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Ex-SAS man sets out top tips to protect buildings from terrorism

What should new buildings do to tackle the threat of serious crime or terrorist attack? CN talks to a former army and SAS soldier turned WSP PB security consultant to find out.

What are the main challenges to consider when constructing a building?

Engineers will think about structural and wind loading for tall buildings, and maybe even seismic resilience in earthquake-prone areas. Contractors will consider the technical challenges as well as the logistics of organising and running a site.

But how often have you considered the security of the finished building? And more specifically, how often have you thought about how vulnerable your finished building is to serious crime, or even a terrorist attack?

WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff head of security consulting Chris Driver-Williams is tasked with tackling these potential vulnerabilities.

His knowledge of war zones and terrorist organisations is vast, having served in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the Army, MI5, the SAS, the SBS and other branches of the military.

“During my career I effectively dipped my toe into every aspect of counter-terrorism,” he says. “I knew first hand the effects of improvised explosive devices on buildings, and on people, and also that there were a number of other different tactics, techniques and procedures that terrorists use.”

Chris Driver Williams head of security consultancy WSP PB

Chris Driver Williams head of security consultancy WSP PB

Chris Driver-Williams spent 25 years in counter-terrorism

He now provides advice that is more in demand than ever as planners and local authorities take the threat of terrorism ever more seriously.

From the forces to the industry

I speak to Mr Driver-Williams at WSP PB’s London office on Chancery Lane. Our first meeting had to be postponed when my interviewee was delayed while providing urgent security advice on a project.

“It’s gone from advice and guidance to actually having input into the decision about whether to give planning consent”

Chris Driver-Williams, WSP PB

He’s well-dressed and confident, as you’d expect, and we immediately begin talking about journalism after he reveals that he’s written a number of books under a pseudonym.

After briefly running through his career (see box), we talk about the work he is doing now for WSP PB. “I got to meet and interview many terrorists and get an idea of what made them tick,” he says.

“In some cases it was about nationalistic objectives, with others it was apolitical or cultural, and in some cases it was a religious ideal. But in all cases they used any method they could to terrorise people, to instil fear, and coerce them into achieving their objectives.

“I’ve got an understanding of the bad guys, their equipment and techniques, the effects of those – and in particular, their strategies.”

CV: Chris Driver-Williams

  • Recruited to the Army at 16 as a Russian linguist
  • Goes to Sandhurst to become an officer
  • Serves in Northern Ireland and witnesses barracks bombing in Lisburn
  • Moves into counter-terrorist bomb disposal
  • Two years with SAS and two years with SBS as a bomb technician
  • One year seconded to MI5 in covert bomb disposal
  • Tours of Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Set up Kratos Enterprises, a counter-terrorism consultancy in 2007, after leaving Army
  • Joins WSP PB in 2015
  • Fellow of the Institute of Explosives Engineers

His epiphany, as he describes it, came when he witnessed a barracks bombing in Lisburn in Northern Ireland, which was the point that he decided to focus on counter-terrorist bomb disposal.

But after 25 years spent in counter-terrorism, one area he didn’t initially understand upon joining WSP PB was the different types of materials that can be used to design-in resilience to buildings.

The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure – a government authority that provides security advice to the sector – has a list of approved anti-blast/ anti-terrorism products that have been tested to stringent standards. Using these in combination with other strategies is a good starting point to making buildings more resilient to terrorism or crime – and it’s something planners are increasingly looking before granting permission to build.

“At one football stadium the letters that spell out the name of the team are hostile vehicle mitigation protection measures”

Chris Driver-Williams, WSP PB

“To get planning consent now for many large developments, we’re increasingly finding that a counter-terrorism security officer or architectural liaison officer will have to give some sort of endorsement, to say if it meets the standards or not,” Mr Driver-Williams says. “It’s gone from advice and guidance to actually having input into the decision about whether to give planning consent.”

Peeling back the onion

Before looking at a building’s envelope and what is inside it, security consultants will consider the surrounding public realm – the logic being that if you want to mitigate against a vehicle bomb, say, or a marauding terror attack, it’s better to stop the terrorists from reaching the building in the first place.

CREDIT Chris McKenna_Moorgate_City of London ring of steel

CREDIT Chris McKenna_Moorgate_City of London ring of steel

Source: Chris McKenna

Example of a checkpoint in the City of London’s ‘ring of steel’

“We use what we call the onion layer system,” Mr Driver-Williams explains. First, the team examines the wider local area around a building. So, for example, the City of London’s ‘ring of steel’ – the security and surveillance cordon set up around the financial district in the 1990s – provides a relatively secure location for a building.

Next, the area closer to the building is considered, which might involve providing mutual support from nearby buildings. This could involve regular meetings with emergency services and neighbouring building managers, or shared manned guarding.

“After 9/11 everything changed. They switched to a philosophy called death by a thousand cuts”

Chris Driver-Williams, WSP PB

“In some cases, you may find a development doesn’t necessarily feel it warrants a comprehensive video surveillance system,” Mr Driver-Williams says. “We recently facilitated one building to feed off the existing CCTV structure of another development, extending what was already in place for a small amount of money and effectively leasing it from the [other] developer.”

