High-Rise Security Remains in the Spotlight

Oct. 27, 2008
Old concerns and new NIST recommendations make skyscrapers tough customers for security.

High-rises have been and continue to be the subjects of dynamic regulatory processes. Building code revisions have often followed disasters such as the deadly 1980 fire in the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, the 9-11 tragedy at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the Cook County Administration Building fire in Chicago in October 2003.

In that most recent disaster, six employees perished because they had been trapped behind locked stairwell doors and unable to exit the building. Three weeks after the fires, the city of Chicago adopted new standards for high-rises that mandated stairway re-entry either through a fail-safe electronic lock release system or through a policy of keeping stairwell doors unlocked.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) unveiled a 10,000-page report in June on the collapse of the Twin Towers, which is chock full of recommendations for building and safety code changes for skyscrapers.

Undoubtedly, the primary reason for all this regulation is the sheer magnitude of the high-rise building, coupled with its inherent characteristics—multiple floors and, most often, multiple tenants. These lead to special access control and other security challenges.

Quick and Thorough Access
The challenges begin in the building lobby. With large numbers of individuals arriving during the morning rush hour, access control needs to be thorough, but convenient and quick for employees entering the building. One solution that is gaining popularity in high-rises is the use of optical turnstiles. Turnstiles enable quick access; some offer throughput of 45 to 60 people per minute per unit. Many work with a variety of access control technologies.

The units provide the ability to ensure that each person is identified by either a card, a biometric or a PIN as he or she comes through the lane. Because turnstiles allow only one person through at a time, they help to safeguard against piggybacking—an authorized card holder opening the door for someone they know. Turnstiles may also offer anti-passback capability, which prohibits users from using the same card for multiple successive entries.

While most people think of turnstiles as metal bars that flip downward when pushed (such as those used in train or subway stations and ballparks), they actually come in several styles. Some are open lanes that don’t use barriers (such as optical turnstiles), others use wing-style retractable barriers, and still others use glass barriers that open and close for each person. When installing any type of turnstile, one must consider applicable codes and ADA requirements as well as a method for visitor control.

Visitor Management
In addition to access control devices, most high-rise buildings have uniformed security guards in the lobby to control visitor access. Some companies have instituted visitor management systems, many of which enable companies to electronically scan a visitor’s ID (driver’s license or business card) to acquire relevant information about the guest and store it in a database. Many such systems can produce high-quality visitor ID badges for guests. Some also allow companies to maintain an exclusion list of photos and names of individuals not welcome at the organization, and these can often link to national watch list databases.

The Ups and Downs of Elevators
Electronic access control for elevators is a good companion to other forms of security access measures. Using a programmable card reader, businesses can designate exactly which floors employees or visitors will be able to access via the elevator. This comes in particularly handy in multi-tenant buildings, where several businesses may be housed on each floor.

Employees using the elevator present their card to a card reader pre-programmed to allow them access only to their company’s floor. If they push a button to go to a different floor, the elevator will not respond. In the case of visitors, temporary cards can be issued by lobby personnel enabling access only to a specific area.

Elevator access control’s weak spot is tailgating. This occurs when individuals follow authorized users out of the elevator onto floors they are not authorized to visit. This often happens unintentionally, but it can also be a method used by thieves to access office areas.

Various back-up measures may be used to help offset this risk. For instance, cameras can be installed in elevator lobbies to record the actions of unauthorized individuals. But without constant monitoring, this only offers a record of the unauthorized activity.

Elevators can be designed to open onto lobbies with access-controlled doors, which afford an additional layer of security. Alternatively, building floors can be designed such that the elevator empties into a public corridor, from which access-controlled office doors can be opened only by authorized employees. This arrangement eliminates a “captive” elevator lobby by allowing direct access to fire stairwells from the lobby. Unfortunately, it also consumes valuable square footage and can require more readers and cost.

Locked Stairwells?
Stairwells are extremely important for ensuring the safe and orderly escape of employees in the event of a fire. They are also an important part of the security picture, since they offer another possible access point for unauthorized individuals.

For years, many businesses used stairwell doors only for emergency exit purposes. This meant the doors were continuously unlocked into the stair and continuously locked from the stair into the office space. While this is still the norm in many cities, several major cities have changed ordinances to ensure that people can re-enter the building through stairwell doors at points other than the ground floor.

This is being accomplished through a variety of means. Some cities require that all stairwell doors automatically unlock in the event of a fire or power outage. Others require that the doors can be unlocked by a central source, such as the fire command center. Still others mandate two-way intercom communication from inside the stairwell that links to a 24-hour command center, which can unlock the doors. These requirements may apply to all stair doors in some environments, or only designated re-entry floors in other environments.

Building Codes
The various rules about stairwells highlight the importance of building codes, which are an integral component of any security plan. Business owners need to keep in mind that building codes vary from city to city, not only in content, but in interpretation. The National Fire Protection Association and the International Code Council adopt model codes, which local and state governments use as templates for their own codes. However, local officials may modify these for their city or county’s particular circumstances.

Also, the interpretation of the codes can vary from official to official. The code enforcement agency (also referred to as the authority having jurisdiction or AHJ) may also vary by jurisdiction, which means building owners may work with the planning and development department, building inspection department or fire department officials depending on the building’s locale. So how does a businessperson wade through the various rules and regulations to ensure the company is in compliance?

Selecting a Security Professional
When dealing with a high-rise structure, a business owner or security director would be wise to select a security integrator from the local area who is familiar with the codes, issues and concerns of the various local building and fire officials. Also, be sure to look for an integrator with a track record of success in high-rise projects. Designing a security plan for a high-rise is a complicated undertaking and not for the inexperienced. Find an individual who has experience successfully working with elevator companies and other trades. These are key relationships in designing a strong security system.

The integrator selected should be sensitive to a multi-tenant environment and understand the priorities and pressures of the property management firm. This includes things like ensuring the system is easy to operate and fits within budget constraints. Not all high-rise structures have dedicated security managers, and the task of system operation and administration may fall to other property management’s personnel or contract security officers. The system selected should match the environment in flexibility and complexity.

If you’re dealing with new high-rise construction, bring in the security integrator early on in the process. A facility’s design can significantly impact both the cost and capabilities of a security system. For instance, a decision as simple as whether to use an electronic door lock in an elevator lobby can impact things such as the need for additional smoke detectors and fire pull stations and signage. A good integrator will know how to balance the safety needs and security needs of the facility to ensure a highly secure and efficient environment.

Bill Savage is a founder and past president of SecurityNet, a network of North America’s top systems integrators. For the past 22 years he has served as president of Security Control Systems Inc., a systems integrator and SecurityNet member serving clients in the Southwest United States with offices in Houston, Dallas and Austin, TX.

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