Responding to Target Buildings in a Terrorist Attack: Are Your Crews Prepared?


Local fire departments that have terrorist targets such as government buildings, stadiums, malls, hotels, institutions such as hospitals or schools, and high-rise occupancies in their jurisdictions must address considerations unique to these targets in a terroristic crisis. Successful response depends on advance preparation, particularly the development of an all-hazard emergency action plan (EAP) that has been practiced. The EAP must be coordinated with the building’s life safety and security features and staff as well as with local fire, police, and emergency management departments.

An EAP for a target building should provide for a designated lead person to enhance building communications; formalize evacuation and transportation modes—for example, regulate the use of elevator cars, stairs, and escalators; and maintain crowd-control positions along the evacuation routes to an exterior assembly point.

Having a capable and experienced person to direct the initial first few minutes of an incident prior to the arrival of first responders is the most critical element in a target building emergency. In New York City, as in several other large metropolitan areas, a certified fire/EAP director conducts periodic fire and all-hazard drills and emergency evacuations. Communities that do not have such a position should create a local ordinance to institute this vital life safety position within the target buildings.

A life safety (LS) director will designate and train other personnel to assist with emergencies. These personnel, who are designated as emergency response and floor warden teams, should be members of the management teams that run the facility and the floor tenant spaces. These teams help with an EAP evacuation. Emergency response teams assist with shutting down critical buildings; the floor warden teams assist with the various evacuation phases.

Building management staff must know the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and its role as a liaison to interface with first responders and anticipate how the building will respond to various threat levels. They must also understand the nature of the threats that might need a response (Table 1).

They must be able to ask a series of questions immediately after an incident and then act based on the answers to those questions. For example, the EAP suggests that the LS director start by defining the emergency and then asking the following:

  • Who in the building is affected?
  • What actions will minimize the danger to the building?


The LS director notifies 911 and then responds to the building Fire Command Center or command post.

After the initial reaction, the LS director must deal with the most seriously exposed first (those in the most immediate danger) and activate the EAP.


There are two aspects to communicating in a building all-hazard emergency. One is to contact key personnel with response duties. The other is to notify the building occupants of the type of all-hazard evacuation mode that will be implemented.

Key Personnel

Once an incident has occurred within the building or a threat has been made, it is crucial to quickly get as much information as possible. The LS director should have a plan in place for establishing communications so the building crisis management team can be assembled at the fire command center. This team should include a security supervisor; the building or heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) engineer; the property manager; the LS director; and, if available, the elevator engineer if the occupancy is a high-rise. (The floor wardens remain at their posts or evacuate with their floor.)

General Population

In many target buildings, the fire alarm voice communication system (FAVS) is the primary way of communicating with occupants during a fire emergency. However, in an all-hazard emergency, the LS director would have to manually activate the FAVS to communicate the emergency message to the occupants.

To further enhance building communications within a structure, some facilities have added a separate public address system, similar to those found in malls, stadiums, and healthcare facilities, as a secondary means of communication.

The initial EAP announcement to building occupants should include information on what has occurred, the physical areas affected by the incident, and what parts of the EAP plan and evacuation mode are being implemented.

The LS director needs to repeat a Thinking-in-Time process—what is known, what is unclear, and what can I assume by my actions; he must update the information into segments every 10 to 15 minutes until the incident is declared safe.


When the EAP is being developed, the LS director must work out various evacuation modes that would be optimal for different all-hazard emergency scenarios. The EAP must take into consideration not only the possible emergency scenarios but also building features—such as stairwell fail-safe door-locking mechanisms, turnstiles, and package-scanning machines in the lobby that may impede a rapid building egress; revolving doors; reentry floors within the stairwell; and the number of exit discharge doors at the street level—that can hamper a large-scale building evacuation. An evacuation specialist should be asked to review these plans.

At the time of an incident, the LS director must determine which evacuation mode to use based on the situation. Then, the director must designate the transportation mode and the evacuation routes (interior or exterior) and implement a special needs plan for occupants with a disability.

