Protecting Occupants of High-Rise Buildings

By Rae W. Archibald, Jamison Jo Medby, Brian Rosen, and Jonathan Schachter

Rae Archibald served as deputy fire commissioner for the City of New York during the 1970s and is a recently retired RAND vice president. Jamison Medby is a RAND policy analyst and member of the Los Angeles County Terrorism Early Warning Group. Brian Rosen and Jonathan Schachter are doctoral fellows at the RAND Graduate School.

There is little that a building owner or local government can do to shield high-rise buildings from the kind of catastrophic attacks that occurred on Sept. 11. Mitigating the effects of an attack, therefore, is of paramount concern. Much can be done in this regard.

We base our conclusions on an analysis of high-rise buildings and relevant laws and policies in Los Angeles, although most of our findings can apply to other major cities as well. In Los Angeles, access to most high-rise buildings has been more restricted since Sept. 11 than it was before. Surveillance has been improved. Many building owners have increased the number of security guards. Some owners are implementing new security technologies.

Nevertheless, emergency preparedness plans need to be reviewed and, in some cases, revised. Building occupants also need to learn to play a role in their own safety. Education and training will likely need to become more intensive and frequent than in the past.


Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn, left, and Los Angeles City Fire Chief William Bamattre, right, meet at the city's Library Tower with building owner Rob Maguire on Oct. 23, 2001. They toured downtown high-rise buildings to evaluate safety and evacuation procedures.

To make these things happen, local government and the private sector should assume different but complementary responsibilities. We recommend the following roles for local government:

  • Coordinate threat assessments among law enforcement agencies and building owners.

  • Mandate, subsidize, or directly provide occupants of high-rise buildings with more education and training in emergency preparedness and building evacuation.

  • Mandate more frequent and comprehensive emergency preparedness drills.

  • Make public buildings exemplars of building security.

  • Provide new regulatory oversight of private security firms. Establish guidelines for training security officers. Enforce consistent implementation of security measures.

  • Develop building-access control programs similar to "trusted traveler" programs proposed for airports.

  • Help establish guidelines for reporting suspicious activity.

  • Create a "percent for security" fund, similar to the "one percent for the arts" funds, to promote scientifically sound research and evaluation of security procedures.

We recommend the following actions for building owners:

  • Review evacuation plans to ensure that they are in accord with state-of-the-art security practices and the lessons learned from the World Trade Center disaster. Thousands of lives were saved there in part because of the installation of redundant power and lighting systems, evacuation chairs for the disabled, and reflective paint on evacuation routes—all of which facilitated the large-scale evacuation.

  • Increase the frequency and realism of evacuation drills. Include tenants, staff, and early responders, such as firefighters, police officers, and utility company emergency workers.

  • Establish easily understandable rules for responding to attacks.

  • Educate occupants about the roles they can play and how best to perform them.

  • Update threat assessments regularly. Every building owner and manager should regularly ask the question, "Why might my building specifically be a target?"

  • Formulate emergency plans jointly with public agencies. Include building managers and early responders in this process.

  • Mix low-tech options, such as landscaping with cactus and bougainvillea, with high-tech options, such as surveillance cameras. Occupants will most likely appreciate the added security and possibly maintain a longer-term tenancy.

Chicago can serve as a useful model for building-safety policies. Just seven weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Chicago City Council passed an ordinance that requires and regulates the involvement of high-rise building owners and managers in evacuation planning and training. The ordinance complements a citywide effort, launched in 1998, to assess the threats to high-rise buildings and evaluate their preparedness for terrorist attacks.

In accordance with the earlier initiative, Chicago buildings are classified as low, medium, or high risk. High-risk buildings are then assessed by a Joint Emergency Responder Team, which includes members of the Chicago Police Department, Chicago Fire Department, and the FBI. The assessment serves two purposes. First, it identifies the vulnerabilities to building and security managers, who can then address those vulnerabilities. Second, it provides the Chicago Office of Emergency Communications with a richly detailed set of data for use in the event of a terrorist attack or other disaster. Lower-risk buildings conduct similar self-assessments and submit their results to the Office of Emergency Communications.

Chicago's policies and practices will not be appropriate for every major city. But at the very least, local law enforcement agencies and building owners in each major city should formalize regular communication with one another. A formal dialogue could serve mutually beneficial goals, such as a common understanding of emergency procedures, mutual assistance in identifying dangers, possible development of site-specific exercises, and shared information about updated countermeasures.

Related Reading

"Delgadillo Proposes High-Rise Safety Bill," The Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2002, p. B3.

Security and Safety in Los Angeles High-Rise Buildings After 9/11, Rae W. Archibald, Jamison Jo Medby, Brian Rosen, Jonathan Schachter, RAND/DB-381-BOMA, 2002, 73 pp., ISBN 0-8330-3184-8, $15.00.