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:: Journal live - June 2009
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Crisis management
By Roslyn Alderton

An explosion on the top floor of an apartment building in Bondi has caused about 300 residents to be locked out of their homes for months. The building's strata manager, Dynamic Property Services, spoke to the Journal about how they have handled the crisis.

The first that Dynamic Property Services knew of the explosion on Monday, 30 March at Ocean Court – one of two Eastgate Towers apartment blocks in Bondi Junction – was when a staff member saw live footage of the building on television.

What followed was a frustrating and exhausting crisis management situation for Dynamic, the strata managers representing Ocean Court’s owners’ corporation, as well as related parties including facilities managers and insurers.

The explosion occurred in the plant room on the top floor of the 29-storey building, causing serious injuries to two plumbers.

Most residents of the 111 apartments were not at home at the time, and those who were inside were evacuated, believing that they would probably return in a few hours.

It has now become clear that residents will be unable to return to living in their homes for a minimum of six months. The explosion severely damaged the plant and lift motor rooms and required cutting off the building’s electricity, water and gas. With no power, the lifts do not operate, nor do the fire services, making access to the building unsafe and the individual apartments uninhabitable. Furniture cannot be moved out of the apartments as the only access is via the fire stairs.

With approximately 300 residents suddenly homeless, Dynamic has taken on the role of channelling all inquiries about the situation. Dynamic’s staff members have worked day and night to handle the crisis, including working through Easter.

“Once we realised the size of it and also the number of unknowns still, we basically set up an incident team,” said Pamela Pearce, Director of Dynamic.

“We had two to three people full-time on the phone answering queries.”

The team fielded about 100 phone calls a day, in addition to making calls to track down contact details for residents.

Wally Patterson, Dynamic’s Managing Director, said that real estate agents were responsible for providing contact information for tenants to strata schemes. In this instance, many of the contact details were missing or incomplete.

“We only had two email addresses for tenants,” Mr Patterson said. “It’s an area that agents may want to address in their practices.”

Working with the limited information available, Dynamic collected contact details from residents who rang in, organised a bulk distribution of text messages, emailed people, dropped letters in the building’s letter boxes and created a special page on their website to provide updated information as it came to hand.

Since nearly all the apartments are undamaged, it has been difficult to explain to residents why they can’t go into the building to fetch their possessions. Arrangements were made for resident entry at specific allocated times, and then only under strict conditions. Residents had to sign an indemnity form, and could only collect what they could carry down the stairs. This access was only available before the area became a controlled building site.

As residents had not expected to be locked out for so long, they had left important possessions in their apartments, including items such as passports and medication.

“It was quite distressing for the staff,” Mr Patterson said.

Residents were also asked to empty fridges, cupboards and rubbish bins to prevent health hazards, and remove rubbish to the garbage room on each level for removal by cleaners.

The other major concern from residents was where they would live and who would pay to cover their living expenses. Owner-occupiers are able to claim reasonable expenses incurred for emergency accommodation, as this is covered by the owners’ corporation’s insurance. The policy also covers loss of rent for landlords. However tenants’ expenses are not covered.

Mr Patterson said some tenants expected Dynamic to pay for furnished accommodation until they could return home – something that was not included in the insurance and Dynamic had no authority to do.

“People were really angry because we couldn’t give tenants money,” he said. “That was one of the real challenges for us.”

Dynamic has tried to keep tenants informed of the situation and has provided them with a list of real estate agents where they could seek short-term accommodation.

Despite their efforts, Dynamic have received criticism from the media, including a headline: “Bondi blast tenants ‘left high and dry’.”

“It was hurtful to people in the organisation,” said Ms Pearce, who believes that part of the reason for the criticism is a lack of understanding of the reasons why the building is uninhabitable.

“With fires or floods or hail storms, people can see visually 100 damaged houses. Here you have 111 homes that are uninhabitable and people can’t get to them. Because the main damage is so far up, people can’t see it. For those poor owners and real estate agents, the response from the community is not nearly as strong.”

Media interest in the situation was so intense that Dynamic engaged public relations firm Jackson Wells for advice and to field inquiries.

“We appointed Jackson Wells with the support of the insurers and the owners corporation when media interest was so huge that it was actually starting to distract from operational things that had to be done here,” said Mr Patterson.

Dynamic was conscious that there were many unknowns, such as the cause of the accident, which remains the subject of a WorkCover investigation. Any comments needed to be carefully worded to avoid spreading misinformation or conjecture.

“We have always had a policy here that any media inquiries must come to the directors,” Mr Patterson said.

“We were really proud that when this broke, customer service people at reception understood straight away and just directed inquiries to the directors.

“Policies that were long-standing and in place meant that no unauthorised media crew could bluff their way in here. It’s an example of how you really need your policies in place beforehand. When a crisis hits, that’s not the time to go ‘how do we handle the fact that there’s a lot of media?’.”

He said the company’s culture also played a significant part in handling the crisis by ensuring that staff were willing to go above and beyond their call of duty.

One staff member who lived two hours away on the Central Coast temporarily moved to Sydney and lived with friends so that she could work longer hours. Another staff member worked 14 days in a row.

While some staff were dedicated to answering inquiries, other staff had to cover extra duties.

Despite the burden of extra work during the crisis, Dynamic ranked fifth in the BRW Great Places to Work list in April, as voted by the company’s staff. It was the top-rating small to medium enterprise on the list.

Ms Pearce said that ranking so highly on the list was a pleasant surprise.

“A lot of the time, strata is not what you would call ‘fun’,” Ms Pearce said. “But everyone is very proud of how we handled this situation.” 

Lessons learned from the 'Bondi blast' crisis

  • Ensure your company culture is strong and positive so that staff are dependable when you really need them. “The cultural aspect of your organisation is really important. We have really committed and supportive staff, not staff whose attitude is ‘I’m only here 9 to 5 so I don’t need to do this’,” Ms Pearce said.
  • Ensure your relationships with suppliers are strong. In Dynamic’s case, the company’s web designers created a new web page on Good Friday, while the IT provider organised a bulk SMS distribution over the Easter long weekend. “You need those relationships with your suppliers,” Ms Pearce said. “If you have an attitude that you are always trying to pay your suppliers late and as little as possible, when the crunch comes, where are they?”
  • Ensure real estate agents provide all relevant contact details to strata schemes. “It’s a requirement of the law that they provide this information,” said Mr Patterson. “This is not just good database management. It’s a legal requirement for a licensee.”
  • Encourage landlords to take up landlord’s insurance and tenants to take up contents insurance. “Those who have got it have a much wider range of options available to them,” Mr Patterson said. “I know of one tenant who has moved out into furnished accommodation. The landlord’s insurance covers things like carpet. The contents picks up the difference. She is now living at the same standard as she was before.”
  • Keep building valuations up to date. “For buildings, make sure that their valuations and insurance policies are absolutely up-to-date and reviewed regularly,” Mr Patterson said. “This building was and that has stood them in extremely good stead. There was no argument with the insurers about whether they are underinsured or not. It made it much easier to keep getting ‘yes’ all the way through.”