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Saturday, Dec 9, 2023

SECURE—How Safe Is the Valley?

The phones at security firms in the San Fernando Valley began ringing almost immediately after Tuesday’s devastating terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Calls tripled at SOS Survival Products, a supplier of disaster relief and emergency preparedness training services, said Jeff Edelstein, president of the Van Nuys company. And current clients came in to update equipment, some of which dated back to the Northridge Earthquake. “People are a little hysterical,” said Muky Cohen, co-owner of The Chameleon Group Inc., a security and investigations firm in Canoga Park. “They don’t know exactly what to do, and the first thing they’re trying to do is upgrade their security systems.” Callers to the Building Owners and Managers Association in Los Angeles heard a recorded announcement advising them to close their buildings. By 10 a.m. the day of the attack, some 60 buildings throughout the city had been evacuated. But short of shutting down, those seeking ways to build a safe harbor against the onslaught of images from New York received few reassurances. Security measures instituted at the trade center since the bombing in 1993 rendered the building virtually impenetrable. In a sense, orchestrating the horrific collisions by air was the only way to get at the structure, experts said. “What happened (at the World Trade Center), unless you’re going to throw some sort of missile defense shield up, that wasn’t a breach of security,” said Jim McNulty, executive vice president of Pinkerton, an international security firm based in Calabasas. “That place has one of the greatest security programs in the world.” U.S. companies are expected to spend $35.5 billion on security programs and equipment annually by 2003, according to BOMA, a sum McNulty believes gives firms “a pretty good bang for our buck.” Short of evacuation, however, security experts concede that there’s little a company can do to protect against a terrorist. As the attack on the trade center showed, a fanatical group that wants to get at a target will, no matter the security system. “So we got it here in the States, and I think it will happen more and more,” said Cohen, a former paratrooper in the Israeli armed forces. “I hope I’m mistaken, but we’re dealing with religious fanatics being promised to be in heaven with 20 virgins, and they have nothing to lose. If you catch somebody like that and you execute him, it’s a reward for him. So it’s very hard to deal with him.” The good news is, it is not likely that terrorists of that sort would set their sites on Valley businesses or buildings. Their targets are typically high profile landmarks and economic nerve centers. But, security experts say, that doesn’t mean the Valley is safe from all threats. “There are no significant landmarks, but there are defense contractors,” said Jeff Winter, branch manager for Pinkerton. The Valley also is home to other typical terrorist targets: large, luxury high-rise buildings and religious institutions. “If you look at it from the Valley perspective versus downtown L.A., yes, the Valley would not be high up there in the targeting aspect,” said Gregory A. Duncan, president of Duncan Security Consultants Inc. “But terrorism is alive and well. Is it an everyday thing someone should be thinking about? Yes. Should they be building it into the company’s security systems? Yes.” Security officials, notoriously tight-lipped about the procedures they use or advise lest such intelligence falls on the wrong ears, nevertheless point out that most companies can take some steps to reduce risks and protect the safety of employees. “The terms we coin in the intelligence world are being a soft or a hard target,” said Duncan. “Hard being hard to get to, soft meaning soft. You build parameters around that.” Unlike earthquake preparedness, which revolves around what to do once an earthquake strikes, security experts say companies can take steps to minimize the threat of a terrorist strike before it happens. “As a precursor, you should take certain heightened measures to close entrances, to control packages and people entering the premises,” said H.D. “Doug” Bryant, Pinkerton area vice president for Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Experts suggest companies and buildings review and tighten controls for access to underground parking garages and enforce building sign-in procedures. Should disaster strike, the same procedures many buildings have in place for fire or earthquake emergency can be helpful in the event of a violent attack as well. “Actual evacuation is very similar,” said Geoff Craighead, vice president of high-rise services for Pinkerton. “I’m hearing that the loss of life (at the World Trade Center) has been minimized by the actions they took. They had a very good floor warden program to take control of occupants.” Companies have begun reviewing and updating many of these procedures. But while the events of the last week have heightened awareness, and even spurred action, security experts fear the new focus won’t last. For one thing, they point out, truly diligent security procedures would require giving up certain freedoms, even those as small as entering and exiting a building at will. “I think there will be a long and continuing debate over the willingness of Americans to give up personal freedoms over the long haul for the sake of security,” said Bryant. Then too, human nature being what it is, it’s not likely that companies will adhere as strictly to security procedures once the perception of an immediate threat subsides. “Like an earthquake, people tend to make their plans and preparations and their complacency is awakened, but then it’s one of those low-frequency, high-risk situations, and because it doesn’t happen that often, those emergency awareness techniques erode and become less important,’ said Craighead. “And that’s the problem. It’s a low-frequency, high-risk situation and those are the ones that cause the most danger and harm. Because when they eventually do happen, you’re not prepared.”

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