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​​​​Every year, 1.7 million tourists visit Willis Tower in Chicago, testing their nerve by stepping onto the glass ledge extending more than four feet from the side of the building’s 103rd floor. (Photo by iStock)​​

How Chicago's Willis Tower Is Renovating Security

​On the ledge, nothing but a glass floor separates you from 1,353 feet of air and the pavement below. The Ledge is a glass box that extends 4.3 feet from Willis Tower, allowing 1.7 million visitors to test their nerve and experience the views from the second tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.

Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) was the tallest building in the world when it was originally constructed in 1970. While tourists come for exhilarating 1,800-feet-per-minute, ear-popping elevator rides to the top and the expansive views of the Chicago skyline, 15,000 people come to the iconic building every day to work. They represent the top 100 firms in Chicago, including an international airline, law firms, trading companies, and high-tech entities.

While many marvel at how a glass floor can sustain a constant flow of visitors, those familiar with the structure know that The Ledge and the tower are protected by more than plates of glass. They are protected by a complex security management program, rated as best-in-class by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and encompassing physical, operational, and technical systems. And now, the skyscraper is engaged in a $500 million transformation that will result in significant impacts on its operations and security, from The Ledge to the lobby.

The Fou​ndation

Willis Tower is one of the largest office buildings in the world, encompassing more than 4.5 million square feet of space—the equivalent of 78 football fields. Today, the tower welcomes approximately 20,000 tenant employees, tourists, business visitors, building employees, and deliveries each day.

The tower relies on a combined command center of building engineers and security staff to monitor the building’s video surveillance systems, access control alarms, intrusion detection, and continuous fire and life safety systems, along with the tower’s heating and cooling, water, and electrical systems.

The command center staff can pinpoint the exact temperature and electricity used for each floor and track the movement and destination of its numerous elevators. The building was the first to have automatic sprinklers cover every square foot of the property, and its advanced smoke detectors can zero in on the source of smoke and alert the command center to activate the exhaust system.

Security practitioners know that tracking dynamic security conditions is infinitely more complex than detecting smoke, and that is certainly the case here. The building management firm at Willis Tower, EQ Office (EQ), relies on security staff members to monitor the building in the command center, patrol the public areas, and man stationary posts at the loading docks, common spaces, tourist areas, and throughout the building at all hours.

The program encompasses a detailed security management approach to emergency planning and response, technology and personnel vetting, monitoring of packages, and evacuations. This is in addition to security and life safety training for the security team and tenants, coordination with all levels of law enforcement, and extensive documentation.

Training is paramount, especially since a major focus for the renovation is customer service. With so many diverse visitors, areas for misinterpretation are continually present and must be carefully addressed. For instance, how does a security officer on patrol tell the difference between tourists taking photos inside the building and potentially malicious reconnaissance? To address these and several other potential scenarios, in 2018 the security and life safety team trained for nearly 6,000 hours on topics encompassing active shooter, emergency operations, customer service, building navigation, and control room operations.​

The Exp​​ansion

“Catalog” is the soon-to-be-completed five-story, 300,000-square-foot dining, retail, and entertainment space at the base of Willis Tower. The name is a historical nod to its original developer and owner, Sears Roebuck, and its famous printed catalog. From a security perspective, this project means more square footage to monitor and patrol, more members of the public entering the space, and more media attention.

Currently, the tower’s publicly accessible retail operations are limited to the main lobby. However, the renovation plans for Catalog entail a major expansion in retail operations, including creating multistory restaurants, apparel shops, fast food eateries, coffee shops, retail venues, and a public roof deck. The overall goal is to enhance the service available at the facility and increase pedestrian access to the building beyond the typical 8 a.m.–5 p.m. business hours. The increased traffic and expanded business hours are expected to create new security challenges for the facility.

EQ recognized this early and committed to ensuring security was at the forefront of these plans, while maintaining the building’s Support Anti-Terrorism by Fostering Effective Technologies (SAFETY) Act designation. The SAFETY Act is part of the Homeland Security Act of 2002 and is administered by the Office of SAFETY Act Implementation (OSAI) at the DHS Science and Technology Directorate.

The program was created to address private sector liability concerns and the lack of incentive to implement or develop anti-terrorism technology. It offers liability protections for providers of Qualified Anti-Terrorism Technologies to encourage the development and deployment of these products. Under EQ’s management, the building has held its SAFETY Act designation for the Willis Tower Security and Life Safety Services since 2013. The DHS recertified the tower’s SAFETY Act Designation in 2018. To maintain the designation, Willis Tower must report any planned changes to its program for review by DHS authorities.

The effort to maintain the vertical village’s high-caliber security program and SAFETY Act designation included a partnership between EQ and Guidepost Solutions, LLC, a security and technology consulting firm. Together, they assessed how the plans might impact onsite security and oversaw installation and testing of the security systems during the renovation.

It’s important for security to be involved in renovation and construction plans from the beginning; however, security is often the last discipline brought to the design table for input. This can result in poorly considered security solutions, lack of proper balancing of risks and controls, and a disregard for how the building will function and provide protection. In this case, EQ Office took the opposite approach by trusting the leadership of its security director and team.

This level of commitment to security is not new for EQ. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the Willis Tower team started preparing for the worst by consulting with safety and security experts to unify around the principle of providing safe, inviting spaces for employees and visitors. This approach to security has been adopted across EQ’s 80 locations, which comprise 40 million square feet of Class A office space throughout the United States.

Gary Michon, general manager of Willis Tower, says that “the key to this project was to bring Guidepost in early, so that we could properly plan and execute the expansion of our security systems to properly monitor and control access to more than 20,000 tenants and visitors who enter the building each day. Throughout the entire planning process, we focused on the customer access and their experience with the new technologies that are being introduced to the building and Catalog.”