The LS director, as noted, must determine the best mode of evacuation for various all-hazard emergencies. The choices are total building evacuation, in-building relocation, partial building evacuation, and shelter-in-place. Remember the acronym TIPS:

Total Building. The total building mode involves evacuating the entire building. Timing is important because of the large number of people who must be moved in a short time and because the mode would not be invoked if it were not critical to get everyone out quickly. When a LS director can use elevators in the plan, it is possible to evacuate 12 percent of the building’s population within the first five minutes of implementing this transportation mode.

To activate this part of the plan, all elevators need to be recalled to the lobby. Each elevator car in use should be controlled in the elevator service mode and operated by building staff. The staff must be in communication with the building’s fire command center using the elevator intercom or portable radios (Table 2).

All staffed elevators will then go to a predetermined floor, as directed by the LS director or to prescribed collection floors, where the occupants have been trained to gather. Collection floors may be established every five floors.

In-Building Relocation. This entails moving occupants out of their work area to predetermined refuge areas where people can be relocated in an emergency.

The LS director must consider various factors before establishing these designated safe zones. The relocation area must be large enough to handle the expected number of occupants and easy for occupants to get to using the stairs, elevators, or a combination of both. It must also have adequate facilities, such as toilets, first-aid supplies, and potable water.

The LS director should select areas with a variety of characteristics to fit different all-hazard scenarios. An internal, aboveground area might serve best in a biohazard emergency, whereas a basement area might be more suited to some weather incidents.

Partial Building. This refers to emptying only some areas of the building. This mode might be appropriate if a threat affects only a portion of the building—for example, an interior chemical release. It may be that the LS director can ascertain, by knowing ahead of time what floors are covered by the building HVAC zones, which areas are affected. The occupants would then be evacuated from the affected HVAC zone (Table 2).

Shelter-in-Place. In this mode, the occupants are told to remain in their work areas. In some instances, this may be safer than moving them. Sometimes there are no good options. For example, just after the first plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the building fire safety director ordered occupants in the south tower to stay put. He knew that if the occupants had evacuated at that time, they would have faced death from debris falling from the north tower.

Similarly, if an incident has occurred outside the building that creates dangerous conditions for anyone who leaves, occupants should sit tight. The most critical issue in this nonbuilding evacuation mode is how to prevent occupants from leaving. Adequate training, clear and frequent announcements and updates, and designated personnel assigned to exits can help.

During any of these evacuation modes, the LS director may advise using all elevators and stairs, depending on the type of incident, or he might opt to evacuate by stairs only or further restrict the evacuation only to the staircase leading directly onto a public street. When using only the stairs for an evacuation, the number of stairs, the limited capacity, and stair flows are just a few considerations that must be further analyzed.

The LS director must also consider the various problems that might impede the flow of occupants down the stairs. For example, an injured person might need to move ahead of the flow, causing a backup, or first responders ascending the stairs may meet occupants descending the same stairwell. A disabled person may also need assistance taking the stairs.


The LS director must determine which building transportation mode the occupants will use in each type of all-hazard evacuation (Table 3).

Stair Risers

Within each stairwell, an emergency lighting system, whether battery powered or connected to the building emergency generator, should light the egress paths. But installing photo-luminescent exit path markings within all stairwells and exit pathways will drastically enhance any emergency evacuation regardless of lighting function. Unfortunately, exit lighting is often unavailable. In some cases, the emergency generator and lighting systems fail from lack of maintenance.

Elevator Banks

Though most people consider elevators off-limit during an emergency, they can be helpful in some circumstances. The use of elevators during an all-hazard emergency other than fire can help occupants evacuate the building quickly. When the LS director deems them safe to use, elevators can be especially helpful in evacuating those with special needs.

The installation of lobby turnstiles to control access into the premises may be a hindrance in a massive evacuation. Although turnstiles do turn freely in the direction of exit traveled even when primary power is lost, certain types of turnstiles can be problematic. Single-bar or plastic-shield types that retract into the turnstile housing will provide a faster egress than fixed tripod bars that are a permanent fixture across the opening. Also, when serving an occupant load greater than 300 tenants, a side-hinged swing door needs to be installed next to the fixed turnstiles. This door should open during emergencies.

Escalators can also be used to assist in an evacuation by shutting down the movement so that occupants can use them as stairs.

