster, seniors are encouraged to pay special attention to personal medical needs. Modern technology makes it possible to have notice of tropical storms and hurricanes well in advance of the actual event. 

Senior advocacy organizations such as AARP strongly advise residents to prepare a medication list, and obtain a generous supply of all medications as part of an individual emergency kit. When a state is under an executive order or declared emergency it is often possible to receive an extra 30-day supply of medications with no price increase. Speak with a pharmacist or a health care provider immediately if you or someone in your care may need extra medication during a storm or evacuation scenario. Other support and supply items like extra batteries for hearing aids and medical devices, extra eyeglasses, and non-prescription drugs should also be included in an emergency kit.

“The former chair of our disability committee,” Fraser recalls, “used a wheelchair more than half his life, and he always said, ‘All people, regardless of their circumstances, have some obligation to be prepared to take action during an emergency and to assume responsibility for their own safety.’ The right way is to go out and train people before a disaster occurs.”

Boards should be aware of the legal limitations in regard how they should provide help. “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that reasonable accommodations be made for individuals with disabilities to live, it does not make an association or manager into caregivers, or require the association to pay for those accommodations,” says Weil. The role of management and the board in emergency situations needs to be clear. “We should address the even more important question of just how much an association and its management should provide to those residents in need of special assistance, and whether providing this assistance creates an ongoing obligation as well as legal liability should the association, or manager, be unable to provide the assistance when needed.”

Emergency Resources

While the maintenance of an effective emergency plan is just very good sense in suburban properties, in Chicago proper, it’s the law.

“In the city of Chicago, there is an ordinance that requires buildings of a certain size, be they condos, co-ops, apartments, etc., to have a disaster plan in place, and to have it updated, run through, and modified according to the city’s regulations,” says Don Kekstadt, Associa’s regional vice president for acquisition operations; he was previously the president of Associa Chicagoland. “So the knowledge that there’s government oversight in this area should give a board adequate motivation.”

As Kekstadt explains, city officials outline what is required of a community association in regard to signage, exit routes, which floors need to report in case of fire, etc., and to what type of disaster-specific criteria pertains. An association would be well advised to seek out this information and review it thoroughly before attempting to iron out its own plan, lest it miss a crucial requirement.

Much of the inspiration for the city ordinance comes from the many skyscrapers that litter the Chicago skyline. Without an incredibly specific evacuation plan in place, a disaster could quickly turn to chaos, leading to property damage, injury and even death to both residents and staff. While this level of tumult is less likely in the suburbs, smaller and more rural associations should not take this as an excuse to be lax with their planning.

“Suburbs don’t have an ordinance,” says Janice Subasic, a community manager with ACM Community Management in Downers Grove. “Regardless, all of the communities that I manage make sure that they’ve some type of plan in place. I think that it’s imperative, because if an emergency were to occur, one of the issues faced is ensuring that everyone arrives at an agreed-upon location and that help is notified in a timely fashion. This is all quite difficult without assigning specific roles, chain of command, evacuation procedures etc., beforehand.”   

Greg Olear is a freelance writer and novelist and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland  Cooperator. 

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