Physical Security: Are We Protecting People or Trapping Them?

Although access control solutions can save lives, when inappropriately deployed, they could prevent or delay evacuation, placing more people in harm’s way.

Physical Security: Are We Protecting People or Trapping Them?

I have been asked repeatedly about physical building security and its relationship to active shooter scenarios and terrorism. In studying and working firsthand with several facilities that have installed perimeter fencing, placed security or ballistic film over windows and doors, remodeled facility entrances, installed man-trap doors, etc. with the belief that these enhanced physical security measures will slow down or stop an intruder from entering a facility, questions begin to arise.

Will these prevent the ingress of intruders, thus addressing the problem, or might they hinder the ability to safely evacuate people? Are these enhancements potentially hindering the law enforcement and fire/rescue/EMS response to these types of critical incidents?

As a law enforcement professional, I am not against the judicious application of physical security measures as they relate to the saving of lives. However, research has shown that things restricting the evacuation of a facility can have catastrophic results.

Evacuation Should Be a Campus’ First Response

Current official recommendations from agencies like the Department of Education, Department of Homeland Security, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommend evacuation of the facility as the primary response for these types of incidents. The thought process is simple, if you are not there, you cannot be killed. It also is the only way lockdown/barricade, as an option, has a chance of succeeding. If most of the facility is empty, the attacker is forced to go into search mode to attempt to find victims and then has to expend time and energy breaching. Chaos in the initial moments of the incident due to people evacuating works in favor of potential victims. This early pandemonium hinders the attacker, who is unable to focus on several things at once.

In traditional lockdown paradigms, every room is full of potential victims, who, a) have been trained to sit in the dark, b) not move, c) remain silent. This provides the attacker with a target-rich environment requiring no time on his/her part to locate potential victims. It also provides no recommendation on what potential victims should do when in contact with an aggressor.

It is highly likely many students and faculty will not be in locations appropriate for lockdown-style tactics. Hallways, cafeterias, gyms, auditoriums, outside of buildings, etc. are all locations where lockdown has no application given the often numerous access points. Conducting a “reverse fire drill” to bring people back into the building or to attempt to have them relocate and making them stay in the building is counterproductive to survival for this type of incident.

School Shooters are Usually Students

The 2002 Secret Service Study indicates that the overwhelming majority of school shooters are current or former students. They already know the facility, where the people are, have scouted the location, and, most importantly, belong there. This figure does not change greatly when applied to locations other than schools.

Perimeter fencing may neutralize some types of threats away from facility grounds but will not usually stop this type of attacker because they belong at the venue. Additionally, several fences are being designed with only one or two ingress points, which also act as egress locations. In my experience, I have only observed a handful of fences that have multiple egress points. If a mass evacuation occurred at these facilities, people may become trapped along the fence lines, and the few egress points would potentially be clogged with evacuees. This type of scenario would greatly benefit the attacker(s) and could provide a target rich environment on the same level as traditional single response lockdown. In fact, fire codes have specifically been designed to prevent this type of situation during a fire evacuation.

Placing multiple gates allowing egress from the perimeter would ensure faster evacuation from the facility. These gates should be limited to egress for civilians and should only have an ingress function for arriving emergency responders. Making allowances for mass evacuation ensures arriving police, fire and EMS units entering the scene 5-10 minutes later will not encounter blocked ingress points or mass casualties outside of the facility. It would also allow law enforcement to enter grounds without unduly exposing and slowing officer’s approaches by making them scale fences.

Only Apply Window Film Where Appropriate

Another major issue is the liberal application of safety or ballistic film over perimeter windows. In a mass evacuation, windows may be used as exits. Buildings having windows capable of human egress are not a concern. However, many facilities have windows that open only enough to allow minimal airflow. In more modern constructed buildings, greater emphasis is placed on heating and cooling conservation. These windows have minimal to no openings and would have to be shattered by occupants to allow an emergency exit.

Covering these windows with safety or ballistic film could effectively trap room occupants and could create a kill box for the active shooter or terrorist when it is breached under traditional lockdown. It also could have a debilitating effect on responding fire or law enforcement. Breaching of the facility by fire personnel would be time-consuming if the interior hallways were not useable as evacuation routes for trapped occupants. Rooms could quickly become filled with smoke and extremely difficult to ventilate.

Law enforcement would be severely impacted if engagement from the perimeter of the building was limited. Breaching windows to gain entry or engage threats inside of rooms would be extremely difficult. In a Beslan (School siege, 2004) style operation, the buildings physical security measures could result in fortification for the terrorists and restrict the ability of law enforcement to
respond. These types of actions give the terrorists large numbers of trapped civilian hostages, a situation which rarely ends well.

Shatterproof or ballistic film can be an appropriate security measure when used on hallway door glass and hallway windows. It would slow down the intruders while still allowing for a mass evacuation from rooms. It could also assist those who could not leave by temporarily securing their location. Facility access/egress doors and windows in close proximity may also be locations for this type of security measure. This approach would strike the delicate balance between over-securing a location and not taking any physical security measures at all.

Aggressors Modify Their Tactics to Fit Circumstances

Some publications are placing greater emphasis on preventing ingress following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It has been my experience that the aggressor will always find a way to adapt their tactics to non-adaptable physical security or non-option based plans. The Virginia Tech gunman carried out his attack based on his expectations of lockdown tactics being employed by his victims. In almost every instance, his expectations were met by his victims. During the same incident, rooms that adapted response before contact or just after contact experienced fewer casualties.

The fact remains that most attend the school or work in the facilities allowing most incidents to begin inside, not outside. Planning should be for the next incident, not the last. The real bad guys are studying and learning. Our training and physical security should not be helping them.

 Joseph A. Hendry formerly served at a lieutenant with the Kent State Police Department. He is now senior director of onsite services for Navigate360. This article originally ran in 2014.

The views expressed by guest contributors are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Campus Safety magazine.

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