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The Trends on Top

Providing security in a high-rise environment can be a great challenge. Experts say that protecting high-rise facilities—whether they be office buildings, residential towers, or hotels—is a multitiered process, which involves emphasizing customer service, adapting to new attitudes, assessing risk, leveraging technology, and maintaining up-to-date emergency preparedness plans.

Customer Service

Even among other high-rises, Chicago’s Willis Tower is a giant; at 110 stories, it’s the 11th tallest building in the world, and the second-tallest in America—eclipsed only by New York’s One World Trade Center. It’s the workplace for more than 13,000 occupants, and its skydeck—a glass balcony that allows intrepid visitors to peer 103 floors straight down—is visited by roughly 1.5 million tourists each year. In such a uniquely dense space, maintaining smooth, stable day-to-day operations is critical. “Customer service is huge in a high-rise. Huge. It’s paramount,” says Keith Kambic, CPP, the director of security for the Willis Tower since 2006.

Ted Lotti, security director at another iconic high-rise, New York’s Hearst Tower, has a similar view. “You have to be alert at all times, and be aware of your surroundings. Then, it’s 90 percent customer service,” according to Lotti.

Opened in 2006, Hearst Tower was built upon six stories of the original International Magazine Building, which William Randolph Hearst had constructed in 1928. The tower now serves as the 46-story global headquarters for the Hearst Corporation, a media and information company that owns dozens of newspapers and television stations and publishes magazines such as Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan.

The Hearst Tower features a movie theater, broadcast newsroom, three-story atrium, and various meeting and dining rooms. A steady stream of guests come for magazine launch parties, film previews, and receptions. “When you walk into a building, the first face you see is a security officer. You want the interaction to be a pleasant experience,” says Lotti. Customer service is always emphasized in the training of security officers and building engineers, he adds.

Moreover, first-rate customer service has a real deterrent effect on potential criminal activity in a high-rise building, experts say. “Customer service relates directly to the realm of security. Eye contact and a smile at points of access—that’s a challenge to someone who is trying to breach the environment. The person who is trying to perpetrate a crime does not want to be noticed,” says Mark Wright, the director of security for Brookfield Properties in the Houston region.

Shifting Attitudes

While the value of customer service has remained constant, the broader environment in which high-rise security is practiced has changed, Wright says. Ten years ago, in the wake of 9-11, security was an immensely popular topic among occupants of high-rise buildings. Wright remembers training sessions he led at the time in which participants were at maximum receptivity for life-security information. “After 9-11, the rooms were packed, the interest was incredible, the questions were amazing. People’s imaginations were obviously fired up,” Wright says.

More than a decade later, that urgency has lessened. “We’re back into the mode of where we really have to sell the concept,” he says. “It’s as if you had the auto accident 12 years ago. Now you’re changing lanes without putting your directional signal on.” 

And the populations that work and live in high-rise buildings are also changing, which affects high-rise security, Wright says. Because of demographic changes, “millennials” will constitute more than one-third of the U.S. workforce this year, and these under-34 workers bring with them a new set of generational views. In their eyes, improved security surveillance through better technology is not always a good thing, and this could make for pushback down the road.

“I think with everything we have in the press about the NSA [National Security Agency], the assumption is that there are cameras everywhere. And among the young generation…there’s a good deal of resentment about that. It’s an important thing to realize the attitudes of the new people that are going to be comprising our workforce,” Wright says. 

The new generation is changing high-rise security in other ways as well, he adds. High-rise building lobbies have traditionally served as functional waiting areas for those with appointments. As a result, the design of those spaces was usually somewhat “stark and austere,” Wright says. But many younger workers prefer a more socially conducive lobby, with “huddle areas” and Wi-Fi access. These areas serve as gathering places where people can congregate and use their tablets or laptops. Building design is adapting to this, as high-rise lobbies are now more likely to be filled with people. Security professionals must adapt to this as well, Wright says, and can no longer assume they are protecting a “nested environment” in a high-rise, with all occupants remaining in their individual offices.

Risk Assessments

Despite these environmental changes, at least one fundamental aspect of high-rise security programs has stayed constant. “It’s all about risk,” says Geoff Craighead, CPP, vice president of Universal Protection Service and author of the book High-Rise Security and Fire Life Safety, now in its third edition. Craighead currently serves as chairman of the board for ASIS International. 

For high-rise owners and managers, security begins with a risk assessment. The risk assessment needs to be paired with the amount of resources available for the security program. “A lot of it is based on the budget. What are you prepared to live with, and what are you prepared not to live with?” Craighead says.

Since assessed risk levels vary widely—not only between regions, but within each region—there’s currently significant variance in office high-rise security in the United States. “It’s all over the map,” Craighead says. Commercial areas in downtown New York City, for example, contain high-rise after high-rise with heavily deployed security technology, including sophisticated access control programs with optical turnstiles and elevators with card reader systems. Los Angeles has more of a mix—some high-rise buildings downtown have comprehensive security, “yet a quarter mile down Wilshire Boulevard, there may be buildings that don’t even have card readers in their elevators,” Craighead says.

In the residential sector, economics plays a major role in high-rise security. “There’s a distinct class difference between luxury class and the less expensive market-rate high-rise residential buildings,” says Daun St. Amand, vice president of RTKL, an architectural firm, and a high-rise residential building expert. Some luxury residential towers have five different points of access security, St. Amand explains: at the front gate, or property boundary; in the main lobby; in the controlled elevators; in the atrium on individual floors which sometimes have their own concierges; and in the unit itself, which has a surveillance system that is monitored on site or remotely.

