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Sept 06: Security & Terrorism: Lessons Learned from Sept. 11

Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA Principal
Barbara Nadel Architect
New York City

Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, specializes in planning and design of justice, healthcare, and institutional facilities. Since founding Barbara Nadel Architect (BNA) in 1992, she has provided programming, master planning, design, pre-construction, operational analysis, value engineering, expert witness, and editorial services to clients nationwide and in Puerto Rico.

Full Biography

Security and Terrorism: Lessons Learned from September 11
By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, journalist Thomas Friedman describes how technical advances in the digital revolution have made it possible to do business instantly with billions of other people around the world. Globalization, says Friedman, is not driven by major corporations, superpowers, or developing nations, but by desktop freelancers and start-ups all over the world who can compete for low-wage manufacturing, information labor, and even outsourced design work from American consulting firms. He cites “mutant supply chains” like Al-Queda that enable small groups to make a big, destructive impact.

Five years after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., the world of terrorism has also gotten flatter. Any group of individuals seeking to do harm anywhere in the world, from Miami and Chicago to London and Madrid, can phone in threats to public venues, hatch horrific plans on their laptop computers, andcoordinate and execute terrorism logistics, schedules, financing, and budgets on websites and by cell phone and e-mail. Worse yet, improved explosive devices (IEDs), often used by terrorists, can be homemade and delivered via backpacks, cars, and through other familiar items.

Terrorism is a 21st-century reality, the dark side of globalization. Terrorist acts can come from various sources and countries, homegrown or foreign-born, some with deep pockets, others with extremist political views, delusions of grandeur and martyrdom. What these would-be perpetrators often share is their desire to destroy symbols of American democracy, and Americans. Their targets have typically been national icons, landmarks, civic buildings, financial centers, certain ethnic and religious groups, or those holding beliefs at odds with their own.

During Summer 2006, thwarted plans to attack airliners from London en route to the United States and blow up U.S. landmarks and federal buildings served as a stark reminder of the importance of preemptive intelligence gathering. In late August, authorities revealed a Miami-based plot to wage jihad on America. The group’s ringleader was caught on tape with an FBI informant discussing potential landmarks to target for massive attack, including New York’s Empire State Building, Chicago’s Sears Tower, and the Miami Federal Complex, where he was also secretly videotaped casing the facility. It soon became clear to authorities that this alleged terror cell lacked any concrete plans, resources, contacts with terrorist networks, or equipment.

There may come a day when the plot is not discovered and averted early enough, and the cell is more organized, has more resources and suicide bombers, with the goal of inflicting substantial damage. From Oklahoma City to Columbine, CO, America saw that terrorism could happen anywhere, in the heartland or the urban centers.

“Just like Hurricane Katrina, we should all be ready for the day we have our own Sept. 11, which may not be from foreign-born terrorists, and may be done by our own domestic terrorists. We have plenty of them around,” says Charles Harper, FAIA, former chair of the AIA Disaster Response Committee, and principal, Charles Harper FAIA Architect, Wichita Falls, TX.

Risk Assessment
The major issue facing building owners, facility managers, and design professionals after Sept. 11 is finding the balance between security and openness, and between allowing public access to facilities, while assuming the responsibility of protecting the public and building occupants from harm. There are risks of not doing so in the post-9/11 world. 

Educating owners, consultants, and emerging design professionals in how to perform property risk assessments for security, crime, and natural disasters should be an essential part of every building industry professional practice curriculum.

Many building owners, especially in major cities, have added visible landscape design elements, such as bollards, barriers, planters, fountains, and setbacks (known as standoff) to mitigate the impact of vehicular bombs and IEDs, currently believed to be among the major threats to cities. These elements reflect concern on the part of public- and private-sector owners about their responsibilities in protecting the public and building occupants against terrorist threats and their own potential liability exposure should something occur. Blast impact to nearby structures can be significantly reduced by adding distance from the source of an explosive to the building exterior.

Failure to provide appropriate precautions to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack or catastrophic emergency, especially in an area or environment that has experienced similar occurrences, warnings, and threats, can result in significant risks and liability issues for those who can be held responsible for protecting public health, safety, and welfare. Building owners, facility managers, design professionals, agencies, and public officials must remain aware of such possibilities, because their actions (or lack thereof) in protecting their facilities, occupants, and employees, will likely be subjected to scrutiny by victims and their families, attorneys, and the courts after a terrorist attack.

Liability Issues
In legal terms, the standard of care has risen after Sept. 11, 2001, with important consequences for the building industry, regardless of building type. “The law imposes on an owner the duty to provide security for building occupants that meets the ‘standard of care.’ Two key concepts are ‘proximity’ and ‘similarity.’ Courts consider proximity by analyzing security measures implemented by owners of nearby properties. Courts may also review similar types of property; an urban college complex may be compared to another, even if it is in a totally separate part of town,” says New York City construction attorney Noelle Lilien, Esq., Zetlin & De Chiara LLP.

“In negligent security cases involving acts of terror, the question of whether the crime or act of terror was foreseeable and whether the owner met the standard of care will be determined based on the specific facts and circumstances surrounding that case. There are no bright-line rules for owners to follow. Given the evolving nature of negligent security law as it relates to terrorism and the consequences of being held liable for injuries arising from a terror attack, owners are advised to work with security experts and legal counsel to determine the level of risk at a particular property and the reasonable steps that the owner should take to protect the property and its occupants,” Lilien adds.

