The Sears Tower has reinvented its security program to help tenants feel both safe and at home.
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.”
Reconfiguring the Force
After 9-11, the number of security officers at the tower more than doubled; some officers were proprietary and others were contract. Among the issues that were apparent to Kambic were poor overall communication, direction, and control, as well as a lack of cross training.
After much thought and study, it was decided to switch to an entirely contract force. The tower’s proprietary officers became employees of AlliedBarton at the same salary and without a loss of seniority or benefits. The number of full-time officers was reduced from about 140 to 70.
When asked what factored into the decision, Kambic explains that “My personal belief is that contract agencies, especially an agency like AlliedBarton, have a lot more power for recruiting and training. The second reason is that I had a redundancy among supervision. By putting the two together, we obviously were able to realize some cost savings.”
Training. The state of Illinois requires that security officers have 20 hours of training before coming on site; Kambic requires an additional 16 hours. Once on the job, security staff participate in a formalized and documented training program tailored by Kambic and AlliedBarton specifically for the Sears Tower. In addition, they receive training from several agencies, including the FBI; the Secret Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; and the Chicago Police and Fire Departments.
“It’s worked to our advantage in that we believe that we’re getting the best training possible and at no cost. And we’ve developed extremely strong partnerships with those agencies so that if we do have something that needs special attention, we’re able to pick up a phone, make a call, and get some people out here,” Kambic states.
One module of the officer training is a thorough grounding in customer service. “In high rises, service is your biggest amenity. That’s one of the reasons that they choose your building,” he says.
This idea is reflected in the change from police-type uniforms to more corporate attire. The new look for officers includes navy-blue suits, shirts, and silk ties. On the first day the officers wore their new uniforms, Kambic recalls, favorable tenant comments rolled in. “It’s more than just a look. And I think the officers felt better about themselves; they felt more professional.”
Previously, says Kambic, officers rarely greeted tenants and guests. “Now we want our officers to make eye-contact, give a nod or a smile—something so that the tenant feels recognized.” Ideally, a tenant or visitor should have contact with security three times before they reach the elevator bank.
“The bottom line is that, in a high rise, security staff provide the first impression when people walk in and the last impression when people walk out,” Kambic states.
That first impression begins even before people enter the building. When the current owners took over the Sears Tower, one of the changes they wanted to make was to reintroduce doormen dressed in classic style to greet people out on the curb before they ever stepped into the building. I had, in fact, been greeted by one upon my arrival, but I had not imagined that the friendly doorman was a security officer.
After Kambic lets me in on the secret, he explains that their job function, which includes not only calling taxis and pointing tourists toward the Skydeck entrance but also serving as perimeter patrols—looking for standing vehicles or unattended packages, and noting suspicious individuals, for example.
The second ring of security personnel is right inside the doors, acting as greeters, pointing the way to the x-ray screening machine for all oversized bags and packages or to the visitor check-in desk, where the customer service agents, while not security officers, have received security training.
Skydeck tourists use one controlled door to enter the tower, pass through a metal detector and have their bags screened. They then buy tickets and wait for their turn to go up to the observation deck in an area without access to the main part of the building.
Separating the tourists from the rest of the population works well, says Kambic; the challenge is in credentialing the approximately 1,200 daily visitors entering the building via the main and secondary lobbies. Because of previous bad experiences with visitor-management systems, the tenants were resistant.
Before coming to the Sears Tower, Kambic was security director at Chicago’s Aon Center, the second tallest building in the city, which used a visitor-management software package called IVisitor by InfraSafe of Orlando, Florida. Kambic’s experience working with the company and the tenants’ reviews of the system had been sterling.
“One of the key things that we needed for the visitor-management system was to integrate directly into our access control system. They had done that successfully for me at my last building, so I knew that technically they had the ability to do it with my access control system at this building.”
The visitor-management system is accessed by a receptionist in the lobby who uses a computer terminal to get to the IVisitor database via a standard Web browser. Tenants are required to preregister anticipated visitors at a password-protected Web site. When the record is selected, the system sends a real-time notification to the tenant and automatically generates a printed bar-code badge that allows access for a predetermined amount of time. The paper badge can be swiped through the turnstile readers like a regular access control card. This feature of the visitor-management system provides security with an audit trail.
The system also accommodates walk-ins, because it operates in real time, Kambic says. When an unexpected visitor arrives, security phones the designated contact person, who then enters the guest into the system. The system also allows tenants to place individuals on a barred list—unwanted solicitors or spouses in cases of domestic violence, for example.
