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Crisis Architecture

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  • Post last modified:May 25, 2022

Crisis architecture focuses on designing structures in the built environment in a manner that increases the likelihood that individuals will survive an active aggressor incident. Schools, government buildings, houses of worship, commercial structures, and other potential targets can utilize its principles to increase survivability.

Communities should look beyond rapid police response or individual heroics to maximize survivability; their efforts should include the design of the structure where an attack may occur. It incorporates integrated tactical, psychological, and technological security measures, while preserving the function and aesthetics of buildings to which these measures are applied. The focus of this paradigm is designing the built environment in a way that increases the likelihood that individuals will survive an active aggressor incident.

The Eight Principles of Crisis Architecture

The crisis architecture concept is modeled around eight principles. The implementation of any one principle would be beneficial, but the full integration of all eight provides the most robust physical defense. The eight principles are:

1) Enable Creation of Distance: Structures should allow people in the building to move rapidly from one area to another, which is critical in the initial moments of an active aggressor incident. There should be numerous connecting hallways between parts of a building and multiple staircases between floors, all of which facilitate short transit times. Creation of distance has four purposes: to allow potential victims to quickly flee from the immediate vicinity of an attacker, to enable rapid movement to a building exit, to facilitate access to a shelter-in-place location, and to decrease law enforcement reaction time.

The Pentagon is a building that does this well: Though it is the world’s largest office building, the average time to walk between any two places inside is only seven minutes because of numerous internal corridors and stairwells.

2) Allow Safe Exit from Numerous Points in the Building: Integrating numerous exits into the plan for a building will both prevent individuals from becoming trapped in a particular space and ease congestion that occurs when evacuating congested spaces. Standard exits are one way to accomplish this goal, but non-standard exit points, such as pop-out windows, emergency rope ladders for upper story windows, and subterranean exits, are part of a comprehensive blueprint.

In a classroom during the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech, a professor braced the door, allowing ten of the 16 students in the room to exit by the windows and drop into the bushes below.

3) Incorporate Angles to Limit a Shooter’s Line of Sight: An attacker with a firearm will normally shoot only what he can see. Public space design should eschew long straight hallways where people have no place to avoid being seen, and rooms where most of the floor area is directly visible from the door. The integration of hallways with a number of turns and visually appealing barriers that limit line of sight can decrease the number of targets a shooter has available at any given time. By providing space where people can avoid being seen, barriers to line of sight increase the amount of time it takes a shooter to locate targets. This time can be used by civilians to exit the building or move to a shelter-in-place location.

In the six minutes of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the shooter killed 17 people and wounded another 17, all without leaving the main hallway. He never entered a classroom because he didn’t need to. He could see and engage every victim either in the hallways or from classroom doors. A design incorporating fewer long corridors with classrooms branching off them might have complicated the aggressor’s ability to target students.

4) Provide Adequate Cover and Concealment: Design elements that provide cover and concealment are central to the crisis architecture paradigm because they facilitate the creation of distance as people move to exit a facility, and provide protection for those who shelter in place. Cover can stop bullets, while concealment only prevents an individual from being seen. Designers wishing to incorporate cover elements could use walls constructed of bullet resistant materials, hardened artistic or structural features (fountains or support beams), or ballistic doors and windows. Non-bullet resistant structural elements (like standard walls or doors) and standard artistic features (such as large plants, half walls, or furnishings) can provide concealment. Another possible concealment technique is using obscuration through a medium like smoke. For example, smoke emitters could be triggered by a nearby gunshot or a responsible party pressing an alarm, as is already in place at some American schools.

During the attack in San Bernardino on Dec. 2, 2015, at least one victim was hit by bullets passing through non-resistant walls. A second was hit when bullets penetrated a non-ballistic glass door. Standard construction and many traditional design features provide insufficient cover and concealment for an active aggressor incident.

5) Enable Rapid Hardening of a Facility: As we noted, the majority of casualties in mass shooter incidents are inflicted in a short amount of time after the attack begins. A design that allows rapid hardening of a facility can alleviate this dynamic. Features that can rapidly harden a structure include pushbutton deadbolts, window coverings that drop when an alarm is triggered, and internal ballistic doors (like existing fire doors) that can be electronically closed. These measures could be controlled individually, such as by teachers who can push a button in their classrooms, or centrally, by a school administrator or security official. Rapid hardening allows a building to maintain its full form and function until defense against an aggressor becomes necessary. When it does, the attacker can be quickly isolated from potential targets.

As we noted earlier, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, classrooms could not be locked from the inside: They could be locked only by using keys from the hallway side of the door. The teachers had no ability to harden their rooms, and the consequences were devastating. Had those teachers been able to lock down their rooms when they heard the gunfire, or had an administrator been able to do this centrally, lives may have been saved.

6) Implement “Human-Centered Design” Concepts: Often the victims of active aggressor incidents are untrained and unprepared. These incidents are always chaotic and confusing, and people react instinctively. Innate fight, flight, or freeze responses tend to drive behavior. Human-centered design can help by increasing understanding of the most likely course of action people will take. Buildings using the crisis architecture paradigm should be designed to work with human instincts to maximize safety in a moment of excessive adrenaline and minimal rational thought. There are many creative ways to do this, including using the architectural lines of a building to focus people toward exits, lighting exits in a way that draws attention, and using color and shape to make cover obvious.

A Royal Society Study of neurobiological mechanisms found that “in stressful situations, most people tend to fall back on primary ‘freeze–fight–flight’ tendencies and have great difficulty controlling their actions.” Observations of numerous mass shootings reinforce that, in nearly every case, potential victims’ natural instincts take over. A common reaction is to hide under or behind the closest piece of furniture or to run haphazardly, without a real objective other than escape. By utilizing one natural process in the human brain (the ability to observe natural patterns and environmental indicators) to influence a second (fight, flight, or freeze), design can enhance the instinctive human desire to survive an attack.

7) Training and Design Need to be Mutually Supporting: In cases where people receive active aggressor response training (e.g. schools, some businesses and government facilities), training and architecture should be mutually supporting. For example, if an organization’s active shooter protocol is to shelter in place, the spaces where they are supposed to do so should be built to withstand attempted entry or attack. The doors should have secure locks that can be activated from inside rooms, and the walls should be able to stop bullets. Similarly, if evacuation is the preferred protocol, there needs to be cover and concealment available along routes to multiple exits, and there should be a system that allows individuals to know where the shooter is before they start moving, to prevent them from moving directly into his path.

8) Integrate Systems to Increase the Situational Awareness of First Responders: The efficiency of law enforcement response to an active aggressor situation can be degraded if law enforcement lacks sound information about the location of the attacker, the location and condition of victims, or layout of the building. Builders should install systems that decrease the amount of time it takes for first responders to gain situational awareness, thus decreasing their reaction time. These could include internal gunshot detection technology to relay the position of gunfire, systems to allow victims to report the location of the shooter, and small lights (red/green) near doors and external windows to indicate if somebody in the room is wounded. Building administrators could also give first responders temporary access to security cameras.


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