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Technology in the face of a disaster

How it can help—or hinder—your response

By Greg Cichy, CPM

Imagine this scenario: Your company manages a diverse portfolio of medical office buildings, mixed-use properties and student housing in the greater metropolitan area of a medium-sized coastal city. A tropical storm builds in the Atlantic during a particularly busy time of the year, as students return to the local universities in the area and the annual budgeting process is about to kick off. 

You have 24 hours to get ready.

You keep an eye on the weather—not too concerned, as the forecast indicates the storm will stall and lead to a few days of moderate rainfall, at worst. A maintenance problem pops up and keeps you occupied over the next day, so when you receive an alert on your phone about the approaching hurricane, you are caught by surprise.

The Category 4 storm is now projected to hit your coastal city and dump a record amount of rainfall on the region. You have 24 hours to get ready.

Among your many considerations in this moment is how technology systems will help or hinder your response to the hurricane. Is that technology another important concern—or does it give you hope that your company can handle the emergency ahead? Several technologies have changed the way companies prepare for and respond to disasters.

Let’s look at some of these technologies and how they can help respond to the hurricane in our scenario.

The cloud

Cloud-based systems offer significant benefits in the face of disasters. They are less vulnerable to damage than traditional solutions, which don’t provide the redundancy of distributed architecture. During storms, fires, earthquakes and other disaster events, local infrastructure is often devastated. Even if those onsite servers tucked in a corner room of your company’s office remain unscathed, power and cable infrastructure often become damaged.

Emergency and disaster planning considerations should be part of the equation as your company considers which aspects of technology infrastructure to move to the cloud.

The hurricane hits landfall as a Category 3 storm with high winds and storm surge. Your company’s key systems and data are safe in a data center a thousand miles from the coast. You access everything you need to manage your properties—property management software, work order system, document management, access control—when you are able to get Wi-Fi at an inland coffee shop, where the damage is less severe.

Internet of things (IoT)

IoT is changing real estate management. It is also changing disaster management. The sensors of an IoT system and the data they gather can provide real-time, hyper-local information on weather, occupancy, building entry points, HVAC performance and indoor air quality.

A disaster can throw building operations out of whack, to say the least. If you and your team can identify issues as they happen, or quickly pinpoint them when the immediate emergency is over, you will have a leg up in returning to normal operations.

After the storm, the IoT-enabled building management system at one of the medical office buildings you manage catches an indoor air quality issue—soaring CO2 rates in one zone of the building. The system automatically adjusts ventilation to compensate, and your engineering team discovers some damaged dampers. These dampers are quickly replaced, bringing the system back to working order and CO2 levels within normal limits.

Drones

Drones are working in many industries to improve access to hard-to-reach areas, provide imagery for different purposes, detect security issues and gather data. There are companies that target their drone services to the real estate management industry for property inspections, aerial photos, security assessments and a range of other services.

In our scenario, the storm causes a tree branch to fall into a student living community in your portfolio, damaging the siding and roof. To determine the extent of the damage, you call the drone services firm your company has partnered with. They use a drone to inspect the damage and discover that some repairs will be necessary, but the integrity of the building envelope is intact. The firm sends images to the insurance adjuster and tree removal company, and repairs move forward.

Microgrids

Microgrids provide local power generation, rather than relying on vast utility networks. Microgrids at the property level are typically renewable energy systems, such as combined heat and power (CHP) or solar, which may be used in conjunction with onsite battery storage.

These site-based systems are likely not useful in the event of a disaster, due to damage and power surges. However, public-private partnerships are experimenting with larger, local microgrids as resilience and disaster management tools.

The organizations involved in these efforts are placing the microgrids in areas of vulnerable facilities or populations—by hospitals and schools, for example. The properties in the area of these microgrids will benefit from this local power generation in the event of a disaster, so keep an eye on this emerging technology and any microgrid programs in your area.

“Microgrids provide security, savings and sustainability that benefit properties not only during power outages, but also during normal conditions,” says Geoff Oxnam, CEO of American Microgrid Solutions in Easton, Md. “They are playing an increasingly important role as the power grid evolves.”

The broad deployment of microgrids would be a valuable development in keeping the lights on, which is so important during a disaster event. At my company (Colliers International, AMO), our emergency response professionals often travel with generators because nothing has as big of an impact on our ability to restore normal operations as electricity.

If we can count on power already working at our properties, we can reduce costs and decrease response times during disasters.

In the hurricane scenario, a mixed-use property you manage is located by a large, regional hospital. A microgrid in the area keeps the power on at your property, while hundreds of thousands utility customers remain without energy for a week.

Other technologies

Other technologies are playing significant roles in disaster planning and response. Emergency response teams use technology to organize and coordinate their activities. Artificial intelligence is helping government agencies and municipalities better predict disaster impacts. Social networks have been crucial in accounting for friends, family and co-workers.

No matter the technology, disasters can and will inflict some amount of damage on your business and properties. They may even result in death and injury. This is perhaps the most crucial benefit of technology—the right technologies can free you up to focus on the safety and well-being of your staff and occupants, along with the recovery process ahead.

Maggie Callahan

Greg Cichy, CPM, is managing director of real estate management services for the Washington D.C. metro area at Colliers International, AMO, in Washington D.C. His IREM roles have included leadership positions such as president of the West Central Maryland Chapter and regional vice president, and he is currently chair of the IREM Technology Advisory Board.

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