Quest to 'Bomb-Proof' Buildings

Authorities look at everything from special window films to concrete planter barriers

THE Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was designed to be bomb-resistant -- by 1973 standards.

Today, considering the 4,800-pound bomb that destroyed the building's north side, the Murrah architect, James Loftis, says that other than building a windowless bunker with two-foot walls, ''It's hard to say how you would resist something like this.''

Yet in the wake of the Oklahoma City tragedy, many people are determined to try. Debate over ways to make buildings more secure against terrorist attack is now echoing through the halls of the United States government and business. Suggestions range from shatter-damping window film, to concrete planter barriers, to use of military blast mitigation technology.

If nothing else, day-care centers might be moved out of potential target buildings.

''The swishing sound you hear is the sound of checkbooks opening to pay for security tactics abandoned years ago,'' says Brent C. Brown, president of Chesley Brown Associates, an Atlanta security consultant.

The bombing has stimulated corporate America into pulling out security recommendations and hiring consultants and guards.

Specialists are now debating how to design a bomb-proof -- or at least a bomb-resistant -- building by 1995 standards. And, if measures to harden buildings against terrorists can't be reasonably undertaken, what other systems need to be in place to foil bombers?

President Clinton has ordered a security review of the nation's 8,200 office buildings. This week a committee that is part of the National Academy of Sciences will finish a draft report on how to transfer military technology to civilians on mitigating blasts. And, Congress is beginning hearings that are likely to question security at federal facilities.

Business and government organizations are already eliminating parking near major buildings, which could become targets. To prevent car bombers from driving onto sidewalks and to the front of a building, security consultants are recommending large concrete planters which cost about $1,000 apiece. ''They don't create a lot of attention compared to a fortress type of facility,'' Mr. Brown says.

Office buildings are also hiring a lot more security guards. There was only a single guard on duty at the Oklahoma City building. ''That is incredibly inadequate coverage,'' Brown says.

In fact, the last time the government investigators conducted a major security review of its office buildings, they found large lapses. In six investigations over a four year period, the General Services Administration (GSA) found that burglar alarms did not work, pre-lease security audits were not performed and emergency data was inaccurate. GSA officials say they expect the new audit ordered by President Clinton will show some improvement.

Security tactics might turn out to be the best solution because architects are skeptical that bomb-proof buildings can be designed. ''The problem can never be solved technically,'' says Clovis Heimsath, an Austin, Texas architect who has worked with the State Department on security analysis.

He faults the way Congress often funds new federal office buildings, sometimes appropriating funds for a building without supplying the money for its occupancy. ''How do you talk about security if you don't know who your tenants are and what your options are?'' asks Mr. Heimsath. He suggests a ''common sense'' roundtable before a building is designed so the architects and security experts can discuss the building and its uses in-depth.

Chevy Chase, Md., architect Stuart Knoop, says designers can adapt bomb-resistant building concepts from buildings designed to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes.

''Redesigning windows to resist objects under hurricane conditions could improve a building under blast conditions,'' says Mr. Knoop, who has worked on more than 60 security upgrades at embassies and consulates worldwide.

One way to cut down on blast injuries could be the use of plastic film that adheres to the inside of the windows to keep the glass from shattering under pressure. But even the plastic film has its limits. Given the severity of the Oklahoma City blast, ''it's hard to say whether it would have done much at all,'' says Dick Dahlen, a senior technical specialist for 3M in St. Paul, Minn., that produces a plastic film window backing.

Mr. Loftis, the president of the Central Oklahoma American Institute of Architects, believes the original windows at the Murrah Building were replaced about ten years ago with insulated glass. ''If it had been laminated glass that is very expensive it might have performed better,'' he says.

Loftis has two good friends who were injured by flying glass shards. And, the tragedy has also impacted him personally -- one of the architects who works for Loftis lost his wife in the blast.

Despite the loss of life, Loftis says the building withstood the blast reasonably well. When he designed the reinforced-concrete building, he says the critical areas were built with thicker concrete. ''If it came down to pouring six inches of concrete or eight inches, we probably went for the eight inches,'' he says.

To make the building completely bomb-proof, Loftis says would probably mean eliminating windows and building a thick-walled concrete maze. ''What kind of a place would this be to work in?'' he asks, adding, ''I know that my friends are not interested in being protected more than the average citizen.''

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