Securing the Comcast Center
PHILADELPHIA—At 58 stories and 975-feet tall, the Comcast Center is the tallest building between New York City and Chicago. It is also the first skyscraper to be completed since 9/11, construction having been finished in 2007.
Its offices currently house 4,000 people, the vast majority of whom work for Comcast Corp., which leases 94 percent of the building's 1.2 million sq. ft. of office space. The building also welcomes many more people throughout the day to its food court and lobby, which sports an enormous digital screen. The screen plays a montage of clever video art and trompe l'oeils throughout the day, which by design, attracts a tourist audience.
Despite all the inherent security challenges in protecting such a facility, Jim Birch, director of security and life safety for the building's owner, Liberty Property Trust, said one of the biggest challenges is managing tenant perceptions that a skyscraper is an unsafe place to work. "The 9/11 syndrome is still alive and well in many peoples' minds," Birch told Security Director News. "Most of the tenants in this building come from the suburbs … and now they're entering the largest building they've ever seen in the Philadelphia area, which can cause some anxious moments."
Birch confronted those perceptions during an event last August when tenants within the Comcast Center felt the building shake. Most immediately panicked and darted for the elevators, pouring onto the sidewalks. It took Birch between 30 seconds and one minute to ascertain that an earthquake had occurred 120 miles south of the city, and to use the emergency intercom to inform tenants of the situation and instruct them to “shelter in place.” However, "by that time it was difficult to convince those that hadn’t left, to stay," Birch said. "And [it was] even more difficult to go outside and convince those people that had left that they're safer to come back into the building."
An earthquake, a rare event in Philadelphia, is a clear example of a "shelter in place" situation, but Birch learned a valuable lesson that day: "What we learned from an emergency management perspective is that since 9/11, the inclination of a large part of the American public is to flee instead of stay."
Mark Farrell, Comcast's CSO for the past six-and-one-half years, agreed. "It's hard to get the images of 9/11 out of your mind," he said.
Since that earthquake, Birch and Farrell have spent time better educating tenants about the building, which officially opened in 2008 and incorporates post-9/11 construction designed to withstand catastrophic events. (For more on the Comcast Center, including its non-traditional approach to hiring security officers, read my blog, Editor's Notes.) In effort put people at ease, they've held seminars, given tours and hung flyers, and making.
Shelter-in-place drills, just as important as fire drills, have also been conducted. Meetings have also been held with the building's more-than-200 floor captains, employees who are trained on emergency response and preparedness. ("Comcast brought one of the most well-trained floor-captain programs in the country," Birch said.)
Will the new efforts and initiatives be enough to overcome peoples' initial urge to rush from the building during an emergency? That remains to be seen, but Birch believes he’s taken as many steps as possible to ensure that’s the case.