The approach Dallas has used for its Downtown Emergency Response Team (DERT) offers a good model for other cities.
Threats come in many forms, and the best emergency response measures can be adapted to fit multiple circumstances, ranging from man-made mayhem to Mother Nature's mischief. Such was the case in Dallas earlier this year when emergency response plans implemented to handle either type of problem had to be activated after high winds blew off portions of a large water tower on top of one downtown building. Shards of the tower, some eight feet long, landed in the middle of busy downtown streets. "We were concerned for public safety," says Lieutenant Vincent Golbeck of the Dallas Police Department. "It looked like the whole water tower was about to collapse."
When the report reached Golbeck, he contacted the city's Downtown Emergency Response Team (DERT) to implement its emergency plan. Within minutes, the details of the crisis were announced over a local AM radio station dedicated to emergency announcements. The announcement was updated throughout the incident.
Paul Lindenberger, assistant manager of safety and maintenance for the city's Downtown Improvement District (DID), then put an emergency call on the organization's e-mail-based text-messaging system. Details went out to all of DERT's members via e-mails and by text message to mobile devices--cell phones, PDAs, and pagers. Property managers, security directors, and engineers in all of the downtown buildings knew what was happening, and more details were provided as the incident progressed.
Police closed off two major thoroughfares in downtown Dallas. Mass transit officials were notified, and alternative routes for buses and schedules for the light-rail system were activated. The property manager for the building in question was already on site. Police knew the property manager and the security personnel for the building from DERT planning sessions and tabletop exercises. As a result, they did not have any problems getting into the building.
Meanwhile, security personnel at the surrounding businesses implemented their own emergency plans. For example, Martin Cramer, vice president of operations for United Building Security, Inc., contacted the 500 employees in his building and informed them of the incident, the road closures, and alternative routes for driving. He also notified workers of revised bus routes.
Once security and engineering staff had investigated the remains of the tower and determined that they were stable, the fire department arrived and secured them until the winds died down. Then, the security and engineering staff returned as soon as possible and removed the rest of the tower.
When rush hour started, downtown workers were aware of the incident and knew how to exit the city safely. No one was hurt. Other recent incidents, such as the rupture of a 72-inch water main and a bomb threat, were also handled effectively. The emergency responses went smoothly because of Dallas's pioneering planning efforts. From cowtown to bustling financial center, Dallas--which this month is host of the ASIS International 50th Annual Seminar and Exhibits--has remained a steady force despite the fluctuations of an unpredictable world. A leader in cattle ranching, rail transportation, and the cotton exchange before Texas became a center for oil production, Dallas has maintained a tenacious hold on its independence while embracing new trends. The result is a vibrant downtown area.
Downtown Dallas is the eighth largest city in the United States. The area is home to more than 500 companies, a number of which house their corporate or regional headquarters there. Belo, Blockbuster, Radiologix, Trammell Crow Company, and Neiman Marcus are all downtown residents. Also in downtown Dallas are two entertainment districts, two colleges, two high schools, and numerous government offices. The mix of companies, from accounting firms to architects, creates an interesting combination of large corporate players that operate alongside mom-and-pop restaurants and small retail stores.
The area has a daytime work force of more than 130,000 people. In addition, special events draw more than two million tourists each year. Golbeck, who is also the law enforcement liaison for DERT, notes that the downtown provides one out of every five jobs in Dallas County.
DERT is unique because it focuses exclusively on downtown Dallas and is prepared to deal with the special security challenges posed by downtown areas, such as the evacuation of skyscrapers and public reliance on mass transit. "DERT is just one cog in a very big wheel," says Golbeck. "Our responsibility is taking care of the stakeholders in the downtown area."
The message that Dallas needed an emergency response team arrived not in the wake of a terrorist attack, but on the wings of a tornado. In March 2000, a twister hit downtown Fort Worth, Texas, a city just north of Dallas. Steve Castor, national security director for the Trammell Crow Company, felt the fury of the storm. "One of the main buildings that we manage, a banking facility, got hit hard," Castor reports. "The Fort Worth police and fire officials did a great job putting up a perimeter around the building, but then no one could get in or out."
