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7 Ways to Protect Times Square–Without Invasive Cameras

When Faisal Shahzad allegedly drove his Nissan Pathfinder, packed with explosives, into Times Square on Saturday, he was likely aiming for a place dense with tourists, theatergoers, sidewalk hucksters, and at least one naked cowboy — a target rich environment. Happily, thanks to a combination of Shahzad’s ineptitude and a quick-witted T-shirt vendor, NYPD’s crack bomb squad disabled the Rube Goldberg contraption before it could detonate.

Times Square surveillance video

When Faisal Shahzad allegedly drove his Nissan Pathfinder, packed with explosives, into Times Square on Saturday, he was likely aiming for a place dense with tourists, theatergoers, sidewalk hucksters, and at least one naked cowboy — a target rich environment. Happily, thanks to a combination of Shahzad’s ineptitude and a quick-witted T-shirt vendor, NYPD’s crack bomb squad disabled the Rube Goldberg contraption before it could detonate.

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We got lucky. But apart from larding the theater district with surveillance cameras — which may have helped crack the case but did little to prevent evildoers from trying to perpetrate their crimes — what could have been done to make the area safer to begin with? In other words: Is it possible to design for security in heavily trafficked intersections like Times Square?

Don Aviv, chief operating officer of the security firm Interfor and managing director of the firm’s physical security group, thinks so. His job is to advise companies on how to design buildings that can withstand security assaults, whether they be trucks loaded with explosives, gas attacks through ventilating systems, or spies with telescopes in the building across the street.

Designing a secure building has historically meant designing building something that looked like a bunker. “Security has always been at odds with architecture,” he concedes. “Most security firms would love to say ‘Put a big wall around it.'” On the other hand, he says, “When architecture firms drive the bus, security is often left in the dust.” The trick is finding a happy medium where security pros and architecture meet eye to eye, Aviv says.

Fortunately, recent advances have made designing for security both more sophisticated and more attractive. “Technology has reached a place where you can use the environment and strategically placed cameras to mitigate the vulnerabilities,” he says. “In midtown Manhattan, however, threats are dramatically different.” You still can’t secure a building against an attack by a suicide bomber wielding a plane, but it’s possible to make buildings safer from attack on the ground.

Here are seven things Aviv would suggest for making the area even safer.

1. Create a flow of traffic that mitigates the use of large vehicles. Aviv commends the city for its recent redesign of the area to be more pedestrian-friendly — and harder for traffic. Besides cutting down on pedestrian accidents, it may well have been a surreptitious act by the city to make the area more secure through environmental design.

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2. Check parked vehicles with even greater vigilance. It’s terrific that the vendor noticed the smoking SUV; patrolling cops should step up their surveillance of things that are standing still, as well as things that are moving. Some states allow scanning of license plates, which can then be run through systems to check for possible trouble — generally, parking violations. But a system like that could also allow law enforcement to act prophylactically against a threat.

3. Give people a way to call in a threat. The city has been scaling back the number of call boxes around town in an effort to cut costs. Not such a great idea, says Aviv, especially given the number of foreigners in the city whose cell phones may not work, and who may not know to call 911 anyway.

4. Use more — and more artful — blast mitigation techniques. Concrete-filled planters, topped with geraniums might be nice. Sculpture. Trees. All of those things act as shields, should a bomb go off. “Think of the White House,” Aviv says. “Those trees are there for a reason.”

5. Teach the kids: “If you see something, say something.” In Israel, Aviv says, every single person, from children to adults, know exactly what to do if they see an unattended package or suitcase. “The greatest technology in the world can’t replace training the population,” he says. “New York does a much better job than anywhere else in the States, but that drill is also the single biggest way to combat a threat.”

6. Coordinate CCTV cameras better. Imagine Chloe on 24: In this season’s thriller, which happens to be New York-based, she can instantly pull up the video from any camera in the ‘hood. Not so for the actual NYPD, which has to run around trying to figure out which cameras on which private businesses might have picked up a shot.

7. Install blast mitigation film on windows. “More people die from flying glass than from the attack itself,” Aviv says. Imagine if the Starbucks on 42nd and Broadway had such film — which is like Saran Wrap and can be installed after the fact — on its windows. It would slow down robbers, stop vandals, and slow down a blast wave.

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Aviv is quick to point out that he has nothing but respect for the rapid and impressive work of law enforcement agencies on this case. “This is a testament to a great response,” he says. “This is closer to 24 than anything we’ve ever seen.”

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About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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