People with Special Needs

The LS director must work with human resources to determine which occupants have special needs and what assistance they need during an emergency evacuation. A secured list of where special-needs occupants work in the building should be part of the EAP.

Special-needs occupants and the personnel assigned to help them during an evacuation should have access to an area of assistance near a designated freight elevator. (The area of assistance should be predetermined and coordinated with the local fire department.) If an elevator cannot be safely deployed, the occupant should have a secondary means of evacuating. For example, a special chair that can be used to evacuate by the stairs can be stored on that floor near the stairwell. The LS director should periodically review the list of special-needs occupants and remove the names of employees who may have left or who may have been suffering from temporary conditions that have been resolved, such as a broken leg or a pregnancy.


The National Response Framework (NRF) is a guide to how the nation conducts all-hazard response. It is built on a scalable, flexible, and adaptable coordinating structure to align key roles and responsibilities across the nation, linking all levels of government, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector. It is intended to capture specific authorities and best practices for managing incidents that range from the serious but purely local to large-scale terrorist attacks or catastrophic natural disasters.

The NRF explains the common disciplines and structures that have been exercised and matured over time. It describes key lessons learned from past disasters nationwide, focusing on how government is organized to support local communities and states in catastrophic incidents. It builds on NIMS, which provides a consistent template for managing incidents.

The term “response” as used in the NRF includes immediate actions to saves lives, protect property and the environment, and meet basic human needs. Response includes the execution of emergency plans and action to support short-term recovery. The NRF is always in effect, and elements can be implemented as needed on a flexible, scalable basis to improve response.

Critical Elements of Effective Response

Planning across the full range of homeland security operations is mutually supportive. The Framework fosters unity of effort for emergency operations planning by providing common doctrine and purpose.

A plan is a continuous, evolving instrument of anticipated actions that maximizes opportunities and guides response operations. Since planning is an ongoing process, a plan is an interim product based on information and understanding at the moment and is subject to revision. That is the reason plans are best described as “living” documents.

Planning provides three principal benefits:

1. It allows jurisdictions to influence the course of events in an emergency by determining in advance the actions, policies, and process that will be followed.
2. It guides other preparedness activities.
3. It contributes to unity of effort by providing a common blueprint for activity in an emergency.


Planning is a foundational element of preparedness and response and is an essential homeland security activity. Additional NRF information is at


A proactive plan outlines an innovative approach to enhancing critical response to terrorist attacks and large-scale emergencies. The strategy defines the mission of the fire service, identifies adjustments in operations, and explains how the fire service can evolve and train to meet the demands of the large-scale events of the future.

A proactive plan gives a clear and concise road map the fire service can follow to protect its citizens in a major disaster/emergency. All members of the fire service must be ready for anything, and planning, training, and practicing are the essential tools. A plan members have practiced through full-scale or tabletop exercises ensures that first responders will acquire, master, and maintain the necessary specialized competencies.


The terrorism response plan should focus on the following:

Organizational adaptability. This includes using advanced technology to expand internal communications and maintaining a tiered response system that allows a scaled number of special units to respond to a large-scale disaster/emergency while other units are available to respond to additional incidents that are a high probability with terrorism.

Response capability. Increase training for firefighters and EMS members so they become proficient in recognizing and responding to possible large-scale events, including terrorist incidents.

Prevention and protection. Update all current weapons of mass destruction (WMD) information and then share the information with first responders. Always conduct risk assessments of vulnerable locations.

Coordination and evaluation. Examine various terrorist incident scenarios from the perspective of the resources they require. Work with the private sector, including building management, to develop and execute emergency evacuation plans.

Continuity of operations. In a large-scale incident or a terrorist threat, this provision ensures uninterrupted delivery of critical services to first responders and the public.

Terrorism and disaster preparedness planning include first responder training. It helps implement a standard approach in terms of emergency response, training, supplying resources, and long-term planning.


This exercise on a WMD incident that involves a chemical attack measures preparedness from two perspectives: (1) whether the response organization has a plan to address the particular incident; and (2) if the organization has a plan, where the members trained in it.

The existence of a plan is one indicator of preparedness. It’s reasonable to believe that an organization with a plan is at least somewhat better prepared. However, a plan in and of itself does not guarantee that the organization can execute a successful response.

