Guarding against another Oklahoma CIty
Glass, concrete and steel were not the only things shattered by the explosion in Oklahoma City on April 19. With them went scores of lives, families and the idea, for most Americans, that any place in the country is safe from acts of random violence.
Countless newspapers and magazines have lamented the loss of innocence for America caused by the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. But municipal officials must do more than philosophize about the damage done to the nation’s psyche. They must determine if the desire for increased security should translate into real dollars spent on upgrading building integrity, training police in anti-terrorism techniques or taking other precautions.
UNDERSTANDING THE PROBLEM
Earlier this year, the Rand Institute, Santa Monica, Calif., released a report on domestic terrorism that was the result of two years of study, ending just before the World Trade Center bombing in New York in February 1993.
Using completed surveys from 148 local jurisdictions and 76 state agencies across the country, the researchers analyzed both what was perceived as a terrorist threat and the degree of agency readiness.
“Many state and local law enforcement organizations consider a wider range of activities and acts as terrorist, or potentially terrorist, than does the FBI,” the report says. For instance, the FBI, the lead federal agency designated to investigate terrorism, does not consider the actions of such groups as antiabortion protestors, ultra-left animal rights activists or white supremacy groups to be “terrorism,” per se, but local agencies see it differently.
“What we look at as terrorists are those persons or activities conducted to create terror and concern for any reason,” says Major Edward Buff, co-commander of the special investigations section of the Miami Police. Much of Buff’s work involves drug-related activity, but his division “would deal also with the elements in the hate crimes statutes that target incidents involving a specific ethnic or racial group.
According to Ronald Massa, a security consultant with the Lorron Corp., Burlington, Mass., more than 3,000 bombs are detonated in anger in the United States each year. “Bombs are not all the work of international terrorists trying to bring down the government,” he says. “They’re being used to settle grievances, alleged or real, and many of these grievances are at the municipal levels.”
As far as preparedness goes, Rand’s report concludes, not surprisingly, that the larger the municipality is in population, the more likely it is to have contingency plans in place in the event of a terrorist action and/or law enforcement officers trained in counter-terrorism techniques.
Larger cities are more likely to contain federal buildings, military installations, nuclear power plants or other high-risk targets. Still, the report notes that, “many municipalities, except for the largest departments, cannot afford to staff intelligence divisions and consequently have only limited organizational and personnel resources to devote to anti-terrorism.”
The destruction of the Murrah building shows convincingly that terrorist violence no longer confines itself to bustling international ports of call like New York, Miami or Los Angeles. All cities are vulnerable, but mid-sized and even small municipalities, without hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on security, still can take steps to further safeguard themselves.
“The first thing is make a determination, quietly and competently, that you do not have any of what we call `conspicuous vulnerabilities,'” Massa says. “That can be done by just a walk-down of the buildings a municipality has that could be the target of an attack. It can be done in one day’s consulting time, and once you’ve done that, you can identify the particular level and class of vulnerability that municipality has.”
The most common targets in mid-sized municipalities are high schools, police departments, courthouses and town halls. Tight security around these buildings could simply cause a terrorist to choose a different target, but Massa says, “When they get farther and farther away from die target that makes their point best, the zeal of the terrorist drops very dramatically.”
After identifying the vulnerabilities, the next step is to control vehicle access and proximity to the building itself, since any bomb large enough to bring a building down would have to be delivered in a vehicle.
“Prohibit parking at the access points to any government building and make them all drop-off zones,” suggests Joe Barry, director of government services for the security software firm PPM 2000, Edmonton, Alberta. “If you can’t stop and leave a vehicle loaded with explosives, you’ve really got to want to get that building because you’re going to go up with it.”
In an effort to keep vehicles away, the New York/New Jersey Port Authority installed 6,000-lb. concrete planters around the World Trade Center’s perimeter. These relatively easy and inexpensive safety precautions could make the difference between a bomb just blowing out windows or bringing the whole building down.
“That building in Oklahoma probably could have been saved [from collapse] if that truck was 10 feet farther away,” Massa says. “Ten feet wouldn’t have saved any glass, but most of those people didn’t die from glass, they died from the collapse.”
Of course, cities should tightly control access to underground parking facilities and monitor personnel entry into the building itself. Checkpoints inside the building allow for regular office staff to know when someone who does not belong is attempting to enter.
Barry says a basic package for a normal-sized government building, including an explosion detection X-ray machine, several access control points and some closed-circuit television cameras would run anywhere from $500,000 to $750,000.
MAJOR INFRASTRUCTURE IMPROVEMENTS
Of course, if there is more money to spend, there are more expensive structural and environmental alternatives that can reduce the need for mechanical security.
A building’s structural integrity is critical in the event of a bombing. As Massa points out, most of the deaths in the Murrah building were due to the pancaking of nine floors on top of one another. Placed only 10 to 15 feet from the north face, the bomb blast literally kicked the building’s legs out from under it.
Building support members must be located where they are not vulnerable to an outside attack. “There are ways of protecting existing buildings, of redirecting the pressure wave of the explosion,” says Ysrael Seinuk, a structural engineer and professor at Cooper Union, New York. “To include anti-terrorism elements from the beginning is not that expensive because you start thinking what you can and can’t do. But to upgrade an existing building can sometimes be quite expensive.”
