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Copyright International Fire Protection 2016

Security balance – Why security safety in public places needs to be synonymous with life safety

Brussels, Paris, Orlando, and Istanbul are all beautiful cities, centers of commerce, and cultural hubs. Sadly, they are also the targets of recent horrific terrorist attacks.

Terrorists continue to refine their ability to zero in on so-called “soft targets” such as shopping malls, hotels, clubs, and schools. Even locations thought to have high-security capabilities are not immune, as evidenced by attacks on passenger airport terminals. What these targets have in common are the large numbers of civilians that congregate in or around them, which make it easy to cause multiple casualties with comparatively low-tech methods.

Facility managers and government officials are under great pressure to protect these environments from lone attackers and more coordinated efforts. Security experts promote a range of solutions intended to make a potential target less vulnerable and therefore less attractive to attackers. Methods include barriers or setbacks that restrict or prohibit vehicle access; gates, metal detectors, and X-ray machines at building entry points; and reinforced bars or shutters on egress doors and windows.

If not designed or installed properly, however, such security measures can severely restrict or prevent the ability of people to evacuate in the event of a fire or other emergency, and interfere with fire department access. I’ve seen plenty of examples in my travels in the U.S. and abroad: large concrete urns with vegetation placed directly against exit doors; barricades that prevent fire apparatus from getting close to a building and take time and effort to remove; and signs and barriers that make it difficult to understand how to exit the building. Security concerns sometimes dictate that an emphasis is placed on using only one way in and out of a building, which may create confusion and delays during an emergency. While this design is code compliant, the occupants may not realize that they can and should use the closest exit.

There is no reason why fire protection measures, egress requirements, and security methods and procedures can’t complement one another to create a safe and protected environment for building occupants. After all, security safety is life safety – a primary goal of NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, both of which offer cost-effective, practical, and reliable guidance for buildings large and small.

In 2014, NFPA sponsored a national workshop on school safety and security that included stakeholders from code enforcement, fire service, law enforcement, school administration, and government to discuss challenges and identify solutions for effective school safety and security. The forum highlighted the importance of integrating life safety and security priorities. The output from that workshop is being blended into NFPA codes and standards that are currently being updated. A related effort between NFPA and ASIS International has been underway this year to make security a seamless part of the built environment, equal to fire and other hazards our codes must deal with. 

Authorities having jurisdiction have a responsibility to work proactively with building owners, facility managers, law enforcement, and security professionals to overcome any perceived conflicts between fire code requirements and security needs. With the increased focus on security due to recent worldwide events, fire officials must be even more vigilant so that a tragedy does not occur because occupants are trapped in a building by the very systems intended to protect them from harm.

For more information, go to www.nfpa.org

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2016 issue of NFPA Journal® and is reprinted here with permission. Copyright © 2016 NFPA. All rights reserved. ® NFPA Journal is a registered trademark of the National Fire Protection Association, Quincy, MA, USA.

Vice President, Field Operations, at NFPA

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