Security by design 

Are there ways to make buildings more resistant to shooters, or help cops corner them?

click to enlarge Planned Parenthood's building has corridors, but their doors can't be locked. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • Planned Parenthood's building has corridors, but their doors can't be locked.

As the number of mass-shooting victims across the country grows, including in Colorado Springs, law enforcement and building architects have turned their attention to how buildings themselves might minimize the damage.

There are no easy answers.

For decades, building codes have focused on fire safety. Interior corridor doors, for example, must be easy for anyone to open. But uncomplicated access might work against a law enforcement strategy that calls for closing down portions of buildings by blocking corridors in order to isolate a shooter or potential victims.

The investigation into the Nov. 27 shooting at Planned Parenthood Westside is pending, so it's not publicly known how the facility's floor plan and corridors may have figured into Robert Lewis Dear's ability to kill three people and wound nine others during a five-hour standoff with police.

But it's unlikely the building's five corridors can be locked down, given current building codes.

"There can be an interior hallway door, but it can't be a lockable door," says Regional Building Department official Roger Lovell. "Even the brand-new 2015 building codes don't address it, and I don't know [that] they ever will, because it's based on getting people out of a building in an emergency. Until the building code can predict how an active shooter will move through a building, I don't expect building codes to change drastically."

Planned Parenthood won't discuss security elements at its Colorado Springs facility, but Lovell says the corridor doors, several leading to seven exterior exits — didn't have locks.

"The building code is looking at it from the standpoint that there's a fire and we're trying to get people out of the building any way we can," Lovell says. "Unfortunately, the building code has yet really to address them [shooting situations] from a security standpoint."

Summarizing three pages of the International Building Code that pertain to locks, Lovell says, "It's safe to say that doors that function as part of the means of egress must be readily openable from the egress side without the use of a key, special knowledge, or effort." And, he adds, egress could commonly be required on both sides of an interior corridor door, depending on a building's layout. That appears to be the case for the Planned Parenthood building.

"From a security standpoint, you can think about it two ways," Lovell says. If corridors are locked to prevent a shooter from gaining access to your part of the building, that's great. But, he adds, "If the guy with the gun is behind you, and you run into a locked door, you have a problem."

David Collins, codes consultant for the American Institute of Architects, says via email the AIA and others are studying how building design can play a role in shooter scenarios.

"Architects have been and are actively involved in the discussion in national, state and local venues that are raising this question and wrestling with how best to address continuing efforts to provide higher levels of security while not compromising life safety," he says. Past efforts of using design to tackle safety issues led to the introduction of sprinkler systems inside buildings, he notes.

"The best course of action to prevent loss when confronted by active shooters is a question that has been at the forefront of discussion in various meetings where security and safety specialists and experts have debated and sought answers," Collins adds. "To date there has been no resolution beyond efforts to maintain the safety features of a building and provide general security features..."

He says codes do allow for use of electronic locking devices in sensitive areas, such as medical facilities. One example Lovell notes is hospitals' newborn nurseries, which often are located behind locked doors to guard against kidnappers.

Retired Police Chief Jack Rinchich, president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police/American Police Hall of Fame, Titusville, Florida, says the issue isn't foreign to cops. "I do believe law enforcement is taking a proactive approach in looking at ways to make entry and isolate potential shooters," he says in an interview.

Attention also is focused on how to develop systems and designs that enable individuals to take initial action, "because it might be awhile before police get there."

"It's a complicated issue, really," he says. "Every building is different by design. You have to adhere to fire codes."

It's common for a building's elevators to be disengaged automatically when a fire alarm sounds, he notes, a type of technology that could be applied to other types of threats. The trick is to enable lockdown technology while allowing victims to escape through an outside exit.

"What kind of design can we implement that will meet safety concerns of fire and law enforcement responses? We ought to be able to satisfy both of those by design and legislation," he says. "Quite frankly, I'm not sure how that can be achieved, but I believe technology can help us."

But Lovell notes, "You have to be careful relying on technology, because what happens when that technology fails or the power goes off?"

International Code Council spokesman Trey Hughes says issues surrounding locks on interior doors are on the ICC's radar, but no specific codes have been adopted to address them in relation to shooter threats.

Threats posed by active shooters have given rise to a change in regulations for Colorado public schools. Last year, a code change was enacted when the Department of Public Safety, which oversees public schools' building codes, required a new kind of door lock, prompted in part by shooting incidents, including the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary incident in Newtown, Connecticut, in which 20 children and six adults were killed.

In 2013, fire departments discovered schools were violating a building code that requires classroom doors be locked from inside using a key and be latched when closed to provide a fire barrier.

The violations were challenged by a Pikes Peak region coalition of schools, including Academy School District 20, Falcon School District 49, Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 and Colorado Springs School District 11.

The coalition, led by D-12 superintendent Walt Cooper, argued that the violations stemmed from a practice schools developed in response to shooter threats and other non-fire emergencies. Because they need to lock doors instantly in those cases, some schools were placing magnetic strips on doors' strike plates to keep them from latching. When an emergency arose, someone simply pulled the magnetic strip off, allowing the door — already set on lock mode — to automatically bolt down. No key was necessary.

"In the event we had an emergency and we would go into lockdown, we'd have to find the key to the door and lock the door," Cooper explains. "So there was a conflict between what was thought of as best practice for school safety and what was required under the fire code.

"The chance of us being faced with a situation of an immediate lockdown very quickly is much more prevalent than being in a situation where there's a fire."

Lockdowns at D-11 schools happen a couple of times a month, says D-11 spokesperson Devra Ashby, but often are merely used as a precaution and last only a few minutes. For example, when police serve a warrant near a school, they request the school be locked down.

The Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control board of appeals rejected the coalition's appeal but successfully urged the division to amend the codes. The change becomes effective in January 2018.

"What they decided on with the new code is the door has to be easily locked from the inside without using a key," Ashby explains.

"Push-button hardware is ideal, but that means we have to invest a lot, and we're trying to see how we can get that done by January 2018."

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