Terrorism Alert

Oct. 5, 2009

By Michael Fickes

What should building owners and property managers do when the government issues a terrorism alert?

On Sept. 21, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI issued security bulletins to police across the country. The bulletins alerted police to the continuing desire of terrorists to attack stadiums, entertainment complexes, hotels, and mass-transit systems.

The bulletins followed a flurry of news about the arrest of Najibullah Zazi earlier in September. After tailing Zazi for some time as he traveled between Denver, Pakistan, and New York, the FBI searched Zazi’s rental car and found handwritten instructions for building and detonating a bomb.

As an office building owner or office property manager, should you respond to news of law enforcement’s interest in Zazi and subsequent security bulletins?

Security Measures
Basic physical security techniques and technologies include physical barriers, electronic access-control systems, and video-surveillance cameras.

Iconic buildings may go further at times of great risk. “On 9/11, the Sears Tower was the second tallest building in the United States,” Grniet says. “It was an iconic structure in a major financial center, and it was prudent for the security director to deploy X-ray and magnetometer machines, and screen everyone coming into the building. After 7 years, they cut back to screen visitors only.”

Grniet’s recommended that building security follow the same pattern of tightening and loosening as threat levels change. Of course, not everyone needs X-ray machines and magnetometers. Depending on the security assessment, a building might control access with optical turnstiles.

“During periods of low threat, the turnstile barriers may be left wide open, and no one needs to use a card,” Grniet says. “When the threat level rises, the barriers close and tenants must card in. Visitors must use visitor passes to card in.”

At a higher threat level, the policy may tighten again by refusing access to all visitors. At the highest level, only essential people get in: the building’s IT manager and maintenance manager, for instance. If an attack is imminent, only law enforcement and the owner have access.

“You can change the operation of technology to fit the threat for a building as well as the parking garage,” Grniet says. “Just after 9/11, you might have installed barriers in front of the garage entrance. As the threat level declined, you might remove the barriers.”

To Grniet, responding to a rising threat level is chiefly a job of counter-surveillance carried out by people: security guards. “Suppose there is a major hotel or entertainment zone adjacent to your building,” he says. “When law enforcement issues a security bulletin that calls out hotels and entertainment zones, as well as sports stadiums and mass transit, counter-surveillance becomes key.”

What is counter-surveillance? “It’s using security officers and video systems to look for suspicious people,” Grniet says. “High-profile buildings do this all the time. If you’re taking photos of the Willis Tower and making notes, a security officer will probably ask you what you’re doing. A student working on a project or a tourist will probably be glad to talk. A terrorist getting to know the neighborhood might act suspicious.”

Grniet also recommended sharing counter-surveillance findings with neighbors and with law enforcement, noting that, if you can identify an attacker before the attack, you can stop it.

Michael Fickes is a freelance writer and owner of Fickes & Co. Inc., a Baltimore publishing firm with experience in the security industry.

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