Another benefit is that the Sears Tower doesn’t have to house and manage the system. “One of the things I like about it is that it’s a hosted service, which means there’s tech support 24 hours a day,” Kambic explains.
Kambic says that the first week IVisitor was in use, tenant participation was at 85 percent; by the end of the second week, participation reached 98 percent.
IVisitor is also used at the receiving docks, allowing tenants to register expected deliveries in much the same way that they register guests.
Tenant employees get access control cards that are issued by the security department. These are needed to pass through the turnstiles at the core of the building to reach the elevators.
One problem that Kambic wrangled with for a while was employee forgetfulness. Tenants frequently forgot to bring their access control cards. They would then queue up for visitor badges, creating lines.
To break up the logjam, Kambic was inspired by e-ticket self-check-in stations at airports. “We worked with InfraSafe to create a self-check-in kiosk,” he explains.
The kiosks, which were custom crafted to match the lobby’s unique stainless-steel architectural features, use readers that recognize all states’ drivers’ licenses.
The kiosk system is integrated with the access control system’s database. Employees who have forgotten their badges can swipe their driver’s license at the kiosk, and if the database confirms that the person is a current employee, it prints a paper badge valid for that day.
Anatomy of a Fire Drill
It’s only midmorning, but it’s already been a long day for Kambic. In the middle of the night just before the morning of my tour, an equipment fire had broken out on one of the tower’s upper floors. (The top eight stories of the building contain equipment that accompanies the massive broadcast antennas erected on the roof. There are no offices above the 99th floor.) Kambic had been called in around 2:00 a.m. and had been there since.
About 175 firefighters with 15 trucks and a mobile command center responded to the fire, which began in an equipment cabinet. Fortunately, it was successfully contained before spreading.
“We train and train and train, and of course we hope that there isn’t a real emergency,” says Kambic, “but it was kind of nice to see that everything we’ve done does make sense.”
When Kambic became director of security and life safety, the tower had no dedicated, full-time life-safety manager. “I thought it was important to professionalize that position. We’re in the people business—life safety is a priority,” he states. He created a new position to handle that responsibility.
The tower has an emergency-response team, as does each tenant company. Teams consist of a floor warden, searchers, and stairwell monitors. The life-safety manager, Michael Schroeder, CBCP (Certified Business Continuity Professional), works closely with those teams to ensure that they understand and practice their emergency responsibilities.
Schroeder also takes part in a monthly safety check. The comprehensive review “goes basically from the roof all the way down to the basement of the building,” says Kambic, “looking for violations, safety hazards, lights burned out, anything that might be impeding the sprinklers—those types of things.”
The city of Chicago requires that every tenant undertake fire drills twice per year. At the Sears Tower, that means somewhere between 180 to 200 drills. Schroeder not only schedules the required drills, he also holds debriefings with the employees immediately following their mock evacuations. “It’s a value-added service that not a lot of other buildings have,” Kambic says.
And despite the real fire of the night before, the drills carry on while I’m there. Two tenant companies from the 52nd floor are headed down while being timed. During these drills, Kambic has the tenants do a bit more than the city regulations require. “The city only requires all of them to hit the stairwell for the drill to end, but we require that they come down the stairs,” he explains.
“One of the things that we learned from 9-11 was that many people have never even been in the stairwells. We want to make sure that they get used to being there, knowing what they’re like—what it’s going to feel like in there,” Kambic explains. They also identify people who need special assistance.
The mock evacuees gather in an empty suite of offices on a lower floor, as they have been instructed to do by a PA system announcement. Schroeder faces them, smiling.
“Congratulations on your drill for today. You did a great job. You were all into the stairwell in one minute and 31 seconds, and that’s a great time. The fire department says three minutes is a good time, but you cut that time in half,” he proudly informs them.
The group replies affirmatively when Schroeder asks whether the announcement was loud and clear. “Good, because it’s very important,” he says. “You’ll note that you didn’t hear an alarm—just an announcement, and that is exactly what you’re going to hear any time you ever have to evacuate and relocate. Listen to the message closely, because its going to tell you exactly what to do.”
Schroeder goes on to repeat what the employees should already know: There are four stairwells, so there are four exits on each floor, and it is important to become familiar with where they are on all floors that employees frequent.
A woman interrupts to ask what at first sounds somewhat odd, but is actually a fascinating glimpse of tenant culture and psychology: “If one of the stairwells is in someone else’s office, can we use it?”
Sensing that this issue might actually mean the difference between a successful evacuation and a tragedy, Schroeder nods solemnly and explains that it doesn’t matter what company’s area the stairwell is in. “You just go right through that office.”