The next layer of the onion is the public realm immediately surrounding the development, where the team looks at crime prevention through environmental design.

This can mean using the Secured by Design accreditation developed by the police and owned / accredited by the ACPO Crime Prevention Initiative, a not-for-profit, police-owned company. It’s the police’s main initiative to combine the principles of ‘designing out crime’ with enhanced physical security measure, and involves the use of natural features and common sense to increase security. More obviously, hostile vehicle mitigation measures will be installed to prevent vehicle bombs from getting too close to buildings.

“We find that from town to town, region to region, or even country to country, there may be greater or lesser appetite to have unsightly bollards, for example,” Mr Driver-Williams says. “It’s also about using street furniture – at one of the football stadiums in London, the letters that spell out the name of the team are PAS-rated and fully tested hostile vehicle mitigation protection measures.”

Hostile vehicle mitigation measure

Hostile vehicle mitigation measure

Example of a hostile vehicle mitigation measure

Finally, we come to the building itself. If it’s not possible to prevent a bomb from reaching it, then the team considers the most likely or critical places it will be deployed. “We don’t have to make the building completely bomb-proof, as it would look like Fort Knox and be extremely expensive, but we can build in resilience at the most critical points,” he says.

This may involve the use of resilient materials, such as adding reinforcement to certain columns or walls or using enhanced blast-resistant fabrics over the edge of the facade.

It could even mean some elements are deemed sacrificial, for example the ceiling above a bomb bin – a type of parcel bin that will force the blast upwards – in a building’s postroom.

Recent attacks signal shift in risk

Beyond bombs, the other major threat now comes from marauding firearms attacks, like those seen in Nairobi, Mumbai and Paris. The nature of terrorism has changed since the days of the Provisional IRA, Mr Driver-Williams explains, and has even moved on since Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks.

“After 9/11 everything changed. Security organisations around the world started sharing intelligence in a far more coherent fashion and it became more difficult to carry out that sort of attack. They switched to a philosophy called death by a thousand cuts. You’ve effectively got a two-pronged strategy: lone wolf, homegrown, off-the-radar terrorists; and those who’ve been out to war zones that are trained to manufacture explosives and know the weapons effects.

“What we do is design in certain measures to ensure we can mitigate against [marauding attacks]. They’re very difficult to identify, because typically it’ll be in a crowded space, they’ll be trained in weapon handling and counter-surveillance techniques, but dressed exactly the same as everyone else. That means they can get to the point to initiate an attack far easier than others.”

CCTV surveillance terrorism security

CCTV surveillance terrorism security

Surveillance is becoming increasingly sophisticated

Security consultants now install sophisticated video surveillance systems with automatic detection algorithms that are able to identify suspicious patterns of behaviour right away. It might also involve installing more effective PA systems to ensure people inside buildings are aware of the threat, or using shatter-resistant glass to allow people a little more time to escape a room if a terrorist fires a weapon at a window to try to break it.

“We’re looking at high-end technologies, as well as crude, low-hanging-fruit technologies to make buildings more resilient,” he says.

“Because the terrorism threat has evolved significantly, it means that methods of mitigation have to be much broader, too”

Chris Driver-Williams, WSP PB

For contractors who install these systems and materials, how much do they need to know? Mr Driver-Williams says there are big differences in awareness from one contractor to another, but that this isn’t a slight on the quality of the work they produce.

“I’ve found there’s a spectrum of capability and knowledge when it comes to security – and that doesn’t in any way affect their capability or brilliance in the construction industry,” he says. “There are people who’ve been doing this for decades but have little knowledge of security design and engineering, because in many places it just hasn’t been a significant factor.

“But the planning consent condition means it’s become more prevalent. And because the terrorism threat has evolved significantly, with capabilities and methods that are much broader, it means that methods of mitigation have to be much broader, too.”

Which is where the experience and advice of someone with more than 25 years of counter-terrorism experience becomes invaluable in keeping buildings – and their occupants – safe and secure.

The threat to tall buildings

The need to protect tall buildings from terrorist attacks was brought home on 9/11.

But the most likely threat today, Mr Driver-Williams says, will come from a vehicle bomb at ground level, which can cause catastrophic failure – as almost happened at the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in New York City.

“An explosion detonating at ground level sees blast waves travel out radially and spherically, which will push up on the floors with a positive and negative phase, pushing through and sucking back down as well,” he says. “With buildings designed traditionally, you’d get catastrophic failure.”

With blast loading thus taken into account, the team will also look into ways of evacuating people quickly, allowing for escape before the point at which catastrophic collapse is reached.

“Then we’ve got to think about space as well – always a key issue. Is there going to be a security control room? And things like segregation and separation of key plant – making sure we duplicate it where we can, or if we can’t, we move it away from the most vulnerable parts of a building, like the loading bay.”

Car parking is also an issue, again shown by the 1993 WTC bombing.

“Usually we don’t want a car park underneath a tall building so, if possible, we try to move it. But in tall buildings space is at a premium, so if we can’t do that, we look at identifying threats that come into the car park and having some sort of vetting system, whether it’s a security guard, vehicle surveillance, explosive detection, that sort of thing.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • Great article.....shame about the typically false stereotypical image of the SAS, they haven't even got mags in their weapons, or probably not even in their webbing haha

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