Tales of Twisters
On May 8, 2014, tornado sirens were activated in Dallas, Texas, and people in the area received a tornado warning alert on their cell phones from the National Weather Service. In one of the city’s many downtown skyscrapers, Ross Tower, the alerts triggered a mass exodus of personnel to the lobby level. Even though the public address announcement instructed people to move to the core of the building and stairwells while staying on their current floor level, occupants disregarded the directions and came all the way down to the lobby. Fortunately, the property is equipped with a basement, and the security team and staff members were able to usher personnel to that safe area until the storm had passed.
When severe weather or tornadoes are imminent, it is imperative that building occupants know where to find safety within the building, especially in a high-rise structure. Training, a key factor in making every occupant of a property aware of severe weather procedures, reduces the risk of injury or death. A safety and security strategy for a multi-tenant office building like Ross Tower also has to include ways to get tenants to understand their role in helping those in their charge to move to a safe haven.
Security directors at Ross Tower learned critical lessons from the 2014 tornado and the ones that preceded it. The most important were finding reliable weather information, ensuring that the structure is designed to withstand extreme weather, establishing a safe place for personnel, and understanding the nature of response after an emergency.
Security managers must ensure that they have the most up-to-date information on the storm. The most accurate and reliable means of receiving critical weather information is through a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio with a tone alert feature. Audible, up-to-date warnings arrive directly from the National Weather Service (NWS). These radios can be purchased in electronics stores and generally cost between $50 and $70. When NWS issues a tornado warning, a loud tone alert is instantly sounded, followed by warning information. If a NOAA radio is unavailable, local television and radio stations also communicate emergency alert system messages. However, if a facility is located in an area prone to extreme weather, a NOAA radio should be standard security equipment.
The standard procedure during a severe weather event at Ross Tower is to evacuate people to stairwells and to the center core of the building, far away from glass, curtain walls, and other dangerous materials that might become airborne during high winds. The lower floors of a building are usually the safest, because upper floors receive the full strength of the winds, causing the building to twist and glass to break. However, as evidenced by the example of employees gathering in the unsafe lobby area, a secondary safe area must also be designated in case the primary safe area cannot be accessed. If a building has only one floor and no basement, look for sturdy building elements that can improve the chances for occupant survival.
On March 28, 2000, a tornado touched down in Fort Worth, Texas, creating a 4-mile swath of destruction through the city, causing damage to the downtown high-rise buildings. The F3 tornado killed two people and injured 80, and the heavy rain and hail that followed damaged many interior areas of buildings exposed by the tornado’s winds. Shards of glass and other debris were strewn throughout the city. At the time of this devastation, first responders, such as property managers, security managers, and building engineers, were unable to access the ravaged areas or their respective buildings. The incident commanders on site would not let anyone into downtown who was not a member of local law enforcement or a government official.
A system was put in place to allow essential facility personnel access to a property so that assistance could be administered. Local businesses, including Trammell Crow Company, which managed the Bank One Building at the time, devised a plan and worked with city officials in Dallas to develop an ID badge for property managers, security managers, and engineering staff to gain access in the event of a critical incident such as a tornado or major fire. This badge is issued by the Dallas Police Department and the Dallas Emergency Response Team and is updated every two years. In the event of a critical incident, the badge can be shown to an incident commander on site and access is allowed—not only for the bearer, but for any personnel that accompany the badge holder. This system was in place in 2014 and helped security professionals access their facilities.
Fire wardens or tenant managers are on hand to account for workers, visitors, and customers as they arrive in the safe area—the stairwell or core of the building. They are equipped with a prepared employee roster to conduct a head count.
At this point, the fire wardens check to determine whether any employees are injured—sometimes individuals are injured without knowing it. Seriously injured people are not moved unless they are in immediate danger of further injury or a worsening of their condition. If medical assistance is needed, the fire wardens will appoint someone to call 911, and allow only trained individuals to administer CPR or first aid.
It is important that property managers use their deep knowledge of the building in the aftermath of a tornado to thwart other risks. For example, Ross Tower has two restaurants that use gas, so security personnel are aware that, if they smell gas, they need to locate the gas cutoffs to avoid further danger.
Ross Tower avoided significant damage in 2014, but if the tornado had caused extensive destruction, it would have taken time for the company’s incident commander to arrive on the scene. In the interim, it is the security manager’s duty to report any significant damage, including loss of power, gas leaks, and water main breaks.
In some cases, the destruction may take place after hours or while a tenant is away. In such a case, a tenant contact list is divided among staff members who can contact each tenant manager to ensure they are aware of the emergency. They are advised of any damage to their space, as well as water disruptions, window breakages, or power outages. The tenant will want to get back to business as usual as soon as possible, but when the incident commander is on site, it will be his or her decision to permit access to the building.
As a security director, it is important to know who the vendor is for remediation and who to call for the clean-up process. Clean-up and restoration are vital in returning a building to its normal day-to-day operations.
After the May 2014 tornado, Ross Tower updated its severe weather response to address the crowds in the lobby. It was a small but significant fix—turning off the lobby televisions. Employees were slow to move to safety because they were distracted by televisions providing up-to-the-minute weather forecasts.
John M. Hewitt, CPP, is a security director at Ross Tower in Dallas, Texas. He works for iidon Security Associates.