Glass, of course, is another concern. More than 80 percent of the injuries in a bombing attack can be caused by flying glass, according to Massa, who notes that glass injuries were reported a mile away from the explosion in Oklahoma City.
“As gruesome as it sounds, one man had so much glass in his back that it was shining when he got to the hospital,” Massa says. “When there’s that many casualties, it’s not always possible to find and treat everyone in time.”
Laminated or hardened glass can make a difference both in loss of life and property. If a window stays in its frame after a blast, it prevents not only lethal shards of glass from injuring people, it also prevents the blast energy from entering the building and causing more structural damage.
Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED, pronounced sep-ted) is an architectural approach involving the use of a building and its surroundings to create an atmosphere unattractive to the criminal. This means open, visible walkways, signage, street design and other elements.
“Target hardening is locks, lights and alarms,” says Detective Robert Dodder of the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Police Department. “CPTED is using one’s understanding of human nature, looking at the design and asking, Does this design prohibit or promote criminal or anti-social behavior?”‘
Admittedly, CPTED is much easier to incorporate into a design in the planning stage, but modifications can be made to retrofit existing structures. The cost, of course, would depend on the circumstances.
“How many municipal employees have ever been given any specific training as to how to defend them, selves or the municipality’s property against any kind of crime?” Massa asks. “How many people would even know how to respond to a bomb threat? Very few.”
Training employees to spot suspicious persons or react appropriately in the event of a bomb threat can be just as effective and save just as many lives as overhauling building security, Massa says.
“Right now in the United States, if we get a bomb threat, the first thing we do is evacuate the building and that’s not right,” Massa says. “That’s wrong in most instances.”
If everyone is evacuated to the street outside a building and a bomb actually does explode, the people could suffer more injury from flying glass outside than they would have suffered had they been in a designated safe area inside the building, assuming the building does not collapse. A bomb large enough to collapse a building would have to be transported in a vehicle and, assuming the prior parking controls are in place, Massa says the vast majority of bomb threats should not result in building evacuation. Also, personnel should be instructed in bomb drill procedures.
Counter-terrorism refers to measures taken in reponse to a terrorist action, while anti-terrorism work is done to prevent the action from taking place. While counter-terrorism is the work of police, fire and emergency response and other facets of government, anti-terrorism lies almost exclusively within the realm of law enforcement.
Again, the FBI is the lead agency in investigating terrorism and, according to the Rand report, anytime a local jurisdiction identifies n activity as terrorist-related, it must be reported to the bureau.
In the wake of Oklahoma City, the FBI has, suspended all discussion of terrorism and terrorist-related investigations. Local law enforcement can enroll officers in training courses at the FBI national academy in Quantico, Va., but, according to spokesperson Carlos Fernandez, the agency offers no training specifically geared toward anti-terrorism.
Sharing information and working closely with surrounding jurisdictions in the presence of a terrorist threat, e.g., an armed anti-federal militia or any other extremist group, is the best way to prevent violence.
The small town of Hayden, in Kootenai County, Idaho, is the home of Aryan Nations, a neo-Nazi, white-supremacist group, and Kootenai County sheriffs and nearby Coeur d’alene police long have worked closely with each other, the Idaho State Police and the FBI, keeping track of the group’s activities.
“We’re a small community but we work together and share that information,” says Capt. Ben Wolfinger of the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Department. “We stay right on top of things, in terms of not dismissing that possible threat or that one guy who might get crazy on you.” The department also works with nearby Spokane, Wash., departments in the area of gang-related violence.
Communication is just as important in larger jurisdictions. Miami’s Buff says his division not only works with other departments, but also with the state department to protect visiting dignitaries. It also does security surveys for buildings.
“We want to make sure all the information is passed along,” Buff says. Just because we’re investigating [a case] doesn’t mean it won’t occur outside our jurisdiction, so we try to notify other jurisdictions of the types activities we have going.”
MORE TOUGH QUESTIONS
But before municipalities begin to look at financing major security overhauls or sending their police to FBI school, they must wrestle with the question of whether they really need to do anything at all.
“I’ve no doubt [the Oklahoma City bombing] will cause billions in spending and, in my opinion, it’s wasted spending,” says John Strauchs, CEO of the security engineering firm Systech Group, Reston, Va., and a former CIA agent. “It’s a knee-jerk reaction. Most government buildings are already doing about everything they can do.”
Strauchs, a consultant in the World Trade Center’s security overhaul following its attack, says the Oklahoma City bombing is an isolated incident and “does not represent a trend in America. It’s no different than tornadoes and lightning strikes.”
Others disagree. “I’m not going to dispute his opinion,” responds Buff, “but any police agency owes it to itself and to the “communities to have a heightened sense of awareness and to look at what it can do.”
“We teach kids what to do when they see a funnel cloud, and we’ve saved thousands of lives,” says Massa, whose specialty is bomb defense and who has analyzed bombings all over the world. “There are literally hundreds of analagous common-sense measures we can take for bombings, and they’re not just theoretical — they work. They have been tested in real bomb incidents.”
But, Massa admits, the opinion that there really is nothing municipalities can do to prevent terrorist acts is prevalent, along with the idea that what can be done is too expensive. “Between those two points of view, there’s quite a deterrent to actually taking any positive steps,” he says. “And they’re very widely held. But you’re really not defenseless, no matter how bad it may appear.”