No Single Security Code
A comprehensive security plan encompasses design, technology, and operations. 

  • Design covers architecture, engineering, landscape architecture, and interior design.
  • Technology includes electronic devices, such as cameras and card readers.
  • Operations refers to the policies and procedures developed and implemented by building owners and facility managers, such as fire drills, determining access in and around a building, and emergency response procedures.

The challenge for many unfamiliar with security issues lies in determining what owners, architects, engineers, and planning professionals should do vs. what they need to do in order to protect their facilities, people, and major assets. There is no single security code in the United States to refer to. Instead, building industry professionals must stay current on their own, and rely on a patchwork of public agency recommendations, industry standards, guidelines, local building codes, best practices, professional resources, and continuing education to understand what is involved and required. Liability insurance carriers and construction attorneys can also provide additional guidance.

Egress Systems
Whether from terrorism acts, fires, explosions, or natural disasters, there are times when occupants must get out of a building quickly and safely. Exiting, or egress, is an essential part of security planning and design, and an area that is covered in most building and life-safety codes.

Examining egress systems for high-rise commercial buildings was among the most important lessons learned from the collapse of the World Trade Center. The issues surrounding the size, widths, locations, and materials of the stairwells and elevator shafts at the World Trade Center have been well documented. Many people were able to evacuate the building rapidly, but the stairs were inappropriately designed to allow ascending fire fighters and first responders to navigate their way through hundreds of people descending the stairs while trying to escape a burning building.

“The evacuation of high-rise buildings is being seen with new perspective, as a system. Occupant egress and evacuation systems should be efficient, robust, redundant, and tenable, creating a flow that is wide, unimpeded, well lit, and free of smoke. The system should be designed so that the occupant travels from their floor to the street in the minimum possible time, while being exposed to the fewest possible hazards,” says Carl Galioto, FAIA, partner, Skidmore Owings & Merrill, LLP, New York.

In October 2004, as a result of the events at the World Trade Center, New York City amended its building code to reflect the recommendations of over 400 building industry leaders. Known as Local Law 26, this code amendment addresses many aspects of high-rise commercial buildings to enhance security and fire safety, from exit signs, egress, stair widths, and materials, to retroactive installation of sprinklers and application of photoluminescent strips in stairs and corridors.

The Minimal Impact of 9/11 on Educational Programs
With few notable exceptions, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 appear to have had surprisingly little impact on higher education institutions, regarding development of new programs.

According to Vincent E. Henry, CPP, PhD, Associate Professor and Director, Homeland Security Management Institute, at Long Island University, Southampton, NY, “While many institutions continue to seek federal, state, and private funding for research projects in areas of Homeland Security and terrorism, only a handful of universities across the nation have thus far acted to develop and implement relevant educational programs in the Homeland Security arena. The majority of programs created since 9/11 exist at the community college level and are geared to meeting the education and training needs of first responders rather than developing the skills and knowledge required of effective managers and directors in the homeland security fields.”

“Nearly 5 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Long Island University’s Homeland Security Management Institute remains the only institution in New York State to offer a fully registered and accredited Masters degree program in Homeland Security, as well as a fully registered and accredited graduate level Advanced Certificate in Homeland Security Management. Both programs are offered in a completely online format,” Henry adds.

“The realities of the post-9/11 world have impacted every sector of the economy and virtually every discipline and area of study in the university structure, yet I see few institutions or academic departments incorporating these realities within their respective curricula. Are schools of architecture teaching anything about target hardening, contemporary security requirements, or environmental designs that discourage criminal and terrorist activity? Have medical and nursing schools incorporated curriculum dealing with bioterrorism or weapons of mass destruction? Have psychology and social work departments introduced courses and clinical practicums in disaster mental health?” asks Henry.

Providing affirmative answers to these questions and educating the next generation of Americans on the many aspects of Homeland Security would be among the most meaningful and important legacies to the victims, families, and survivors of 9/11, well before the 10-year anniversary in 2011 rolls around. 

Adams, CPP, Walter “Skip,” and Deborah A. Somers, Chapter 30, “Codes, Standards, and Guidelines for Security Planning and Design,” Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design, Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, ed., McGraw-Hill, 2004. Overview and compendium of most commonly used and widely accepted industry security standards.

Friedman, Thomas L., The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2006, updated.

Galioto, FAIA, Carl, Chapter 5, “Commercial High-Rise Egress Systems,” Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design, Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, ed., McGraw-Hill, 2004. Elements of an effective egresssystem, based on the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

Lilien, Noelle, Esq., “Jury Sends Warning Notice to New York Commercial Property Owners: Failure to Properly Secure Property Against Threat of Terrorism Could Prove Costly,” Zetlin & De Chiara LLP Newsletter, 2006, Volume 11, Number 1. http://www.zdlaw.com/newsletters/2006_volume11_num1.pdf

Nadel, FAIA, Barbara A., editor in chief., Chapter 1, “Lessons Learned from September 11, 2001 and other Benchmark Events;” Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design, McGraw-Hill, 2004.

Zetlin, Michael S, Esq., and Noelle Lilien, Esq., Chapter 31, “Liability Exposure After September 11, 2001”, Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design, Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, ed., McGraw-Hill, 2004. Comprehensive discussion of issues and recommendations to reduce liability for owners and design professionals.