Emergency Preparedness, Safety, Security

Improving Facility Security and Emergency Preparedness Amid RTO and Other Issues

Here’s the good news regarding workers’ return to office (RTO) after the pandemic: It’s happening, slowly but surely.

Here’s the bad news: Things may never be as before the pandemic.

Security company Kastle Systems recently surveyed 10 major U.S. cities and reported that, as of September 2022, about 50% of all workers have returned to their offices. Texas cities, such as Austin, Dallas, and Houston, are doing better, at 55% occupancy levels. But Washington, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles still average about 40% occupancy.

Ultimately, while things may never be the same again, Kastle Systems and other stakeholders expect more workers will return to the office as the fear of COVID lessens. This means facility managers must start taking steps now to ensure office workers are safe when they return. 

Under normal conditions, building security plans should be reviewed each year. But since the pandemic, we have faced new and much higher threat levels. It appears that perpetrators have had some extra time on their hands, allowing them to think up new ways to cause harm and crimes.

To address these increased challenges, facility managers should take these four actions as soon as possible and certainly before large numbers of people return to the workplace:

1. Ensure security, fire, and life safety systems are integrated.

2. Prepare for hazardous situations and know how to prevent them if possible.

3. Conduct regular security drills.

4. Consult with security, risk assessment, and management professionals to assess building security.

Let’s break down what it takes to complete these actions.

System Integration

Johnson Controls, one of several makers of security integration systems, notes that the main reason these systems are being installed is that “they can improve efficiency and reduce costs.” Integrated systems also reduce the time needed to train building engineers and others on using safety and security systems. Furthermore, a one-stop control system, according to the manufacturer, “strengthens building security and allows safety and security systems to communicate with other facility systems,” as well as local authorities such as police and fire.

Emergency Preparedness

Hurricanes Ian and Nicole recently battered Florida and nearby states. Facility managers must have emergency preparedness plans on hand to address hazardous weather conditions such as this, as well as other types of emergencies such as fire, floods, workplace violence, and even terrorism. Facility managers must also have in-house notification and emergency communications systems in place. These not only tell building occupants of the need to evacuate the facility in an emergency but also provide directions on how to exit the building safely and where safer locations are outside the facility. This results in faster response times, enhanced building safety, and saving lives.

Security Drills

We just mentioned the importance of being able to notify all building users of an emergency in their facility, how to safely exit, and a safe place to wait until the emergency has passed. However, what so often happens in a crisis is panic takes over. The best way to address this is by scheduling regular emergency exit drills. 

While it is accurate to say that building users will view emergency drills as a nuisance, mainly if they occur too frequently, it is also correct to say they can help save and protect lives and property. The reality is that most building users do not know what to do should there be, for instance, a fire or an active shooter in the building. Should they lock their doors and hide? Should they run? If they decide to evacuate, what is the safest way to do this?

Emergency drills can answer these questions and equip people with practical knowledge to apply in a crisis. View emergency drills not so much as a drill but as a plan. Failure to have a plan to handle an emergency is the same as planning to fail.

Risk Assessment

A risk assessment is a detailed examination of a facility to identify vulnerabilities and potential hazards affecting the building and those working there or using the building. Once the risks have been identified, the goal is to suggest ways to minimize or eliminate each.

In the past, many facility managers have had risk assessments conducted every few years. But as we mentioned earlier, we are dealing with more security challenges than ever since the pandemic. A post-pandemic risk assessment should be undertaken now and include the following points:

Site analysis: Conditions have changed in many American cities since the pandemic. In many cities, more homeless people live in parks and streets. According to the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, homeless people are disproportionately more involved in crimes, either as victims or perpetrators. A risk assessment will analyze this situation and suggest to facility managers steps to ensure the safety of people and property.

Site appearance: Because many facilities have been closed for almost two years due to the pandemic, their appearance may have deteriorated. A risk assessment will suggest that this be addressed. The problem is that facilities that look unkempt tend to attract unscrupulous characters, thereby increasing security risks.

Site weak spots: Airports often use drones to look for areas where someone could get on a runway or breach building security. In some cases, a risk assessment uses drones to look for weak spots, for instance, in the parking lots and areas surrounding a suburban or remote facility.

Site lighting/camera: A risk assessment often identifies dark outdoor areas that can become vulnerable to break-ins. In such cases, it may be recommended that high-definition “smart” cameras and “zero-light” cameras be installed. Smart cameras are triggered by movement. Zero-light cameras take clear images day or night. Both improve facility security.

Risk Mitigation

Risk mitigation is the process of planning for disasters and having plans in place to help lessen their negative impacts. In Florida, now that Hurricanes Ian and Nicole have passed, most facility managers are already involved in risk mitigation. They have taken steps to protect their properties and reduce damage to their facilities as quickly as possible.

Ideally, facility managers should be prepared for all types of emergencies and strive to prevent or avoid them. But we know this is not always possible. A risk assessment can help identify risks and help minimize or eliminate them. Risk mitigation helps facility managers prepare for the worst, acknowledging that varying degrees of damage may occur and having systems in place to reopen as quickly and safely as possible.

Johnathan Tal is CEO of TAL Global Corp., an international investigative and risk-consulting firm. He served as a military field intelligence officer for the Israeli armed forces during the 1970s. Tal has also served as an antiterrorism security specialist. He is a licensed investigator, Certified Private Investigator (CPI), and Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE), and he holds a Bachelor of Science degree. He can be reached through his company website at www.talglobal.com.