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The Property Industry’s Responsibility in Addressing Mass Violence

Usually, I love writing about innovations in buildings. There is so much fascinating innovation being brought to bear on the places that we spend the vast majority of our lives. Few industries have more human impact than the property industry. But this story is one that I wish I didn’t have to write at all. I felt a bit of a tightening in my throat and heaviness in my chest every time I interviewed someone or even now as I write this intro. The fact that I even have to compile ideas around gun violence in buildings means that our society still does not have the right recipe of gun laws, mental health resources and societal norms. Plus, anyone publishing anything on this topic needs to think long and hard about the benefits versus the costs of what they are saying since we are just now starting to understand the copycat nature of these types of horrific crimes. 

This is a problem much too big to be tackled in this or any single article. But if we all are powerless, or at least we feel powerless, to prevent mass violence maybe we can at least do our best to contain it. As disgusting as it may feel, we can design our spaces and train our networks with the possibility of an outbreak of violence in mind. There has always been a need for readiness when it comes to emergencies, now we just need to adapt our thinking to include workplace violence, active shooters, or terrorist threats.

One of the first dilemmas I encountered when looking into how buildings can become more safe for their occupants is the wide spectrum in thinking when it comes to who exactly is responsible for building safety. Most landlords understand that the common areas of the building are their responsibility but expect the tenants to secure their own areas. This isn’t always the best strategy according to Ryan Schonfeld, CEO of the RAS Security group. “The liability does not only affect tenants since they often don’t have the ability to address building protocols and controls,” he said. “Even if a tenant moves in and adds their own security infrastructure they are often hamstrung by the building itself.”

For the building to be secure there has to be collaboration between the building admin and the offices’ management. “The landlord is responsible for access control and that it is timely in how it activates and more importantly deactivates access,” Schonfeld explained, adding, “there are systems in place today that can facilitate that but we are seeing very little adoption.” It isn’t just responding to a lost or stolen ID card that building security should be worried about. He showed me a product on Amazon for under $12 that can easily duplicate identification cards. While I did not try the product myself, the five-star reviews tell me that it must be at least somewhat good at its nefarious job.

Schonfeld also brought up the idea of hardening a target. A successfully designed building or space might encourage a wrongdoer to identify an easier target. This has been noted by security professionals when looking at the lower violent incidents of convenience stores and banks that have glass barriers between the staff and the clients.

So, if the property industry should be taking a harder look at how their buildings could help in the event of violence, what can be done exactly? The first step is design. Schools are already starting to be laid out in in ways that slow down a possible active shooter. Schonfeld says that adding layers to any building’s security can help slow an attacker since even minutes count. Turnstyles and hardened glass are obviously good ways to create additional barriers to forced entry. Both of which, interestingly, are becoming more fashionable as open offices and frictionless lobbies become the norm. “Even just the placements of plants and furniture can slow people down. People intuitively don’t jump over things, they find an opening,” he told me.

In order to initiate a lockdown, the threat first needs to be identified. Most buildings have surveillance cameras but they are often antiquated (analog), low resolution and/or malfunctioning. The people watching the video that these cameras are capturing often need some help as well. Without significant training and the assistance of advanced technology, most people will experience “screen fatigue” after looking at multiple feeds after as little as 20 minutes. 

One company working to help identify active shooter threats faster is Aegis AI. I talked to its co-founder Sonny Tai about how he and his team designed their technology to use computer vision to identify a gun in someone’s hand within a fraction of a second. “We wanted to make sure that shooters could be identified without the need for new hardware. The easier it is for people to adopt, the more people will use it and the more impact it will have,” Tai said. As former military, he understands the importance of identifying a threat and notifying the authorities as fast as possible. He also noticed that smaller buildings often don’t have the luxury of having a guard whose sole responsibility is to watch the monitor so there is plenty of need to provide assistance when they might be away from their desk. 

Just notifying the authorities is only the first step. They need as much help as they can get to navigate a dangerous situation in an unknown building. “Having the ability for Authorities to quickly and easily view camera feeds tied into the building’s access control system is important not just for active shooter situations, but for any type of emergency scenario,” said James Segil, founder of OpenPath, a building access technology provider. He has thought a lot about the need for vital, often life-saving, information to be passed quickly to any rescue crew on-site since they just designed a new lockdown feature that would adjust the security systems based on the type of emergency. This might mean locking down certain parts of the building while opening exterior doors to allow people to flee and emergency personnel to enter. It almost always includes a feature that turns over the security camera feeds and access control to a local authority.

A common theme that emerged was the need to have open channels of communication with law enforcement. One of the most inventive ways of doing this came from RAS’s Schonfeld, a former police officer himself. “A major pain point for many police officers is finding a safe, clean place to go to the bathroom. By doing something as little as providing that you get a presence, a better relationship and familiarity with the police force.” Going even further, building managers can also offer up their off-hour space to train as most departments are constantly looking for new locations to run drills. Having local police, fire crews and paramedics already knowledgeable about a building could prove invaluable during an actual emergency.

Everyone I talked to on the topic told me about the importance of training. Just like fire drills, every building management should run through scenarios, including active shooters, regularly. This doesn’t only train the facility’s staff, it also helps teach the occupants about what to do to help keep themselves, and others, safe. I spoke with Haniel Lynn, CEO of Kastle Systems, a security solutions provider. They are looking to unlock the power of the information that building occupants themselves often possess with an upcoming feature that lets threats be published from one occupant’s mobile phone to everyone else’s. “Crowd-sourced communication tools allow instant notifications to be sent from individual occupants to other app users, or screened first by an authoritative administrator, prior to dissemination to the building’s tenants,” Heinz said. “The result is enhanced security with property occupants who are updated in real-time using integrated connective technologies and mobile apps. If someone sees something, everyone can be notified.”

So, who is responsible for addressing violence in our buildings? The answer is all of us. Those who design the layout and technology that our buildings use. Those who oversee the operations of the buildings every day. Those that manage the people in the buildings. And even you, even if you don’t fall into any of these categories. We are all responsible for doing our part to end mass violence. With all of the doom and gloom that gets reported it is easy to lose sight that we are living in a more peaceful time than ever. Things are going in the right direction but mass violence isn’t something that will just go away without a concerted, calculated effort by regulators, the property industry and society at large.

Propmodo is a global multimedia effort to explore how emerging technologies affect our built environment.

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