Building Managers Plan for the Worst
The 460 people who work in a 12-story office building on Vermont Avenue NW all carry a miniature flashlight on their key chains. If there is a power failure during an attack, they will find their way down stairwells coated with glow-in-the-dark paint.
If an evacuation is deemed necessary, building operators will scan a list of disabled employees to make sure they receive any assistance or special equipment they need to leave the building.
And in the first moments after an attack, people will rip open emergency kits stashed in first-floor fire-control rooms that go beyond the basics to include battery-operated televisions, bullhorns and crowbars.
These are just a few of the security upgrades that John Akridge Cos., the firm that manages the property, has made over the past few months to prepare for a terrorist attack.
Concerned property managers checked buildings for vulnerabilities after Sept. 11, 2001, but the growing likelihood of a war in Iraq and recent terror alerts have prompted many to take a second look. In the year and a half since those attacks, building managers have struggled to keep up with a growing list of chemical, biological and radiological threats that were once inconceivable.
"On my desk, I probably have four emergency preparedness manuals," said Kathy Barnes, head of property management for Akridge.
Workers in commercial or government office buildings or residents of high-rise apartment buildings who are concerned about the threat of terrorism may want to speak to their office administrators or property managers to find out if they are making similar changes. By becoming familiar with safety procedures in advance, tenants and residents may be better equipped to respond in an emergency.
For example, both Akridge and Kaempfer Co., another manager of local office buildings, have modified ventilation systems so they can be turned off at a moment's notice to minimize the intake of airborne biological or chemical weapons agents.
That capability may protect people within a building from exposure for at least several hours, if not more. However, that solution depends on building supervisors learning of an attack in time to shut down the system.
Because there may be no advance warning, several government agencies, including the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, suggest that building operators consider improving buildings' existing filtration systems to catch finer particles. Since those systems are always on, they can provide constant protection against an attack.
"Increasing filter efficiency is one of the few measures that can be implemented in advance" to mitigate the effects of a chemical or biological attack, according to a government report on building security. The full handbook is only 28 pages and is available online at www.cdc.gov/niosh/bldvent/2002-139.html.
In addition to ventilation and filtration systems, government advisory guides stress basic physical building security.
Since Sept.11, more offices and apartment buildings have required photo identification or installed electronic entry systems. But unless employees or residents are also trained to keep out strangers, their effectiveness can be compromised, said Wes Brown, who hunts for holes in building security for Barton Protective Services.
"Seventy or 80 percent of the security breaches we see are human failures," Brown said.
One of the most common ways people undermine multimillion-dollar security systems, he said, is by letting people without authorization follow them through doors or off elevators.
Kaempfer tried to prevent such breaches at its nine area office buildings during the recent Code Orange alert by requiring tenants to register visitors a day in advance and securing loading docks 24 hours a day.
Akridge is compelling all of its building-services workers, including cleaning and garbage-collection crews, to undergo basic security training, such as learning how to identify suspicious packages and respond to bomb threats. Building-maintenance jobs are frequently outsourced, and subcontracted workers can stretch a building's safety net because they are often not subject to the same background checks and training requirements as workers hired directly.
Some apartment buildings have already stopped letting delivery people take their goods straight to residents' doors. At the Lansburgh apartment building on Eighth Street NW, for instance, pizza never makes it past the front desk.
-- Anitha Reddy