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How Times Square Businesses Prepare for Emergencies

Monday, May 03, 2010

Policemen and street vendors have been applauded for their quick reaction to Saturday's bomb scare, but how did the shops and businesses in Times Square respond? WNYC's Ailsa Chang has been talking to officials at hotels and businesses in the area to answer some questions about what kind of security plans they have in place for emergencies.

So did you get the sense these hotels, theaters, and other businesses in Times Square felt ready for a real terror attack?
Well, many of them pointed to Saturday's success as an example of how ready they were. But the reason Saturday happened was because the bomb failed to detonate. So what would happen in less fortunate circumstances, I asked. There was this sense of -- how ready can you really be? Tim Tompkins, the head of the Times Square Alliance, which is an association of the property owners and businesses in the area, said that they do "tabletop" exercises in which large businesses in the area –- like Morgan Stanley, Reuters, the Marriott, and theaters -- brainstorm hypotheticals and figure out lines of communication in emergency situations. They're called "tabletop" exercises because they're not physically acting out drills. They sitting around a table talking.

Tompkins said he knows many businesses -- Morgan Stanley, for example -- do physical drills inside their office building.

But most of their plans seemed to be mainly reactive: How do they get people out safely in the event of an attack? How do they evacuate?

The Marriott says they’ve made security guards more visible since Saturday. But what are they really going to do? The guards, for the most part, are not people trained to spot and deal with a terror attack. They go through a few week s of training and then, boom, they’re a security guard. They’re there to keep homeless people out of the banquet rooms, or to usher drunk, unruly people outside. Ordinary, everyday problems.

What are the special security challenges for hotels?
Today I visited the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, which was adjacent to the area where the car filled with explosives was left. I talked to the people there about protecting guests against attacks. It's a daunting task. They have so many people going in and out. Anyone who rents a room has access to most parts of a hotel. At the Marriott, if you just walked in during the day, you could explore any of the guest floors. Faces change everyday, and cars come through constantly. Luggage could contain a bomb. Those are all challenges. And hotels don't want to impede guests by installing, say, metal detectors. One other issue is that many hotels use a lot of glass in their design, which is supposed to make them look welcoming.

Times Square adds some additional obstacles -- it’s a big, open space. There’s a lot of traffic. There’s a lot of glass.

Given all that, what could hotels like the Marriott Marquis do?
That’s the difficult thing. Hotels in New York City are especially hard to protect. I talked to Neil Livingstone, a terrorism security expert who advises hotels in the Middle East and Central Asia as to how to build hotels to protect against possible terror attacks. And Livingstone made it clear how hard it is to structurally prepare against a terror attack.

First, hotels could be set back from the street, making it harder for a car bomb to do significant damage. But you can’t do that in Times Square. Everything there is on the street.

Some buildings are built for progressive collapse, which means they can better absorb shock from explosives and hopefully save lives in doing so. Our hotels aren’t built that way, Livingstone says. Here's the central problem in Times Square, as he lays it out: "The price of real estate there is just so expensive per square foot that they’re going to use every inch of it, and they’re not going to really spend a lot of time trying to put up blast walls and barriers and so on that would make the building more impervious to some type of attack."

So what does Livingstone say businesses can do to prepare for terrorism?
Livingstone said the main thing is developing and implementing proper evacuation plans. Even then, there can be risk -- there can be a secondary device that, when all the people spill out, can catch them in the open. Ultimately, Livingstone says, it's still best to try to prevent anything from happening in the first place by being alert and vigilant. Ordinary people can report anything suspicious that they see.

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