Iconic Chicago tower thrives on friendly security

Security director has ‘open’ philosophy while protecting 12,000 employees
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Tuesday, June 4, 2013

CHICAGO—At 110 stories, 1,450 feet tall and 4.5 million square feet, the Willis Tower is an architectural icon in the United States. Formerly known as the Sears Tower, the building’s area is equal to about 100 football fields or 17 Chicago city blocks if laid out flat. It truly is a vertical “city within a city,” as its promotions attest.

In its majesty it is also a potential terrorist target, said Keith Kambic, director of security and life safety for the tower.

The Willis Tower houses 100 business tenants with 12,000 employees along with their hundreds of business guests each day. One hundred twenty-five trucks unload cargo there daily, all of which is screened before entering the building, and up to 11,000 tourists, including school groups, visit the building’s tip-top Skydeck each day.

How does Kambic secure such a massive facility? With friendliness, open communications and awareness.

During the 2013 ASIS Media Tour in April, Kambic spoke frankly—and jovially—about his position. “Did you notice our flowers in the lobby?” he asked. “Did you see our bicycle exhibit out front?” It’s all part of his philosophy.

After 9/11, he said, the building basically had a lockdown atmosphere. The security force was doubled or even tripled and clearly evident everywhere. Everyone entering the building was subject to metal detectors. It gave off a bad vibe and tenants were leaving.

Starting about eight years ago, Willis Tower adopted a different security management philosophy, Kambic said. “People in the building needed to feel safe. They work here, they’re here more than they are in their own homes. We wanted to create an open feeling, the one that we have now.”

Tenants’ employees go through a relaxed badge system to get up to their floors. Tenants log into a visitor management system to allow guests to access their offices. On the tourist side, for the Skydeck, X-ray bag screening is in place. Security officers at that station have been specifically trained to recognize what potential weapons look like through their scanners.

Kambic’s 65 contracted security guards from ADM are trained to know who belongs in the building and who doesn’t, he said. The guards are friendly, they learn the names of employees and use them. Outside perimeter guards are trained in behavioral recognition. He even has a “secret shopper” for guards in place, to see if they’re living up to his expectations.

The turnover rate for his guards is 18 percent, he said, much lower than the national average. Giving the guards first-rate training and then valuing their expertise, including regular recognition and parties for their families, makes all the difference in that regard, he said, and that helps in securing the massive building.

“You can have everything in the world protected by product,” he said. “But if people in the building don’t trust the security staff [it’s all over].”

Kambic runs evacuation drills for each tenant twice a year. Mike Schroeder, life safety manager, said that tenants can take the drills “as far as they want.” Sophisticated online security training is available, too, he said. The information tenants glean can be used outside of the Willis Tower.

Mass evacuation is only a last resort. “You can’t put 12,000 people out on the street” without chaos and repercussions from neighboring buildings, Kambic said.

Kambic, in the security industry for 27 years, credits cooperation from the Department of Homeland Security, the Chicago Police Department, the Chicago Fire Department and the FBI for helping him getting his job done right. The Chicago Fire Department, for example, dedicates more than 100 staff members to an annual full-scale drill at the tower; the CPD also stages an active-shooter drill there, complete with actors. Visitor management, emergency notification and other technological security systems come second, he said.

“Tenants are our first responders,” Kambic said.