From Cockpit to Classroom

From Cockpit to Classroom

How lessons learned can make students safer

It is only natural that we respond to horrific situations with a renewed emphasis on security. One need not look any further than an airport to see how much our lives have changed in the past 40 years.

The phenomenon of airplane hijackings in the late 1960s and early 1970s led to new policies and procedures. Airports, originally envisioned with the same design philosophy as train stations, could no longer remain open environments. With each subsequent terror cycle airport security was ratcheted up a notch, culminating with the shoes off, no liquids barrier now in place.

The reaction to the brazen commandeering of airplanes on Sept. 11, 2001 changed the mindset beyond airports to the airplane itself. On one of the first flights from New York City’s LaGuardia to Washington’s Reagan National airport after it reopened in 2001, there was strict screening prior to boarding the flight; passengers were met with a new prohibition: no one was permitted to leave their seat within one hour of landing. Because the total flight time was less than one hour, passengers had to remain in their seats for the entire flight. Had anyone broken this rule, the aircraft would have been diverted to Dulles airport for security reasons.

While some restrictions on board planes have been relaxed—you can leave your seat during the last hour of the flight—there are still remnants of the post 9/11 mentality. For example, there is no congregating permitted in the aisles or near the lavatories. Air marshals are secretly present on many flights and food carts and/or flight attendants are strategically positioned to block the aisle whenever a crew member exits or enters the cockpit. While all of these protocols are vitally important for maintaining security, it is important to recognize that they have been carefully designed and vetted to ensure that they do not in any way compromise life safety.

In an example inside the airport, it is essential to have fully accessible exit doors throughout the terminals opening (in some cases) directly onto the tarmac for quick egress in a fire or other event. Naturally, there are large signs warning that their use is restricted to real emergencies and opening the door will set off alarms. In fact, not only does a local alarm sound, entire terminals have been evacuated, flights delayed and airports closed when offenders have opened emergency exit doors—a tremendous inconvenience to passengers but one which is necessary in order to ensure there is safe egress in an emergency. This is an example of respecting safety codes while meeting today’s heightened security needs.

As we approach the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the World Trade Center in the below-grade parking garage (1993), the lessons learned are as relevant today as they were then: increase security, but never compromise safety.

After the destruction witnessed that day, surely almost any security measure proposed during rebuilding would have been embraced and accepted. But having observed the problems caused by makeshift security solutions put in place prior to the bombing, Doug Karpiloff, director of security at the World Trade Center, knew better. He saw fire doors whose latches had been removed upon the installation of other security devices, and he witnessed how they contributed to the spread of fire. He saw workers who had become trapped in spaces because of the lack of adherence to basic safety procedures.

He challenged everyone involved in the rebuilding to provide the highest level of forced entry protection and electronic security while also respecting life safety codes. If products did not exist to meet the new electronic monitoring needs the security consultants recommended, he challenged the industry to create them. That is what true security professionals do. They lead by demanding, not compromising. Years later, Karpillof continued to demonstrate that life safety did not need to be sacrificed for security. He was widely recognized and lauded for his achievements, which resulted in the saving of countless lives on 9/11, when the World Trade Center was attacked from the air.

It’s vitally important to keep these lessons in mind when considering the chain of events that led to the March 2015 crash of the Germanwings flight. Here was a total lapse of life safety that had not been envisioned or anticipated. Security protocols put into place to prevent planes from being hijacked directly enabled the copilot in the cockpit to prevent the captain from entering the cockpit.

Security protocols are commonly developed in reaction to any traumatic event that occurs. On 9/11, the hijackers were able to commandeer the airplanes because the pilots opened the doors. We have not seen any reports that the cockpit doors were forcibly breached by the hijackers. As a result, an electronic system was put in place on commercial airplane cockpit doors with a lockout feature that included a keypad lockout button and a toggle lock with a five minute delayed entry. This system was meant to ensure that pilots could lock terrorists out of the cockpit; the designers never considered the possibility of a pilot going rogue and locking out the other pilot.

Life safety professionals and security professionals both look at doors and methods of operation, but each group asks different “what if” questions. Because the question “What if someone in the cockpit wanted to lock all others out” was not considered as a major design factor, the system was created where this could occur. Failing to respect or minimize the life safety risk of a sole person in the cockpit having absolute control of the aircraft resulted in the Germanwings tragedy.

We are all too aware of the responsibility for assuring the security of schoolchildren and teachers, and for the need to develop technology and resources to prevent their endangerment. While some providers have developed solutions for prevention and response, some of these address only the goal of preventing access to the school classroom by a would-be assailant. As important as this goal is, securing classroom doors must never be considered from only one point of view.

Schools and classrooms are occupied on a daily basis by students and teachers. At times classrooms may be unattended by faculty or an adult, allowing anyone in the classroom control of the door and any locking devices. For years, this was the reason classroom door locking was treated as an action to be controlled by key, similar to a public restroom. However, we now recognize the need to secure classrooms more quickly to prevent loss of life when an assailant with weapons has chosen a school as the target. The commercial door hardware industry has quickly responded with a wide variety of mechanical and electronic products.

Protecting students and teachers in the classroom from an assailant must not sacrifice the critical role doors and single-motion exiting play in life safety. Similarly, speedy access into the room by school officials and first responders is critical at all times.

We can never tolerate a potential “cockpit door” situation where someone in the room has the ability to prevent entry. Products in the marketplace that may be effective in preventing forced entry must never be installed if they prevent authorized entry. The unintended risks and potential consequences of door blocking products which prevent entry are too great.

As just one example, bullying is a major concern in schools. Significant efforts are being launched to counter the harmful effects of this behavior, which have sadly resulted in many student deaths. Imagine the harm which could be inflicted upon a student imprisoned in a classroom by a bully. Certainly this is not a situation any responsible school or public safety official would want to create nor is it a liability any student, parent or school district should have as a consequence of providing a door blocking device in the classroom for easy use on the door.

Creating effective solutions for cockpit doors must consider all the human factors, not just those presented by the need to protect against someone who wants to do harm from outside the door. Similarly, safety and security professionals must consider all the elements involved in life safety when developing best practices. Anyone who has a role in creating a safe and secure environment for students should study all the lessons of 9/11, Sandy Hook, Germanwings and other tragedies and respect them as they provide guidance to school districts and beyond.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue of Security Today.

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