It is expected that a chemical WMD incident would be more common than other types of WMD incidents, given the similarity of chemical attacks to other more common accidental incidents such as hazardous materials releases.

The plan for responding to moderately sized WMD incidents should address the following:

  • Communication procedures with other organizations during the response.
  • Procedures for mass decontamination.
  • Isolation and quarantine.
  • Coordination with other agencies.


WMD incidents are rare. It is critical to maintain capabilities and readiness and remain familiar with the contents of the written plan through regularly scheduled full-scale or tabletop exercises. Just because an organization has conducted an exercise is not evidence that it is prepared to respond to an incident.1


Tabletop and full-scale exercises are designed to measure first responders’ knowledge and level of preparedness for a wide variety of WMD terrorist incident scenarios. These scenarios establish the baseline against which to evaluate responders’ preparedness.

Chemical Incident

An explosion in a high-rise office building results in numerous injuries and some fatalities. There is minimal structure damage. A call for all agencies to respond to an explosion in a high-rise office building (a major incident) has been transmitted.

As first responders arrive on the scene, they observe the following: An untold number of individuals have been killed by the blast; there are more casualties than would be expected for the explosion alone; and numerous survivors are experiencing symptoms that include sweating, disorientation, muscle tremors, and convulsions. Soon after arrival, some of the first responders begin to experience similar symptoms. It is suspected that the explosion released a highly toxic and persistent chemical agent.

Contamination of first responders and building tenants becomes a major concern. Victims self-evacuate and find their way to local hospitals. First responders operate in an area that appears to have been covered with an active chemical agent.

The media have gained knowledge of the incident. Unrest begins to spread among the large crowd that has formed outside the building in close proximity to the incident site.




We have described a possible set of preparedness measures based on a hypothetical WMD scenario. First responders may be trained to recognize signs and symptoms of anthrax or similar agents but not those related to an exposure to a nerve gas. The fire service should be equipped and trained to save occupants in a high-rise office building that has been struck by an explosion and that may be harboring a secondary hazardous device planted by terrorists. All first responders must anticipate the events for which complete preparedness is required.


1. Fricker, R; J Jacobson; and L Davis, “Measuring and evaluating local preparedness for a chemical or terrorist attack,” Rand Issue Paper. December 2007.

JACK J. MURPHY, MA, is a fire marshal (ret.) and former deputy chief of the Leonia (NJ) Fire Department. He is a licensed New Jersey state fire official and has a master’s and several undergraduate degrees. He is a member of the NFPA High-Rise Building Safety Advisory and Pre-Incident Planning Committees, a deputy fire coordinator for the Division of Fire Safety (Bergen Region), and an adjunct professor for the fire science program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (New York City). He is a past president of the New York City High-Rise Fire Safety Directors Association. He is the author of the RICS – Rapid Incident Command System field handbook and Chapter 29, Pre-Incident Planning, for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and Firefighter II. He is a contributing editor to Fire Engineering, an FDIC advisory board member, and an FDNY honorary battalion chief.

JAMES P. ELLSON, MS, is an adjunct professor and research associate at the Christian Regenhard Center for Emergency Response Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the former deputy commissioner of the New York Office of Emergency Management and a retired FDNY captain in Special Operations Command. He has broad experience in fire protection, high-rise building incidents, hazardous materials incidents, and acts involving weapons of mass destruction. He is a consultant working as a subject matter expert with Homeland Security on catastrophic planning and exercises and a member of the FDNY Honor Legion and the New York City Fire Directors Association. He has been published in fire service periodicals.

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  • JACK J. MURPHY , MA, is a retired fire marshal and a former deputy chief. He is the chairman of the New York City High-Rise Fire Safety Directors Association, a member of the NFPA High-Rise Building Safety Advisory, and a member of the 1620 Pre-Incident Planning Committees. He has authored RICS: Rapid Incident Command System Field Handbook , wrote the Preincident Planning chapter of Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II , and coauthored Bridging the Gap: Fire Safety and Green Buildings . He contributes articles to Fire Engineering . He was the recipient of the 2012 Fire Engineering Tom Brennan Lifetime Achievement Award .

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