But five levels of security is beyond the budget of many building managers. This is especially true in the current market, says St. Amand. Although the recession is technically over, the cost of construction is still outpacing income growth. This means that residential high-rise owners and managers are often working with limited available resources for security. Remote monitoring systems for units, atrium security on individual floors, and even elevators with card readers are generally all too costly for most market-rate high-rises, according to St. Amand.

Thus, many market-rate buildings rely on two main access control points: the front door and the concierge in the lobby. As for the latter, some buildings do not have the budget for around-the-clock staffing of the front desk, so they opt instead for more limited staffing with employees who wear several hats. For example, at some buildings, an employee might serve as both leasing office representative and lobby concierge during the same shift.

Technological Trends

While budgetary factors may limit a security program in a high-rise building, technological innovation can expand it. Kambic says that “marrying technology with personnel” in such a way that enhances performance is the overriding trend in high-rise security.

This can be seen in several of the Willis Tower’s nuts-and-bolts security practices, Kambic says. Consider the routine practice of security officers doing their rounds. Traditionally, officers would write reports on any potential problems, then submit the reports to the control room, where they would be recorded and filed. However, about two years ago, these roving guards were given iPad Minis with cameras. Reports are now completed on the iPad; the officer then logs into a secure data management system that houses “virtual binders” and files the report there. Besides the incident reports, the data management system also stores important information, like emergency plans and call lists. 

This new system makes it easier for the officer, and also frees up those working in the control room from the time-consuming administrative tasks of recording and filing incoming reports, allowing them to tackle more productive tasks. “In the end, everybody loves it because it allows them to do their jobs better,” Kambic says.

Similarly, the Willis Tower’s visitor management security system has benefitted from recent advances in technology. The building sees substantial foot traffic—it is visited by roughly 2,000 business guests per day, in addition to the 13,000 regular employees. Take this traffic, and add to it the fact of life that employees tend to forget their badges—an occurrence most common on Mondays, Fridays, and the day after holidays, according to Kambic—and lobby logjams result, as business guests sit and wait while employees needing temporary badges are processed at the front desk.

A few years ago, management implemented a new system. After being checked off a real-time list at the front desk, employees could go to a self-serve kiosk and get a badge and not tie up the front desk. “We’ve effectively managed that logjam in getting people in and out,” Kambic says. More recently, additional advanced technology has also improved the processing of business guests. Such guests are sent an e-mail with a bar code on it, and when they bring this to the building, it streamlines the process of obtaining a guest badge.

On the horizon is a new class of employee badge readers that will accept properly coded smartphones as badges. While those may not be implemented soon, “it’s exciting to know it’s going to go in that direction,” Kambic says.

Emergency Preparedness

Another recent trend in high-rise security addresses a plain fact: high-rise buildings are high. The National Fire Protection Association defines a high-rise as being higher than 75 feet, or about 7 stories. It sounds like a mere truism, but it has serious ramifications when it comes to life safety. “One of the big issues for high-rises is that, because of their vertical nature, there may be delays in getting emergency responders to an upper floor when something happens,” Craighead says. To illustrate this point, the International Conference on Fire Safety in High-Rise Buildings defines a high-rise as “any structure where the height can have a serious impact on evacuation.”

That being the case, a greater emphasis on emergency preparedness has become something of a trend among high-rise managers. “I have definitely seen an improvement in that area,” Craighead says. He notes that he has seen more building managers increasing their efforts to keep their emergency plans up to date. An annual evacuation drill is still frequently considered standard, but in New York, some buildings have moved to quarterly drills, he says.

In addition, more buildings are using technology to offer high-rise occupants educational programs on emergency preparedness. For example, building occupants may be shown a video on emergency preparedness followed by a question-and-answer session with security. Additional security information resources are made available at the end of the session.

In the residential high-rise sector, however, emergency preparedness can be more of a challenge. Because the units are homes, not offices, the mindset of occupants is different, and some residents hunker down and stay put when an emergency alarm goes off. “There’s a real reluctance among some people who actually do not want to evacuate. In a [high-rise] hotel, this is a really big issue,” Craighead says. St. Amand concurs: “You watch all these disasters, like [Hurricane] Sandy, and there’s always a certain population that refuses to leave.”  

But the trends on the residential side are not all negative, experts say. More municipalities are strengthening building fire codes, so that they require working detection systems and fire sprinklers. Some residential buildings are also becoming more innovative in design. For example, they may have alternative evacuation paths for elevated recreational decks, like rooftop pools. These buildings use wall separations that can be opened to allow for larger evacuation corridors.

And, in general, cooperation between government officials and security companies has improved since 9-11, Craighead says, and this has been a positive development for building security programs.

The Future

In looking toward the future, experts say they expect high-rise security to continue to benefit from technological advancement, which is a never-ending process. However, there are two developments plaguing other industries that are also giving high-rise security directors pause: the rise of hacking and the rise of drones.

Hacking has already become a factor in the area of surveillance security. Surveillance technology has improved; an occupant of a residential high-rise can make his or her own remote surveillance system with a smartphone app and a few wireless cameras. “The cost of that technology is going down all the time,” St. Amand says. But now, a concern is starting to spread: if the surveillance feed of a unit is put online, a hacker could access it. 

“Hacking is becoming a huge problem. I wonder if it is going to turn people off to using more of these applications,” St. Amand says.

Further in the future, the use of drones, or some iteration of unmanned device, for surveillance on patrols may become more of an issue in high-rise security, experts say. If such technologies become more sophisticated, it’s possible they could gain more currency on the grounds that they are more cost effective than paying salary and benefits for security personnel.

Kambic, however, says the economic argument is a shortsighted one and is unlikely to gain widespread traction. “This is where a lot of people fail to realize the power of customer service,” he says. “A drone is not going to be able to know who the good guy is, and who the bad guy is.”