Is your apartment community prepared in the event of a terrorist attack? That question is top of mind in the real estate community as next month marks the fifth anniversary of the tragic events of Sept. 11. While it's difficult to discuss the possibility of future attacks, the anniversary underscores the need for multifamily firms to strengthen and develop disaster response plans and test their preparedness strategies.

In June, several multifamily companies evaluated their response plans during a three-day federal terrorism simulation exercise sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security. Participants tuned into a Web site with a news feed detailing a terrorist attack on a fictional city, complete with briefings from government officials. The event, called TOPOFF 4 Command Post Exercise, was designed to let the federal government test its preparedness plan but also allowed private-sector companies (including real estate firms) to listen in and brainstorm ways to deal with the crisis.

Reviewing disaster preparedness plans was the goal of a federally sponsored exercise.
Reviewing disaster preparedness plans was the goal of a federally sponsored exercise.

"A lot of companies have [disaster] plans that look at the eight most likely catastrophes, most of which are natural disasters," says Roger Platt, executive director of the Real Estate Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which participated in the event. "Some [plans] include terrorist attacks and small bombs, but they don't really get into nuclear bombs or contamination. These types of exercises give you an opportunity to think through what is different about those kinds of attacks, including what might be requested by local officials of your apartment building in terms of overflow from [nearby] hospitals."

The exercise also helps emphasize the need for preparedness, says Michael Beirne, executive vice president of Kamson Corp., a Northeast property management firm that participated in the event. "The fact of the matter is, in the 21st century, this kind of thing [terrorism] is going to happen whether we like it or not," says Beirne. "It's imperative that we stay engaged and stay up-to-date with the larger public in terms of emergency services."

Beirne stresses the importance of terrorism prevention strategies, which are just as critical as knowing what to do after a disaster strikes. Throughout the year, Beirne invites agencies such as the Red Cross and the FBI to hold seminars for employees on such topics as how to spot and report potential terrorism activity. Similarly, United Dominion Realty Trust, a Richmond, Va.-based REIT, teaches its maintenance and sales force to keep an eye out for suspicious activities, including high traffic coming and going from one apartment unit, payment of rent in cash, and someone renting an apartment but never living there.

The industry in general is taking disaster planning more seriously, says Tom Toomey, president and CEO of United Dominion. "It's been five years since Sept. 11 and people are asking, 'Have we learned anything? Have we done anything differently?'" he says. His answer: Yes. "I think awareness is much higher and communications has vastly improved."

–Rachel Z. Azoff