When the Unthinkable Happens – Emergency Preparedness

By Alexandra S. Jackiw, CPM®, CAPS, C3P

Several years ago, I encountered a tough situation at one of our properties that my team was ill-prepared to address, because of the very nature of the issue.  A young woman, who lived at a purpose-built student housing property that my company managed, disappeared after a night out with friends.  That tragedy, in and of itself, created a myriad of concerns for the on-site team.  In addition to dealing with the young woman’s family as sensitively as we could, we had to navigate through constant media scrutiny and numerous requests from local law enforcement.  Needless to say, our team had no chapter in our emergency preparedness “playbook” for such a unique scenario.

In the aftermath of that tragedy, our team regrouped to consider how we could be better prepared when the unthinkable happens – as it sometimes does in the world of property management.  As a result, we developed a framework that has informed our decisions and actions as those unpredictable and difficult situations arise.

Here is our four-part framework and some recommendations for how you can put it into practice.


Take time with your team to think through all the possible scenarios that might occur that will require a quick, organized response.  List them out on a whiteboard and think through those potential unthinkable events.

The list we came up with included: suicide; drug raid; abduction; substance abuse; drug overdose; domestic battery; sexual assault; murder; lifestyle intolerance; car-jacking; personal injury; cyberbullying; weather-related events; car accidents; missing persons; residents deaths on-premises; weapons-related incidents; fires; property damage; prostitution, identify theft; terrorist plots.  And — now we have to add health pandemics and social/political unrest to our emergency preparedness.


Have a written plan that covers four specific areas of concern:

  • Harm to individuals
  • Damage to property
  • Unlawful activity
  • Reputation management

The minimum requirements of the plan should answer these key questions:

  • WHO are the key stakeholders?
  • WHAT needs to be done?
  • WHEN should plans be initiated?
  • WHERE should the focus be placed?
  • HOW will the plan be implemented?

The written plan should include:

  • Detailed policies and procedures
  • An infrastructure schematic
  • A crisis management “tree” of key individuals assigned to public relations/communication


As the old adage goes:  “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”  Emergency preparedness processes should be in place in advance to ensure that the team is able to address the following key areas when an incident occurs:

  • Reputation management
  • Public relations strategy
  • Available community resources to access


No plan can be successful if it’s written and put away on a shelf, only dusted off when the need arises.  The team has to be prepared in an emergency so that each person can essentially function on “automatic pilot” because they are well-versed in what needs to happen and who is responsible for each part of the plan.

It’s important for all team members to be aware of what role they play and that they understand all of the policies and procedures that have been put in place for every eventuality.  They need to know all systems and be familiar with the infrastructure of the location where they work.  Logistics need to be fine-tuned and drilled.

If you study the work of response teams who go into action when a crisis occurs, you will quickly identify that these four key components are in place.  Your teams must know how to Anticipate, Plan, Prepare, and Practice so that they can protect lives, minimize property damage, and mitigate risk.  The time to think about those things is now.

This is the first blog in a three-part series.  In the second blog, I’ll cover what things to consider when writing an emergency plan.  The third blog in the series will address how to go about assessing and analyzing your plan after an event has occurred so that it can be adjusted and fine-tuned.