Castor's company had a standing contract with a company to help clean up after such events. The contractors had trucks filled with plywood and were prepared to come in and start cleaning up broken glass and preventing window panes from dropping onto the sidewalk below. "But the planning didn't help because there was no one to give the go-ahead and clear certain groups to enter the damaged buildings," says Castor.
Following the incident, Castor, along with other downtown security directors, contacted Dallas Assistant Chief of Police Danny Garcia and expressed concern. "We asked: what if a tornado hit Dallas? Would we be ready?" says Castor.
The meeting led to the formation of DERT, and four years later the program is getting recognition from the highest quarters. The Department of Homeland Security has asked the group to devise a template of its program that can be used by other cities throughout the nation. And, in a recent report released by the Government Accountability Office, the DERT project was listed in an audit of best practices in disaster response planning.
The public/private partnership works with several existing bodies such as the DID, which is funded by downtown property owners and oversees a 30-person security team, a 10-person maintenance team, and a special events division. DERT also works with a group called Law Enforcement and Private Security (LEAPS), which serves as a liaison between police and private security professionals in the greater Dallas area (see sidebar ).
To meet the special needs of the district, the DERT team draws on the expertise of security directors, property managers, general contractors, and representatives of the city of Dallas. Other groups on the DERT roster include the American Red Cross, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system, and the previously mentioned DID.
Expanded mission. The team had been meeting for around six months when the 9-11 terrorist attacks occurred. The small but enthusiastic group grew fourfold in just a few days. "The focus changed a little bit," says Cramer. "The group was still addressing the same issues, but it became much more important that it consider man-made incidents as well as natural events."
Once planning to respond to terrorist attacks was underway, the group learned that response to any kind of disaster is similar. "We address natural disasters, foreign terrorism, and domestic terrorism," says Golbeck. "If you have your processes in place for one, it helps in responding to all of the others."
(For more on the early days of the group, its founding, and the development of an emergency response manual, see "When Downtown Becomes a Disaster Zone," Security Management, March 2003.)
One problem the team recognized early on was the need for private security practitioners to gain access to their company's facilities in case of an emergency. To help address this issue, DERT developed an access plan that includes a private sector command post, preissued perimeter passes, on-site perimeter passes, and clearly marked helmets.
Command post. In an emergency, the city police--specifically the Central Business District Police Commander--sets up a mobile command post to be shared with private sector representatives of the affected property. The command center is set up several blocks away from the epicenter of the disaster and serves as the locus of communications during the crisis. The police on duty at the command post are also charged with issuing on-site perimeter passes (more on these later).
Preissued passes. As part of the plan, certain private sector officials are issued perimeter passes by DERT in advance of any emergencies so that when an incident occurs, they can use those passes to show that they are authorized to gain entrance to their own properties even if they are in an area cordoned off from the general public.
Each facility with 250,000 square feet or more gets a total of six passes, which are given to the property managers, security directors, and the chief engineers of facilities. The passes include a photo of the individual, the title of the person, and the property name. Each pass is numbered and must be renewed each year in January.
The colors and design of the passes change each year to make it easy for security personnel at the perimeter of a secure area in an emergency to ensure that all passes are current. Police officers posted at entrances to affected buildings also call the command post to check the pass number to ensure that it is valid.
Command personnel have a computer database and a print-out of the list of pass numbers and individuals. Under the plan, no one will be allowed in a restricted area in an emergency without a pass. And in extremely dangerous situations, even pass holders may be denied entry.
On-site passes. During an emergency, if an authorized pass holder wishes to add a new person to the list of those who can enter the building, he or she can procure an on-site pass at the command post. This allows the security director to bring in IT staff or vendors to help with repairs, if necessary.
