The Office As Fortress

As terrorism fears persist, an increasingly sophisticated array of security devices is being developed for the commercial market.

February 06, 2004|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Chemical warfare agent sensors. Blast-resistant windows. Safe rooms for sheltering if anthrax seeps in through the ductwork.

Coming to an office near you?

Building-protection companies and consultants are trying to reach beyond military defense to the commercial market, which has shown more interest in security after Sept. 11, 2001, but hasnt battened down as much as the federal government. Now that access-control measures such as badge readers are fairly common, the protection industry hopes building owners are ready for higher-tech and higher-priced products.

"We would love to get into executive offices," said Kim Oyler, a manager at QuickSilver Analytics Inc. in Abingdon, which is marketing a $10,000 portable kit that pressurizes a room and filters the air to keep people breathing safely during a chemical or biological attack. "It's available to anybody, but right now it's [only used by] government and military. ...We'd like to expand and were looking at ways to do that."

If it works anywhere, it will work in New York and Washington, which are highly attuned to security for obvious reasons. But Maryland makes for an interesting testing ground.

Protection beyond an emergency plan and a security force is rare in the Baltimore market, and the typical office owner doesn't see a justification for expensive upgrades that will jack up the rent, said Marc Fischer, president of the local chapter of the Building Owners and Managers Association.

"We aren't D.C. We aren't New York," said Fischer, also a senior vice president at Transwestern Commercial Services. "Our level of risk is different."

Still, Maryland has more than its share of souped-up offices because the many federal agencies and contractors here have been adding safeguards over the last few years in reaction to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

Those safeguards include window glazing to keep glass from breaking apart into deadly shards after an explosion and greater space between the building and road to keep vehicles and the bombs they could be carrying -- at a distance.

The federal government connection explains why a fair number of building-protection operations have bureaus or headquarters in Maryland. But some say theyre starting to see office owners with no ties to Uncle Sam ask for extra defenses.

"Our business was very steady prior to 9/11 but jumped up to a new level after 9/11, and the real difference that we saw was the commercial interest," said Mike Janus, program director for building protection at Battelle, who works out of the Ohio research and development firms Aberdeen facility.

Battelle has conducted about 75 risk assessments since the terrorist attacks, most for the government but some for banks, hospitals and high-rises.

People spend "88 percent of their time in buildings," Janus said. "That becomes the obvious target." Last month, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released building-protection guides aimed at audiences ranging from commercial building owners to school officials. The information is posted at www.fema.gov, along with details about a course on the subject at the agencys Emmitsburg facility.

"There's always room for improvement, and it's not just terrorism but it's all the kinds of hazards," said Michael D. Brown, undersecretary of homeland security for emergency preparedness and response. "I want people to know the questions to ask [so] theyre at least thinking about these things as they go into the design and construction process."

Battelle's $20 million Aberdeen building, which opened about a year ago, is a good example, a high- security setup clothed in a typical low-rise suburban office facade.

A badge and personal identification number are needed to go anywhere without a guide, and more swiping is required through the building. Even the elevators have a badge and personal identificiation number reader.

Many of the research labs there are keyed to admit only a handful of workers, while closed-circuit television cameras watch the corridors and rooms for security breaches. The outdoor air handlers -- a potential danger because terrorists can use them to spread chemical or biological weapons through a building -- sit on the roof, hidden from view. Filters in the mechanical system defend against those same agents.

Protection doesn't come cheap, though the costs range widely. Janus, with Battelle, said $7,000 or so will cover the bill for adjusting a buildings mechanical system so that it can be shut down with one button, useful if a toxic cloud is on the way. A biological agent sensor runs about $50,000.

The federal government spent $18.5 million on major protective upgrades to a downtown Salt Lake City building that served as a public safety command center for the 2002 Olympics. That's enough money to construct a building, but it wouldn't cost quite that much to duplicate the effort because the price tag included removing the equipment afterward.

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