Schroeder continues his debriefing, reminding the employees not to prop the stairwell doors open behind them and to always stay on their right hand side when coming down the stairs, because fire department personnel will use the employees’ left side when coming up.
Then he eases a typical fear: “When a sprinkler-head flow alarm comes in, all of the stairwell doors automatically unlock, so you never have to be afraid to get locked in a stairwell. When you’re evacuating, keep the noise level down. There might be as many as eight floors evacuating—the fire floor and two floors above and five floors below. We may make another announcement saying you should go to another floor, and it’s important that you hear that.”
He reminds the employees of other helpful features such as the special phones in the stairwells that connect directly to security or the fire command center. There is also emergency lighting with both generator and battery backup, and there are evacuation chairs in each stairwell located every ten floors.
Schroeder cautions that during an evacuation, no one should be sent to the freight elevators, including the disabled, because the plan in place with the Chicago Fire Department is for security to have those elevators waiting to carry up fire and rescue personnel to the crisis zone.
At the end of Schroeder’s debriefing, he reminds the employees that each week he offers free CPR, first-aid, and defibrillator training for Red Cross certification.
Kambic says that he and Schroeder try to impart to the tenants why that type of training is important. It’s because “they are really the first responders in the building. The fire department, or police, or security are going to be there shortly thereafter, but in most cases, the tenants are the first people on the scene.”
Role playing. The security and life-safety team regularly trains with the Chicago Fire Department on site. There were three role-playing scenarios carried in 2006. “It was loosely done before I got here, but we’ve now formalized it into a regular pattern of training,” explains Kambic. Having that on-site training for the fire fighters is critical, given the building’s size. “It’s obviously a complicated building to learn,” he notes.
The training events are conducted on a grand scale; they can include as many as 200 people. In one scenario, a vacant floor was transformed into the site of a simulated fire, with people acting as employees in need of help—some handicapped or suffering from smoke inhalation or heart attacks.
The security command center was inundated with calls from mock employees on the special phones in the stairwells. Other players pretending to be from the media tried to interview security officers, tenants, and responders.
During the simulation, the disabled had to be strapped to evacuation chairs and carried down the stairs. Some security and engineering department staff who made planned dangerous mistakes were removed from the exercise.
“That’s real life,” he stresses. “It shows that if someone takes an elevator to the fire floor, as they are trained never to do, then chances are they won’t come back.”
Kambic says that not long before the real fire mentioned earlier, there had been an unannounced drill scenario to test the responses of the security command center. In that test, the chief engineer set off a simulated sprinkler-head water-flow alarm.
Consequently, before the fire department arrived for the real fire, the security officers and engineering staff of the third shift knew just what to do; they got out the floor plans, the list of people who need special assistance, the diagrams of the fire panels, and the locations of the freight elevators. That helped tremendously to expedite the fire department’s ability to respond and contain the upper-floor blaze.
Higher and Higher
Today, occupancy of the Sears Tower has risen to well above 80 percent. Seven of the biggest tenant companies have renewed their long-term leases. “Our occupancy level is going up…and those two indicators tell me that we’re doing something right here at the Sears Tower,” Kambic states.
And despite the ghost of 9-11, Kambic says, “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think our tenants are nervous at all. They know that this building is the best prepared, best trained building in the city of Chicago.”
Up on the observation deck, Kambic gazes out over Chicago’s metropolitan splendor. Other 50, 60, and 70 story buildings look like children’s toys below. “I think that anytime that anybody goes up into a high rise, they know there are potential risks. But tenants on numerous occasions have told me they feel safer here than they do in their own houses.”
Chicago’s Sears Tower, which is now under new ownership, has considerably revamped the security program it inherited to create a robustly secure environment that feels anything but fortified.
The tower’s security and safety professionals watch over a population of about 12,000 tenants who work for approximately 90 tenant companies. After 9-11, security measures—such as the installation of barricades around the building, mandatory bag and briefcase screening for all employees and visitors, and a marked increase in security officers—gave the building an intimidating, unfriendly feel. When Sears Tower Management Group took over the building, it brought in a new security director to rework the security program.
Business-style uniforms and customer service training were inaugurated for security officers, a new visitor-management system and self-check-in kiosks helped end backups in the lobbies, and mandatory bag and package screening was reduced to oversized items only.
Additionally, a full-time life-safety manager was hired to oversee tenant training on emergency evacuations and other crisis issues. A regular series of life-safety role-playing scenarios is held with Chicago police, fire, and rescue departments.
These changes and others have led to increased tenant satisfaction. Occupancy, which fell after 9-11, is now on the rise.
Ann Longmore-Etheridge is associate editor of Security Management.