Building Emergency Preparedness – Whose Responsibility Is It?

(Are You (or Is Your Building) Prepared to Survive an Attack?)

In the wake of what seems to be ever-increasing nation-wide shootings, bombings, vehicular assaults, and other attacks, everyone from the government, to building owners, school administrators and business owners are trying to determine how to keep people safe from these tragedies.

It’s near impossible to discuss this topic without touching on a political nerve, but from a practical standpoint, it needs to be said that the mere passing of a law or multitudes of laws, have been shown to be somewhat ineffective to date. And most laws being proposed as of this writing, show little sign of being more effective than what we currently have.

Let’s face it, we already have laws against killing one-another, with extremely severe penalties. If these laws (and resulting penalties) fail to deter someone from committing murder, the notion of outlawing firearms within certain buildings (or altogether), even with strong penalties, is not likely to deter someone who has chosen to go on a suicidal killing spree. And, even if firearms were completely unavailable, attacks like the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 show us that a determined individual can find any one of several weapons to cause horrific destruction.

Certainly, all of us can play a role, but whose responsibility is it to keep the occupants of a building safe? The government? Building owner? Business Owner? Building Designer?

I might suggest that each of these groups/individuals (and possibly others) could and should have a role in the process of keeping us all safe in the public spaces we frequent. Experts tell us that among the solutions, both building design and/or management, as well as prevention and preparedness planning should play a role.

The most effective solution would be to develop strategies centered around both approaches.

First, formulating a plan for your organization, involving policies to facilitate incident prevention, as well as action plans in the case of a catastrophic event, is critically important. And, there are many security experts out there who can help develop these plans.

Secondly, perform a risk assessment of your facilities, aimed at creating a designed environment which prevents, deters, delays or protects against such attacks. Such evaluations are decidedly easier to perform at the outset of a new building design process. However, modifications to existing buildings can, and should be considered, as well.

So, what roll should our design professionals play in this discussion? Many effective strategies can be implemented within the design process for a new building, or the renovation of an existing building.

Needless to say, not all building types are the same, and some have more vulnerable occupants or occupancy types than others (e.g., schools, hospitals, government buildings, sports venues, airports, etc.).

However, the approach can be relatively simple.

  1. Design to prevent an attack from breaching the building or property, using surveillance, and/or creating limited access through physical barriers, and hardened entrances.
  2. Design to deter an attack (if the attacker perceives that his efforts will be ineffective, or that he may be caught before reaching his objective, he may be deterred).
  3. Design to delay an attack, (such as creating operable barriers, like security doors, to impede an attacker’s movement through the facility) such that minimal destruction/casualties are incurred before first-responders can arrive.
  4. Design to protect against an attack (providing escape routes or secure, hardened spaces), such that occupants can effectively and quickly flee to safety, or shield-in-place.

Many design solutions exist to facilitate these strategies. And, while some may increase new building construction costs, or require upgrades to existing buildings, it goes without saying that the trade-off is decidedly worth the expense.

Moreover, some of these solutions are relatively inexpensive, if not free (e.g., locking doors not needed for ingress, so that security can be concentrated on a single access point).

How (and can) the building codes be updated to improve the safety of building occupants?

Given that model building codes are largely about public safety, it is the writer’s opinion that it is only a matter of time before building codes will not only prescribe new security provisions but will require them as a part of the building design.

Even before that day, it is likely that these solutions will become “standard of care” within the design profession.