Helmets. Although the passes get individuals in and out of their buildings, they do not help fire and rescue personnel to find essential personnel, such as a building's engineer. DERT addressed this problem by developing a color-coded system of helmets that all pass holders wear when entering the restricted area. The helmets make identification easier and have the added benefit of providing safety.
In cooperation with the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), DERT designed reflective decals, with letters and colors that denote a person's job, to be attached to the front and back of hard hats. The property manager's decal has PM on it and is green. Security's decals are yellow and are embossed with SEC. Engineers wear a red decal with the letters ENG. A blue decal with FW represents a floor warden.
A large gold star overlapping the top of the decal identifies the wearer as the senior person in that function at the company. Because they can be stolen, the hard hats alone cannot be used to gain access to the facility.
Everyone involved in DERT understands the major importance of developing contacts and relationships to enhance cooperation. Cooperation among private and public officials takes place on a daily basis, making incident planning and response go more smoothly.
In addition to daily contact among members of the private sector, local law enforcement, and the FBI, these professionals also gather at formal monthly meetings and share information via e-mail. For example, the private security professionals in Dallas have representation in the EOC (Emergency Operations Center) for Dallas if disaster should strike. Private sector personnel--security, property managers, and the general manager of the downtown improvement district--attend meetings, so public personnel know all the major players and security has a representative right in the middle of public-sector planning.
However, even with all of the official channels established, situations still arise that reveal the need for better communication and cooperation. For example, a few months ago at one downtown high rise, a tenant called the fire department and told them that the large lighted sign on the side of the building was falling. The fire department arrived, but had not communicated with the police department, so no one had informed Cramer, the building's security director.
The fire department blocked off a two-block area in front of the building with fire trucks and ambulances. Firefighters wanted to make sure that the rush-hour traffic was able to leave downtown without anyone getting hit by the sign if it fell. The firemen entered the building and went to the 25th floor with block and tackle intending to rappel down the side of the building and look at the sign.
Cramer was notified once fire officials were on the premises. He was able to contact the battalion chief at that point and tell him that the light was fine and that the tenant was mistaken. However, Cramer felt that had he been notified earlier, the road closures and potential action by the firefighters could have been avoided.
At an after-action review, Cramer contacted Golbeck and set up an official channel of communication with the fire department. As part of this communication, Cramer provided the fire department with a layout of the building. "I also informed the fire chief that if there is a problem with a light falling, there are vendors we can call in," said Cramer. "Such events are included in our contingency plans."
DERT has met several times with the fire department since then. Members of the group are currently developing a database for Dallas fire and rescue personnel. The database contains building information on all of the high rises in the downtown. Each building has contact information listed.
DERT is also updating the way information is provided to the fire department. Before the incident, fire officials had only building specification sheets to work from when entering a facility. Since then, DERT has provided a schematic sheet for each building. The sheet indicates all of the entrances, gas and electrical cutoffs, and water mains.
All of this information is designed to help in a variety of situations. For example, the basement of a downtown building was flooded around the same time as the sign incident because it took officials six hours to find the cutoff valve for an 18-inch water main that had broken near the building. The new database will make such critical information readily available to fire and rescue personnel.
After-action reports such as the one previously discussed are critical for DERT in updating emergency response plans. For example, a fire broke out in one of Castor's properties downtown. The affected floors of the 12-story high rise were evacuated and the fire was quickly extinguished by the automatic sprinkler system. The after-action report yielded valuable information. One issue concerned the use of door restrictors devices, now required in most states, that keep the elevator doors closed when the elevator stops between floors. Had the elevators stopped between floors with passengers in them, fire and rescue personnel were not fully trained on how to extricate passengers in the most efficient manner. Though the rescue personnel indicated that they would have used jaws of life and fire axes, Castor recommended that, whenever possible, they use the extrication methods preferred by the elevator manufacturer instead. These include using openings to hoist people out of the elevators.
