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An unfortunate reality of our time is the consistent drumbeat of active aggressor attacks on public spaces. Emblematic of this, as the American economy began its cautious reopening from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, on May 21 a shooting occurred at a shopping complex in the Phoenix, Arizona suburbs by a disgruntled 20-year-old construction worker wielding an assault rifle.
A critical feature of these kinds of attack is that they end quickly. If the 2017 shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas is excluded because it occurred outdoors, America’s remaining five deadliest active aggressor events left 154 people dead in a 49-minute span. In other words, the average time between an attacker entering a structure and the end of the shooting was a mere 9 minutes and 48 seconds, with the attackers killing one person every 3.8 seconds.
When so much blood is spilled so quickly, every tool should be brought to bear. Building managers should look beyond rapid police response or individual heroics to maximize survivability, and their efforts should include the design of the structure where an attack may occur. The architectural paradigm called crisis architecture incorporates integrated tactical, psychological, and technological security measures, while preserving the function and aesthetics of the buildings to which these measures are applied. This paradigm’s focus is designing the built environment in a way that increases the likelihood that individuals will survive an active aggressor incident.
Crisis architecture focuses on producing structures in the built environment in a manner that increases the likelihood that individuals will survive an active aggressor incident. The concept is modeled around eight principles. While the most effective way to fully implement the crisis architecture paradigm would be integrating all eight principles into the design of a new structure, substantial security advantages can still be gained by using these principles to guide the retrofit of an existing building.
1) Enable creation of distance: Structures should allow people to move rapidly from one area to another, which is critical in the initial moments of an active aggressor incident. There should be numerous connecting hallways between parts of a building and multiple staircases between floors, all of which facilitate short transit times. Creation of distance has four purposes: to allow potential victims to quickly flee from the immediate vicinity of an attacker, to enable rapid movement to a building exit, to facilitate access to a shelter-in-place location, and to decrease law enforcement reaction time.
2) Allow safe exit from numerous points in the building: Integrating numerous exits into the plan for a building will prevent individuals from becoming trapped in a particular space and ease congestion that occurs when evacuating congested spaces. Standard exits are one way to accomplish this goal, but non-standard exit points, such as pop-out windows, emergency rope ladders for upper story windows, and subterranean exits, are part of a comprehensive blueprint.
Some additional standard exit points can be put into place during a retrofit. However, the area where structures are most likely to be lacking, and thus where the greatest potential exists to increase security, is in non-standard exits. For example, pop-out windows can be installed in place of existing standard windows and emergency ladders can be installed for upper story windows.
3) Incorporate angles to limit a shooter’s line of sight: Attackers wielding firearms normally shoot only what they can see. Public space design should eschew long straight hallways where people have no place to avoid being seen, and rooms where most of the floor area is directly visible from the door. By providing space where people can avoid being seen, barriers to line of sight increase the amount of time it takes a shooter to locate targets. This time can be used by civilians to exit the building or move to a shelter-in-place location.
Numerous options exist to decrease floor area directly visible from the door or entrance to a room. Options that can be thoughtfully placed to break up a potential aggressor’s line of sight include large planters with tall flora that are difficult to see through, large pieces of artwork, decorative columns, and half-walls that separate spaces in a large room.
4) Provide adequate cover and concealment: Design elements that provide cover and concealment are central to the crisis architecture paradigm because they facilitate the creation of distance as people move to exit a facility, and provide protection for those who shelter in place. Cover can stop bullets, while concealment only prevents an individual from being seen.
Many of the design elements already described can also contribute to providing cover and concealment. While they will naturally provide some concealment, planters, artwork, fountains, and columns can all be made of bullet-resistant materials like stone, concrete, or strong metals to provide cover as well. Sheets of bullet-resistant material could be placed behind drywall so that the walls provide cover, and bullet-resistant windows and doors can be installed to stop bullets from passing from one room to another. Another possible concealment technique is obscuration through a medium like smoke. For example, smoke emitters could be triggered by a nearby gunshot or a responsible party pressing an alarm, as is already in place at some American schools.
5) Enable rapid hardening of a facility: The majority of casualties in mass shooter incidents are inflicted in a short amount of time after the attack begins. A design that allows rapid hardening of a facility can alleviate this dynamic. Rapid hardening allows a building to maintain its full form and function until defense against an aggressor becomes necessary. When it does, the attacker can be quickly isolated from potential targets.
