U.S. Tall Buildings on Terrorist Hit List

Aug. 1, 2007

What's missing from these terrorist-attack warnings is disaster planning and preparedness information, especially for those in or near tall commercial buildings and the cities most at risk.

Six years after Sept. 11, 2001, most public officials understand they must walk a fine line between keeping the public informed about potential terrorist threats vs. instilling fear about what may not come to pass. During July 2007, media reports and statements by high-ranking U.S. government officials provided disturbing information relating to U.S. national security that could seriously impact Americans, cities, and urban infrastructure.

From gut feelings about pending summer terrorist attacks to the likelihood of creating mass casualties by destroying iconic tall buildings in five major American cities, federal officials may be prudently warning the public about potential threats without specific evidence, or they may be engaging in politically motivated talk based on old information that has been floating around for some time.

What's missing from these terrorist-attack warnings is disaster planning and preparedness information, especially for those in or near tall commercial buildings and the cities most at risk.

Building owners, tenants, facility managers, architects, and engineers are now on the front lines of protecting the public and ensuring that people can safely evacuate buildings in the event of a terrorist attack, before first responders arrive. The manner and degree in which building owners maintain, upgrade, and renovate their properties for building security, emergency power, engineering, and egress systems could be critical in saving lives during a catastrophe. In the post-9/11 world, potential threats include vehicular bombs, suicide bombs, weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, or nuclear substances), or aviation-related activities.

Gut Feeling and Tall Building Terrorist Hit List
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on July 10 that he had a "gut feeling" that the U.S. faced a heightened risk of attack this summer. Chertoff's remarks were based on past seasonal patterns of terrorist attacks, recent al-Qaeda statements, and intelligence. His assessment was not based on specific threats, but of increased vulnerability.

On July 20, the Blotter at http://www.abcnews.com/ reported that Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell stated that several iconic buildings in Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, Los Angeles, and New York remain on Al Qaeda's hit list, with the goal of creating mass casualties. Intelligence reports indicate the terror group has re-energized to pre-9/11 levels and increased planning and training efforts for future attacks.

Earlier reports from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, indicated that self-described 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed admitted he planned a second wave of attacks targeting the Library Tower in Los Angeles, Sears Tower in Chicago, Plaza Bank in Washington state, and the Empire State Building in New York City. He planned to set off oil tankers at the Sears Tower base and said he oversaw efforts to deploy anthrax and nuclear-laced "dirty" bombs in the United States.

Fact checking reveals that there is no "Plaza Bank" building in Washington state. The tallest building in the state is Columbia Center (formerly the Bank of America Tower) in Seattle, the 14th-tallest building in the United States. Dallas has three buildings among the top 50 tallest U.S. buildings: the Bank of America Plaza, Renaissance Tower, and Chase Center. None have been named in recent reports.

Almost every tall commercial and civic building in New York City; Washington, D.C.; and major American city could be, and is, considered a terrorist target since Sept. 12, 2001, including Citicorp in New York City, the Prudential Building in Newark, NJ, and others. This is old news.

Reports about terrorist attacks in the United States have been circulating since 2001, especially before elections. Whether based on gut feelings, color-coded alerts, election season politics, wag-the-dog tactics designed to distract from other unfavorable news, or reliable intelligence, the constant barrage of threat reports has left Americans cynical, no matter how legitimate the threats may actually be. But, many Americans are increasingly concerned about the state of national preparedness and visible Homeland Security vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure, from ports, railroads, and borders to power plants and water supplies.

Nevertheless, it appears that the security and intelligence communities take these summer 2007 threats seriously, which is why they are worth noting. Some observers are concerned about what the recent public intelligence reports do not reveal from classified material regarding heightened terrorist activity.

Examine the Implications
Let's assume there is good reason for concern based on recent reports about threats to tall buildings and examine the implications. The public, Homeland Security and medical personnel, first responders, law enforcement, building owners, landlords, tenants, and anyone who lives, works, or travels in or near the cities and buildings on the hit list cannot afford to ignore these reports.

If there were specific threats (such as terrorists hijacking planes and flying them into buildings), it still remains unclear if the government would announce them to avoid scaring the public, slowing daily commerce, and causing stock markets to plummet. Government officials might plausibly prefer to make indirect statements indicating there is increased risk, without offering details.

Homeland Security personnel and National Guard units need time, equipment, and resources for mobilization. The deadly May 2007 tornado in Greensburg, KS, illustrated how crippled local communities can be when a town is destroyed, along with its rescue equipment. The Kansas National Guard was one of the first responders; however, they didn't have the equipment they needed to come in because Kansas National Guard units and equipment are mobilized in Iraq and Afghanistan, making training more difficult and response times slow. This issue is not confined to Kansas and addresses national preparedness in the event of a disaster or catastrophic event.

