Sears Tower’s Well-Grounded Security

By Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Chicago’s Sears Tower, at a height of 1,454 feet to its architectural top, is the tallest building in the United States and a leading symbol of U.S. commerce. After the collapse of the World Trade Center, the former management was concerned about the Sears Tower’s prominence as a terrorist target and hardened security accordingly. However, tenants were unhappy. Six years out from 9-11, the building, which is under new ownership, has considerably revamped the security program it inherited to create a robustly secure but subtle environment that does not make tenants feel they work in a fortress.

“When Sears Tower Management Group took over…[the goal was to] strike the balance between good customer service and great security,” says Sears Tower Management Director of Security and Life Safety Keith L. Kambic, CPP.

Kambic elaborates as we walk through the main lobby of the building: “A high rise is a business entity, and we can protect it all we want, but if we don’t get new tenants in here, then it’s an empty building. It really does us no good.”

When Kambic joined the Sears Tower security team in 2004, he says, it was still responding to the 2001 attacks with “the hard approach—the approach that occurred for most buildings right after 9-11. The security officers were in hard uniforms that mimicked Chicago police; customer service was not a priority; [and] the fronts of our lobbies were filled with x-ray and metal detection machines. So as soon as you walked in, that was the first thing that you saw.”

Now, however, security’s approach is more subtle. There’s a package-screening machine off to one side of the lobby, but there is no lengthy queue behind it. Employees flow in unimpeded; visitors pass quickly through a metal detector before using access control cards at a series of decorative turnstiles to reach the elevators. Visitors are able to check in at a reception desk staffed by customer service agents in business-style uniforms.

Designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, Chicago’s Sears Tower was completed in 1973 after a three-year construction period. It is only surpassed in height by the Petronis Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and by Taiwan’s Taipei 101 (though the Burj Dubai will soon be added to that list). Its closest U.S. competition is the former long-time record holder, the 1,250-foot Empire State Building, erected in New York City in 1931.

Kambic and his team of security and safety professionals watch over a population of about 12,000 tenants who work for approximately 90 tenant companies. These include a range of legal, accounting, advertising, and other white-collar commercial firms. However, Kambic says, the actual number of people who come and go throughout the day can be as high as 20,000 to 25,000.

“That’s because we have the Skydeck here, which is a top tourist attraction for the city of Chicago,” he explains. “We have about 1.3 million people per year visit our Skydeck in all kinds of weather,” he says.

As we stand in the warm, bustling lobby, I can see that there’s plenty of snow outside and a temperature gauge reading 4º, but that isn’t likely to curtail the tourists, of whom it might be noted, “If you build it, they will come.”

This is not true of tenants, however. The security procedures put in after 9-11—for example, mandatory bag and briefcase x-rays for all employees and visitors—may have comforted tenants at first, but later those procedures began to oppress and impede the tenants, says Kambic. “My understanding is that the occupancy went down significantly.”



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