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Counter-terrorism in the built environment: top tips

Explosion image for terrorist attack and counter-terrorism story
(Image: Dvmsimages via Dreamstime.com)

Security experts have highlighted the steps designers, contractors and building owners and operators should be taking to make their buildings safe, ahead of the new law that requires counter-terrorism action in the built environment being enacted by the next government.

Martyn’s Law will require those who build and operate the built environment to consider terrorist attack scenarios and how to prevent and respond effectively. It will require venues to provide staff with counter-terrorism training, carry out risk assessments inside and out, mitigate any risks identified, and have a counter-terrorism action plan in place.

The proposed law was announced in the King’s Speech in November last year and went out to consultation.

Martyn’s Law is named after Martyn Hett, who was one of the 22 people killed in the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing. Speaking during a recent Construction Management webinar, Martyn’s mother and instigator of the law, Figen Murray OBE, said she has received personal assurances from both Rishi Sunak and Sir Kier Starmer that they will ensure the counter-terrorism law is enacted by the next government.

Martyn’s Law explained

Martin Jennings, principal consultant at protective block construction system manufacturer BBX, said: “In the same way that venues are currently focused on and accountable for the safety of visitors from the risk of fire, this law will place a similar responsibility on them to do the same from the risk of terrorist attack.”

For Martyn’s Law, the Home Office has agreed to a two-tier system, starting with publicly-accessible venues with capacities from 100 to 799 people, including:

  • retail stores and shopping centres;
  • bars, pubs, restaurants, and cafes;
  • nightclubs, other public clubs, theatres, cinemas and concert halls;
  • sports grounds, recreation and leisure centres, ice rinks and gyms;
  • public libraries, museums and galleries;
  • public conference centres, visitor attractions, hotels, and holiday parks; and
  • places of worship, healthcare, education, childcare, and public services and facilities.

The enhanced tier covers venues for 800 people or more. Jennings noted that this tier may require venue owners and operators to consider physical measures such as external lighting, access control, search and screening areas.

She told the audience to engage with the free-to-use Action Counters Terrorism e-learning on the ProtectUK app and website. The immersive digital tool enables businesses to rehearse and explore their response to a fictional terrorist incident at or near their premises.

She noted that such e-learning helps you “to look at a building through the eyes of a terrorist and see vulnerabilities that you may not have seen before”.

Early engagement

Richard Stones, director of built environment security consultancy CPTED-UK, highlighted the importance of adhering to the Security Overlay to the RIBA Plan of Work.

“It surprises me how many architects and developers that we’ve dealt with have only recently become aware of this document. It’s been out over a year now,” he said. “Prepared by the National Protective Security Authority in consultation with RIBA and security professionals, it highlights the need for a security risk assessment at Stage 0.”

He cited an anonymised case study that proved the role of the RIBA overlay. “We quickly identified due to the building’s proposed use, its user profile and the context of its location that it could be a target for marauding terrorist attacks, bladed-weapon attacks, firearms attacks and even fire as a weapon. So we made recommendations to the design team regarding the potential to incorporate safe havens across the site to secure the facility for the public in the event of the need for a dynamic lockdown.

“We then engaged with the BBX team and the design team to look at compartmentalisation of the building to create safe havens throughout where we could evacuate people. Bear in mind this is not a legal requirement – so hats off to the forward-thinking developers – which is why the implementation of Martyn’s Law is so important for the building industry.

“We were then able to follow the Security Overlay’s methodology to look at the operational requirements for the facility.”

He added: “Training and testing is crucial to effective security planning when the building is in use. Staff need to know what to do, when to do it, how to do it; it needs to be a second nature reaction in the event of a terrorist attack.”

Safe haven best practice

Safe havens – or invacuation points – are protected areas in a building that the public can be directed to in the event of an attack. By necessity, these should be able to withstand further attacks.

Terrorism evolution

Terrorist attacks in the western world have changed since 2014, Murray said. An Islamic State (Daesh) video went viral that year, telling people they didn’t need permission from Daesh to attack – they should just go ahead and attack. These are known as ‘self-initiated attacks’.

Murray said there have been 14 successful terrorist attacks in the UK since the Manchester Arena bombing seven years ago, and a further 40 late-stage terror plots that were stopped just in time. “And when I say ‘stopped just in time’, some of them were on the day the attack was meant to happen,” she explained.

Jennings added: “The ever-changing landscape and evolving risk of terrorism means there’s an increased need for blast and ballistic building solutions. In some cases, this will require some retrospective improvements to venues’ blast and ballistic defence capabilities.”

Murray emphasised that safe havens should have a store of bottled water and in-date snacks, medical and communications equipment and some kind of toilet facility.

She added: “It’s really important to have an effective communication system because if there was an attack in one part of the building, how would you communicate to people in the building where not to go because that would mean running into danger, or where to hide, or where a safe place is? Compartmentalising the building and sectioning a building off keeps people safe, but keeps [attackers] in another area.”

Protective construction

BBX supplies a protective block construction system designed to give multi-protection from blast, ballistic, fire and breach threats.

Jennings explained that this doesn’t have to be a visible, secondary layer added for the purpose of providing protection: “It can be a discreet and integral defence system that also serves as a load-bearing wall that becomes an integral part of the building’s primary structure," he said.

The BBX block system can be used to retrofit blast and ballistic mitigation into an existing building or create the structure for a new build.

Jennings revealed: “Due to its unique composition and properties, a BBX wall can absorb a huge amount of energy and flex under the force of blast over-pressure. It dissipates the energy through the BBX system and recoils to its original shape without fracture or failure.”

BBX provides certified protection in line with the Home Office test standards. This means the BBX wall can withstand the blast from 100kg of TNT at a stand-off distance of 12m, protecting the people and critical assets housed inside the BBX wall from the blast.

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