Hostage Prevention 101

Oct. 30, 2012

Have you ever considered the possibility of a hostage situation in your building? Much like terrorism or workplace violence, the threat of a hostage taker is remote yet very real. Recently in Pittsburgh, a hostage situation occurred at a downtown high rise. While the standoff was resolved without injuries, the message is clear to building owners – always prepare for the unexpected.  

Does your building’s Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) address hostages? Have you conducted a roundtable that walks your security team through a hostage scenario? Without a plan in place, a hostage situation could cause more chaos and damage than expected. 

“Hostage events have three stages: before, during, and after,” says Steve Layne, a principal with Layne Consultants International.  “Before it happens, focus on prevention. During an event, follow your EOP. Afterwards, cooperate with the police investigation and offer support to occupants.”

Preventive Measures
Unless your property is a signature building or your tenants include high-risk targets, you may determine that a terrorist attack is not among your risks. Everyone, however, should think about preventing potentially dangerous people from gaining building access.

A hostage situation, much like workplace violence, doesn’t typically involve terrorists – rather, an opportunistic stranger, abusive spouse, or angry former employee is the perpetrator.

One random hostage taker, for instance, told police after the incident that he had chosen the building because no one was checking people as they entered. Had the hostage taker spotted a security officer in the lobby, he likely would have been deterred.  

“It takes more to discourage an angry spouse or employee, however,” says Kevin T. Doss, president of Security Management Solutions, LLC and an ASIS International advisor for the Physical Security Professional (PSP) Board Certification Review Program. “A visitor management system (VMS) and an escort policy can help prevent these problems. Tenants should be urged to secure their reception areas and prevent access by the general public.”

VMS policies require visitors to have permission to enter from someone working in the building. Conversely, tenants can enter the names of recently fired people on a no-admittance list, denying them access without special permission. Spouses fearing an attack can also use the no-admittance list.PageBreak

These are affordable measures and typically require simple policy and protocol changes. Depending upon the risks faced by your building, you may also consider investing in video surveillance, access control technologies, and other options.

Since 1995, Mike Fickes has contributed over 200 security articles to publications covering hotel, industrial, office, retail, critical infrastructure, and education. His interests include security management, policies, strategies, and technologies.

One example are panic buttons, which are ideal for multi-tenant buildings. A tenant may have the opportunity to call 911, but will they have a way of reaching out to building management as well?  

“We advise clients to recommend panic buttons to new tenants in their initial meeting with the property manager,” continues Layne. “We ask them to route the signals to building security as well as police.”

When something happens and a panic alarm or 911 call goes out, security will know that the police are coming. You can speed their response by sending someone to meet them and take them to the problem, says Layne.

During the Event
Before the police arrive, you can protect other tenants as well. “Your EOP should tell you how close your officers will get to the problem,” Layne says. “Unarmed security officers might lock off the affected floor from above and below while staying away from the trouble. If you can isolate the floor, other tenants can stay put. But if you fear that the problem will flow to other floors, you might want to evacuate the floors above and below.”

To facilitate an evacuation, you should have a map of escape routes in the EOP, says Doss.

“Some buildings install safe rooms on each floor, where the doors can be locked and the lights turned off so it looks like no one is inside,” continues Doss. “There should be a hard wired phone in the room, in case cell phones don’t work. Don’t forget to include bathrooms.”

Once the police arrive, your job is to support them, continues Layne. They will want keys for the locked-off floor, a tenant list for the area, and a floor plan showing the various offices and doorways. With your help and good planning, the police will shut down the situation and no one will be hurt.

Dealing with the Aftermath
Afterwards, the police will conduct an investigation to establish what happened and why. “Your job will be to cooperate with the investigation,” says Layne. “You will also need a public information officer to let the tenants know what has happened and to answer questions from the media. You should be prepared to provide counseling if people were frightened, injured, or worse.”

While hostage situations are uncommon, don’t discount the possibility any more than you would terrorism or domestic assault. The best security plans account for all scenarios.

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