The Willis Tower redevelopment project is a mammoth undertaking because the base floor of the building anchors high-rise towers and defines the pedestrian experience on the street level. EQ and Guidepost Solutions worked collaboratively to develop the security program with the focus on the tenant and guest experience. The project includes major enhance­ments to public areas across multiple floors, a rooftop space on the fourth level, all new lobbies and entrances, and new physical security solutions, such as the use of barriers; segregation of office building tenant, visitor, and public areas; barrier turnstiles that can handle 70,000-plus transactions per day; screening rooms for visitors; duress alarms; surveillance cameras; card readers; integrating elevator destination dispatch systems; and implementing a new visitor management system. 

One of the significant challenges of the renovation is the increased foot traffic through the lobby, so the improved screening lanes and organized access management are imperative. The new security measures are intended to provide tenants with a user-friendly and comfortable workspace, business visitors with an efficient method to reach tenant floors, and visitors with a welcoming environment to explore retail stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues in the Chicago landmark. 

Willis Tower is steadfast in maintaining its high-quality security program and ensuring the redevelopment project does not interfere with its site security posture commensurate with other similar tourist destinations. Indeed, the EQ team used the challenges presented during this project as an opportunity to provide needed security technology enhancements, focusing on replacing obsolete technology with devices capable of integrating with current systems. In addition to upgrading its surveillance cameras, Willis Tower is in the process of establishing a gunshot detection system that will monitor common areas, alert staff to emergency situations, and—via integration with the elevator systems—direct elevators away from the identified danger.

Another important element of the security strategy is the overall tenant–guest experience. Tenants of the building invite more than 350,000 visitors a year to their offices, and each visitor must register and go through x-ray and magnetometer screening equipment similar to Transportation Security Administration lines at the airport.

EQ and Guidepost Solutions developed a way to streamline this process by harnessing technology that can support multiple methods of checking in visitors. Visitors can check in by using an email or mobile pass on a smartphone, at a manned lobby desk, through a mobile concierge officer, or self-check-in at multiple kiosks.

This flexibility allows the security team to scale up their personnel levels during peak visitor times, quelling lines while offering a high-quality guest experience. Willis Tower is reaching out to tenants to share information on the new visitor management system to prepare the tenants for the influx in traffic to the tower.

In addition, the new system adds layers of security and authentication by integrating driver’s license readers into the self-service kiosks and using license plate reader technology for dock access.

To further enhance the tenant experience, EQ and Guidepost Solutions are implementing IDEMIA’s MorphoWave biometric technology, integrated into 26 new Automatic Systems Slimlane turnstiles for tenants who opt in to the building’s amenity program. The biometric technology provides frictionless access control and allows authorized tenants to wave their hand above the device’s touchless sensors for access, forgoing the need to present a credential. The turnstiles also include technology for phone-based mobile credentials and regular card readers to maximize flexibility in how tenants experience processing through the turnstiles each day.

For the much-anticipated common space, EQ sought an array of security measures to provide clear situational awareness. The common areas within the main lobbies on Franklin Street, Jackson Boulevard, and Wacker Drive will have surveillance cameras strategically located to observe and record activity.

Other measures include providing architecturally designed full-height partitions and solid doors to protect back-of-house operations and elevator access from common areas, while card readers and alarms will control access throughout. EQ installed an additional local security operations room near the new common space to focus on monitoring the public areas during normal business hours, as opposed to the entire complex.

Willis Tower is stepping away from a traditional security strategy, instead facilitating a neighborhood approach to serve as the cornerstone for the entire project by providing clear divisions between screened and unscreened individuals and deliveries. This method focuses on reinforcing a highly active, community-based environment that encourages professional networking.

Under this approach, non-screened individuals can access the common levels, but multiple layers of controls manage access to tenant spaces and allow for enhanced monitoring capabilities via analytics. The purpose is to reduce the expense of monitoring, a task with a limited return. The technology in place detects changes in the environment and alerts security staff to unusual activity, freeing up personnel and resources to monitor areas with fewer controls, such as the lobbies or common areas.

For example, instead of requiring constant monitoring of camera surveillance and guard posts, staff can use the sensors to identify any abnormal activity. This change enables them to provide greater coverage while simultaneously decreasing screen time and improving response capabilities.

Overall, major renovations can create considerable security concerns, particularly when the public area footprint of the site is expanding, a common trend in Chicago and commercial real estate. Such projects, however, also offer opportunities to evaluate the current security program in place, determine areas for improvement, and provide a means to consider needed security enhancements—and sooner in the process is always better.

It is essential to ensure leadership supports the process early, security expertise is sought and included in the design phase, and the transition process is managed to identify areas of potential risk while maintaining a valuable security certification. The key is constant communication and transparency.


Keith Kambic, CPP, is the senior director of security and life safety for Willis Tower. He is a member of the ASIS Commercial Real Estate Council and Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago Emergency Preparedness Committee. Edward Batchelor, PSP, brings more than 15 years of physical, technical, and operational security design and consulting experience to his role as Guidepost Solutions' director in Chicago. Angela J. Osborne, PCI, is a regional director for Guidepost Solutions based in Washington, D.C., serving on the ASIS Commission on Standards & Guidelines and advisor to the Young Professionals Council.

If you would like to learn more about the renovation project, SAFETY Act Designation, and general security at Willis Tower, we invite you to our G​SX ​Session #4101 on Monday, 9 September 2019 from 10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. in Chicago, Illinois.​​