Many public- and private-sector first responders are on vacation in August, especially around Labor Day, leaving organizations, from law enforcement to hospitals, short-staffed and perhaps ill-prepared to handle disasters, mass casualties, and trauma victims. The terrorists know this.

These factors underscore the responsibilities of building owners, facility managers, tenants, and design professionals for protecting people and assets in the event a building is attacked or destroyed, before first responders arrive. PageBreak

Codes and Safety
Existing high-rises can't be readily redesigned to meet current building codes or the proposed National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommendations for wider stairs and fire service elevators designated for first responders. But, many safety measures can be (and, hopefully, have already been) implemented by responsible building owners through ongoing renovations and life-safety upgrades.

Buildings planned, designed, and renovated today may some day save lives by enabling occupants to evacuate quickly during emergencies and by allowing first responders to rescue others and survive when buildings are in imminent danger of collapse or destruction.

The World Trade Center was designed in the mid-1960s and built from 1966-1973, when technology and codes were less advanced than in 2001 or 2007. When the Twin Towers collapsed some 40 years after they were designed, the egress systems and materials significantly contributed to the inability of many occupants and first responders to evacuate safely.

Building codes and standards used for egress, design, and materials of the tall buildings on the terror hit list were in force at least 2 years or more before construction began, during design phases. These buildings and their construction dates are:

  • Empire State Building, New York City, 1929-31.
  • Sears Tower, Chicago, 1970-73.
  • Columbia Center, Seattle, 1982-85.
  • Library Tower, Los Angeles, 1987-90.

It's reasonable to be concerned about how rapidly occupants of tall buildings would be able to evacuate on short notice during a catastrophic event.

Short-Term Disaster Planning Strategies
If an attempted attack, or even a Category 5 hurricane, occurs this year, a brief window exists to implement preventive measures. Since government officials have not offered the public any short-term disaster-planning strategies relating to potential attacks on tall buildings, here are a few that can be initiated quickly:

  1. Schedule regular fire drills and training exercises to familiarize building personnel and tenants with emergency response procedures, egress and equipment locations, and medical plans.
  2. Review locations of exit doors, exits corridors, and alarm pull stations with staff, including how to use them.
  3. Install photoluminescent markings and exit signs showing exit paths in corridors and strips on exit stair treads. These work well during power outages.
  4. Create an effective emergency response plan for your facility. Provide copies to supervisors and tenants. Include personnel, contact lists, and cell and landline telephone numbers. After 9/11, cell phone service was unavailable in many New York City areas. Electric cordless phones don't function during a power outage.
  5. Perform routine maintenance and testing for building security, technology, and emergency systems to ensure that all systems are functional. Follow up on repairs, replacement, staff training, and warranty coverage.
  6. Review redundant emergency power and building system resources such as generators, back-up energy, water, and fuel storage. Plan for several days without power, not just a few hours.
  7. Ensure that all appropriate business insurance policies are in place, paid, and up to date. Review coverage carefully, as liability for building owners and consultants becomes a major issue if a building is damaged or destroyed, and casualties occur.
  8. Consult with legal counsel to determine if there are ways to mitigate potential liability in the event of an incident, such as implementing various security measures, documenting them, and keeping records stored off-site so they are available if litigation occurs.
  9. Assess the potential impact of power loss, surges, and voltage fluctuations on critical equipment, operations, and electronic records, including during nights and weekends. An attack could impact utilities for a city block or an entire city.
  10. Back up electronic data and store critical information off-site.
  11. Develop a contingency plan if your building is destroyed, severely damaged, or declared uninhabitable for any length of time or for any reason, such as a natural disaster, anthrax, or explosion.
  12. Do not assume that you're out of harm's way if your building is not on the terror hit list. If you live or work adjacent to or near a tall building said to be a potential terrorist target, these strategies apply. Adjacent buildings will likely incur collateral damage in the event of an explosion or collapse. Just review the condition of ground zero in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 12, 2001, or Oklahoma City on April 20, 1995.

Concerned Americans can support the passage of H.R. 2761, the Terrorism Risk Insurance Revision and Extension Act of 2007 (TRIREA) that is currently before Congress. The Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) Intl. and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) advocate extension of the Terrorist Risk Insurance Act of 2002 (TRIA), which expires at the end of 2007. Insurers and insurance policyholders have noted that a vibrant private-sector terrorism insurance market has not emerged since 9/11, and the federal program will be needed beyond 2007.

More than ever, the private sector holds a greater responsibility for public safety and building security in tandem with local law enforcement and first responders. Building owners, tenants, design professionals, and the public can't afford to ignore the risks and threats facing American cities and tall buildings.

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