In August 2004, Northeast financial sectors were alerted to possible terrorist activities focused on five specific buildings and areas: the International Monetary Fund and World Bank headquarters in Washington, D.C.; the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup Center in New York; and the Prudential Financial building in Newark, N.J.

According to a Washington Post story, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said the information pointed to intelligence that al Qaeda had been casing those buildings, and perhaps others, well before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center. Authorities said they did not know when the operatives planned to carry out the bombings, but the surveillance identified “the location of security desks and cameras in the buildings; traffic and pedestrian patterns surrounding them; employee and vehicle routines; the locations of nearby fire departments, police stations, libraries and schools; and what kinds of explosives would do the most damage to the structures.”

Reportedly, police teams and anti-terror squads barred trucks from certain bridges, established checkpoints throughout Manhattan and doubled security around key office buildings including the New York Stock Exchange and Citigroup buildings. Police announced plans to stop and inspect vehicles around the IMF and World Bank, as well as other sensitive sites in Washington, to activate additional surveillance cameras and to flood the areas with foot and car patrols. Officials tightened security at other facilities, including the White House, Capitol, State Department and U.S. Federal Reserve Board.

Owners and operators of these buildings obviously need to have a heightened awareness of their internal security and fire protection systems and so should contractors serving these markets.

This owner awareness will need to focus on not only system upgrades to develop better protection and reliability, but how to best integrate important security and fire protection systems to ensure the best value for their investment. Traditionally, fire authorities have not very willingly permitted the integration of a fire alarm system with other electronic systems. But in today's security-conscious environment, where the need to have as much information as possible before making the decision to evacuate appears paramount, it becomes necessary to overcome the fear of integration.

A building security and access system must operate continuously during the day, while a fire alarm system waits for an event to happen before actuating. The new Mass Notification Systems now required in military and government buildings and soon to follow in commercial buildings, will require a thorough understanding of the facility's security and fire defense plan.

Targeted plan for response

Unlike traditional fire alarm systems that once activated cause immediate evacuation from a building, current security thinking indicates that building evacuation should not begin until the occupants have enough information to make an informed decision based on outside conditions, such as a chemical or bomb threat, in addition to possible fire or chemical conditions within the building. Occupants may stay inside a facility, move outside or relocate within the building. It all depends on the nature of the threat.

The integration of these systems does not mean simply monitoring each system's operating condition. Accurate information from each system must report to a central location within the building to allow responsible security personnel to make the appropriate decision and then convey that decision to the occupants via the fire alarm voice/communication or Mass Notification Systems.

Homeland Security reported that the terrorists also researched the locations of nearby fire departments. Most if not all fire alarm systems in large financial buildings connect either directly to the local fire department or to a private alarm company's central station to ensure an early and rapid response to any fire emergency in the building. To make certain this aspect of fire protection works when needed, all equipment performing this function and the circuits connecting the system to the central station must have both mechanical protection and protection by the security system whenever possible. New fire alarm systems may incorporate fire alarm control units with panel tamper switches that will report to security personnel when someone opens the fire alarm system control unit (FACU). In addition, the installing contractor may have located an FACU in a room controlled and monitored through access control systems, so that security and management can better control who has access to the FACU.

Sadly, it appears that over time all of this activity will not be limited only to financial institutions. However, for the moment, Homeland Security identified these institutions as the apparent targets of terrorists. Because of this, we must take extraordinary steps to ensure that the protection systems installed can perform reliably and help keep the occupants safer in these difficult times. EC

MOORE, a licensed fire protection engineer, frequent speaker and an expert in the life safety field, is a co-editor of the current National Fire Alarm Code Handbook. Moore is a principal with Hughes Associates Inc. at the Warwick, R.I., office.