The horrifying events of September 11 brought the issues of building security, safety, and emergency response in commercial facilities to national attention.
A nation of terrified citizens watched as two massive office towers tumbled to the ground and one wing of the bastion of federal security burned. Facilities managers and building owners realized the unthinkable could happen to any structure in the United States, including their own.
While security and safety always have been key factors in facility design, planning, and management, these issues have taken on greater significance in the year since 9/11/01. Before that day, terrorist activity was something that happened overseas. On 9/11, it became a real possibility.
But industry leaders believe the U.S. facilities market must continue to focus its security initiatives on beefing up everyday safety and emergency response rather than shift toward concentrated anti-terrorism measures. A widespread terrorist attack on any given commercial building across the country is slight, they say. The risk for a fire, natural disaster such as a tornado or earthquake, or an incidence of workplace violence still is much greater. “Most buildings are not ‘at risk’ and do not require substantial modifications,” says Ron Klemencic, president of the Seattle-based structural engineering firm Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire Inc. and chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, based at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.
“There is, however, a much greater awareness of the possibility of the occurrence of ‘unforeseen events,’” he adds. “Weighing the likelihood of a terrorist attack compared to a more common hazard, such as a building fire, the emphasis clearly remains on the latter.”
Traditional Security Wins Out
A survey commissioned by the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) International and the Urban Land Institute (ULI), both based in Washington, D.C., reveals that facilities professionals are more concerned with overall emergency preparedness than with terrorism when it comes to developing, managing, and implementing security protocols.
The survey, which includes responses from more than 200 members of the two organizations, examined specific security measures in place before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as well as more broad-based actions the facilities industry takes to ensure the safety and security of building tenants and employees and the buildings themselves.
Nearly 60 percent of respondents indicated security concerns over fire safety; almost 35 percent cited civil unrest as a major concern; and nearly 33 percent noted power disruptions as an important consideration in overall emergency planning. Only about 12 percent acknowledged terrorist attacks as a potential threat, while about 7 percent had concerns over biohazards.
“There are cutting-edge concerns by a select group of our clients related specifically to chemical, biological, and nuclear threat. They have engaged us to look at their facilities and recognize their vulnerabilities at their worksites and homes,” notes Jack Devine, a 32-year veteran of the CIA and a founding member and president of The Arkin Group LLC, a New York City firm that specializes in international crisis management, strategic intelligence, investigative research, and business problem-solving.
Devine says that this concern remains on the fringe of the larger business community, primarily because of cost. Security decisions must be cost effective, because much of today’s technology comes with a high price tag. Common sense tells us that we need to balance the costs with the probability of a threat.
“You haven’t reached a critical mass where the public is demanding that type of protection,” he says. “Most security companies are really still involved in enhancing the traditional pieces. I don’t know of many companies that are into this type of thing – these more frightening dimensions of terrorism.”
Determining the Level of Concern
That’s not to say building owners, managers, and security teams don’t consider terrorism a threat, even if it only is a minor one.
Design professionals at Gensler Architecture, Design & Planning Worldwide say that security risks for a building are dependent on tenant mix, location, and other factors.
For example, a high-profile building can warrant aggressive measures: barriers to keep trucks from the building perimeter, increased security in parking garages, separate mail-sorting facilities, relocated air intake vents, and even systems that provide automatic HVAC shutdown in a compromising situation.
But before you haphazardly increase security levels in your building in a panic mode, it’s best to undergo a vulnerability assessment that pinpoints where your biggest security needs are and how they should be addressed. Such an assessment helps you direct your security efforts at your most real threats. Look closely at your tenants and their “baggage,” experts suggest. Also think about your neighbors. Are they foreign owned? Controversial? Research driven?
Don’t forget to look internally. Is your building a likely target for workplace violence or a car bomb – or somewhere in between?
The answers to these questions will help you start to recognize a range of potential threats and possible security solutions. “It’s not going to break the bank for you to do an audit,” Devine explains. “It helps you see what you might need for your tool kit. The changes won’t necessarily be major. It might be as simple as putting a lock on something. There are little steps you can take to get people thinking about these kinds of things.”
Making It Work
In today’s business world, proactive and integrated security practices are crucial to any company’s success. Security experts say that companies not only must protect their people and physical assets, they also must secure their proprietary information, communications, products, research and development operations, and even their marketing strategies.
“Realizing that there are risks is one issue,” says Robert Koverman, a senior consultant with SAKO & Associates, Arlington Heights, IL. “Identifying them and developing appropriate responses and reactions is another matter.”
The key to an effective security plan, Koverman says, involves buy-in from all users. This starts with the CEO of the building, corporation, or institution and encompasses everyone, from the tenants to the staff to the customers to the contractors. “Buy-in begins when the CEO not only endorses the security plan but follows all the policy and procedures, as well,” Koverman says. “Once the CEO buy-in is in place, there must be constant communication between all affected parties and the security department.”
Such communications can include formalized employee security awareness programs; periodic newsletters; and incident response, where the security department receives a complaint, completes a thorough investigation, and follows up with a complainant contact in order to bring some type of closure to the incident.
“There must be a continual presence of the security department in all phases of building/institutional management,” notes Koverman.
Jeff Barber, a vice president and design principal in Gensler’s Washington office, agrees. He stresses the importance of teamwork with respect to security-related decisions. No one group within an organization should focus solely on security measures. “For a long-term vision of security, you need to have a system of checks and balances in order to most effectively operate a real estate asset,” says Barber, who also chairs the firm’s Office Building and Sustainable Design task forces.
Successful security approaches must also be sensible. A protocol that makes people stand in long lines each day before they enter a building could create a situation where they grow impatient and perhaps even try to beat the system. Once security is inconvenient, people will resist it. Then, you’ll have wasted your money.
“Hassles disguised as security don’t work,” says Bob Peck, commissioner of the U.S. General Services Administration’s Public Building Service. “People will tolerate inconvenience while the memory of an event like 9/11 is fresh in their mind, but it gets old soon.”
Barber, who has worked with the GSA on numerous projects, echoes this sentiment. “You need to achieve the right level and implement it in a way that it will be there in the long term and still be acceptable to the people affected by it,” he says. “Good security needs to be organized, clear, and convenient.”
Robin Suttell is contributing editor at Buildings magazine and based in Cleveland.