The battalion chief who responded to the fire came to the next DERT meeting and discussed the use of door restrictors on elevators. When elevators are not stopped directly at a landing, the restrictors force people to stay inside the elevator until they are rescued. This keeps people from panicking and trying to jump down to reach an available floor.
Through DERT, an arrangement was made for Ron Steele, the chief elevator inspector for the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, to provide training for Dallas fire and rescue personnel to learn more about how elevators in general, and door restrictors specifically, work in an emergency and how to respond to that.
The most prevalent training involves tabletop exercises and disaster drills. The DERT team has conducted two tabletop exercises since being established. The first replicated a natural disaster involving two tornadoes, one downtown and another in a suburb. The exercise was designed to demonstrate what would happen if the resources of fire and police were split between two locations.
In November 2002, the team tested a hazmat scenario. The exercise involved a tanker overturning on an icy highway. The fuel ignited and was rolling toward a major commercial development, a hotel, a large retail mall, and an elementary school. The scenario occurred during rush hour.
The more than 100 participants involved in the scenario learned that staging areas must be flexible in instances where the hazard is on the move. Though prepared to deal with the fire, the team was thrown a curve when the fire changed direction and headed straight for the elementary school. "This presented a problem," says Golbeck. "We were evacuating to the school, and we had to reconsider our strategy."
In the end, the team decided not to evacuate the school because the facility was the safest place for the kids to shelter. However, making the decision was difficult. "We learned that we have to be better prepared to make these decisions in the future," says Golbeck.
In addition to its own exercises, DERT members sometimes work with other groups. For example, the group was present at a recent exercise sponsored by Baylor Health Care System. The tabletop exercise involved the release of a biological weapon and the ensuing mass casualties. Baylor learned that it needed to update its disaster plan to deal with the number of people who would be severely injured or would seek help in such an incident. DERT members--who were invited guests rather than participants--noted that in the simulation, many people who were not ill ran out into hazardous areas to see what was happening and were infected. Still others, who had not been exposed to the contagion, sought help in local emergency rooms, making the number of patients much higher than anticipated. DERT members told the hospital that if they were notified in an emergency, they could get information about the incident to employees through their communication network.
By putting out information over the DERT network, private security could alert employees and tell them to stay put in the case of a hazardous material release. This would prevent people from running into the street, being exposed to the toxin, and causing a greater strain on area hospitals.
Bank of America, which has its headquarters in Dallas, conducted its own nationwide tabletop exercise and asked DERT members to be present. The scenario involved three simultaneous explosions in downtown Dallas. Once the explosions occurred, the police shut down downtown Dallas, and bank managers suddenly realized that they couldn't get into their files or access their computers. During the exercise, bank officials had to reroute to hot sites, get ATMs back on line, and reestablish the company's computer network.
Future training scenarios are currently in the works. DERT plans to conduct several full-building evacuations, for example. Also, new equipment needs to be tested. Golbeck has arranged to bring in mobile store- fronts for businesses to use in case of emergencies. These RV-type vehicles could be used as command posts or offices by private security during an emergency.
"But we still need to do field exercises," says Golbeck. "We need to bring the storefronts out and let the private sector get their hands on them and see how they work. Security directors may decide to use a satellite site instead."
The group's goals include expanding its communications system and incorporating Web functionality. The new system would be similar to the current text-messaging system but would be able to send a voice message to cell phones or office phones in addition to a text message. A feature of the new system converts the text entered into the system to a voice message, then dials the numbers, and leaves the message.
Another goal of the group is to reach out to small businesses in the downtown area. DERT hopes that these business owners will attend its monthly meetings and provide a different perspective to help improve disaster management even more.
Most of the costs of the program have been borne by businesses participating in DERT--one company provided stock for the access badges, another printed them, and all businesses provide meeting rooms and training resources.
The group's biggest challenge is keeping interest high. "It has been almost three years since 9-11, and people are starting to become complacent," says Cramer. "Especially when the economy is poor, people are more interested in leasing office space than planning for security."
Teresa Anderson is a senior editor of Security Management.