Technologies that enable rapid hardening of a facility are common during renovations, and in many cases are one of the only security measures installed in a structure. Some schools have installed a panel with a single button that can be pushed that deadbolts the door and drops a window covering. There can also be a phone placed on this panel with a button to call law enforcement, similar to those used inside elevators. This panel should not be placed near the door, as doing so would force the person using it to be exposed to a shooter. Rather, the panel should be in a location that is out of sight from the entrance. It is also important to decide whether a rapid-hardening system should be centrally managed, individually (room-by-room) managed, or allow for both.
6) Implement “human-centered design” concepts: Often the victims of active aggressor incidents are untrained and unprepared. These incidents are always chaotic and confusing, and people react instinctively. Innate fight, flight, or freeze responses tend to drive behavior. Human-centered design can help by increasing understanding of the most likely course of action people will take. Buildings using the crisis architecture paradigm should be designed to work with human instincts to maximize safety in a moment of excessive adrenaline and minimal rational thought.
There are many creative ways to accomplish this, including the use of lighting exits in a way that draws attention, using color and shape to make cover obvious, and clearly marking simple instructions as to how to utilize emergency measures like a pop-out window.
7) Training and design need to be mutually supporting: In cases where people receive active aggressor response training (e.g., schools, some businesses and government facilities), training and architecture should be mutually supporting. For example, if an organization’s active shooter protocol is to shelter in place, the spaces where they are supposed to do so should be built to withstand attempted entry or attack. The doors should have secure locks that can be activated from inside rooms, and the walls should be able to stop bullets. Similarly, if evacuation is the preferred protocol, there needs to be cover and concealment available along routes to multiple exits, and there should be a system that allows individuals to know where the shooter is before they start moving, to prevent them from moving directly into the shooter’s path.
This principle should be considered early in the design phase of a retrofit, taking into account who is going to be using the building. Buildings with residents, long-term commercial tenants, or employees who can be trained can incorporate more elements that require training, while buildings that are largely used by the general public should utilize features that require less or no training. The building should be designed to provide security for its specific audience, and no single solution fits every situation.
8) Integrate systems to increase the situational awareness of first responders: The efficiency of law enforcement response to an active aggressor situation can be degraded if law enforcement lacks sound information about the location of the attacker, the location and condition of victims, or layout of the building. Builders should install systems that decrease the amount of time it takes for first responders to gain situational awareness, thus decreasing their reaction time.
Some technologies that can increase first responder situational awareness include internal gunshot detection technology to relay the position of gunfire, systems to allow victims to report the location of the shooter, and small lights (red/green) near doors and external windows to indicate if somebody in the room is wounded. Building administrators could also give first responders temporary access to security cameras. It is critical that law enforcement be brought into the design process as these technologies are being considered so that they can provide advice, are aware of what is being installed, and can ensure that it is compatible with their communications infrastructure.
One of the primary advantages of crisis architecture is that it creates a comprehensive and systemic security-focused design. Thus, the optimal manner in which to integrate these principles is to utilize as many of them as possible in renovation plans. Employing an integrated set of principles when retrofitting buildings to enhance security provides numerous advantages over implementing independent security features in an ad hoc fashion. The design can be comprehensive and systemic. Rather than picking and choosing among independent solutions designed to fill individual security gaps, a structure strategically retrofitted with security in mind can integrate its security measures together. Further, the use of integrated principles maximizes a manager’s ability to provide security while maintaining the space’s intended functionality. Retrofitting in an integrated, systemic manner also helps to maintain the form of the architecture as it was envisioned. Crisis architecture as a paradigm can help guide the refurbishment of public and private structures.
There is some utility in only employing one or two principles. However, if the principles are treated like a menu, where only one or two items are selected for implementation, the structure will have a lower level of overall security against an active aggressor, and it creates the risk that continued additions of other select measures over time will interfere with the form and function of the building.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the chief executive officer of the private firm Valens Global. Tadd Lahnert is a fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point and an active duty Army infantry officer who recently completed a Masters degree at Duke University through the Downing Scholars Program. In the summer of 2019, Major Lahnert served as a research fellow at Valens Global.