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Post-Sept. 11 Strategies Debated
Current, Future Security Measures Weighed at Town Meeting

On the Front Page...

The adage "you can never please everyone" might well have been written to describe reaction to heightened security measures taken and planned for NIH following the Sept. 11 tragedy. That's according to an unofficial barometer of employee remarks Nov. 19 at the first of four scheduled town meetings on "Safety and Security at the NIH." There was perhaps only one thing everyone could agree on: That is, NIH now conducts business differently than it did before Sept. 11.

Continued...

"This is an opportunity to fill you in on what's going on, the rationale for what's happening and to hear your ideas," said Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research, during opening remarks at the meeting held in Masur Auditorium.

Acknowledging that many employees have asked him what they can do to help NIH and the nation at a time like this, Gottesman told the audience, "What we do here already is of incredible importance to the country. In many ways, the most important job is to do the job that we've been doing from the beginning of the establishment of NIH. When the NIH was first established, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke from the portico of Bldg. 1. This was just before World War II was about to begin. He talked about military preparedness, but he said the most important thing our nation can do is ensure the health of its people and in that way ensure the welfare of its people. The NIH tradition has always been to support health research and we need to continue doing that.

"We can all agree," he continued, "that the real safety and security begins in our laboratories and in our offices. We depend on you to follow the rules as closely as possible to make sure our labs and offices are safe and to not in any way undercut the activities of NIH as we try to devise security at this time."

Delicate Balance Hard to Achieve

In an overview of security measures here, Steve Ficca, NIH associate director for research services, agreed that people are NIH's most important resource and admitted that the task of keeping all of NIH's resources safe has never been more important nor more difficult.

"We use 9/11 as a point of reference," Ficca began. " Our mission has not changed since that day, but the environment in which we have to carry out that mission has certainly been altered."

Numerous security assessments and recommendations have come across his desk over the years, he said. Before events on Sept. 11, some had been implemented and some had been deemed low priority. Since then, he said, everything has had to be examined with fresh eyes. The strategies in place now are in compliance with the four security alert levels and risk assessments provided to all federal agencies by the U.S. General Services Administration.

"In the beginning we went from a very low level of security to a very high level very quickly," Ficca explained. "Right now we are at level 3 plus."

The purpose and primary objectives, Ficca stressed, are to ensure the safety and security of our most important resource — our people; to safeguard intellectual property — research activities and research data that are irreplaceable and which represent a unique resource to this country; to preserve the NIH reputation for being the world's leading biomedical research institution; and to minimize the vulnerability of NIH's facilities.

Daily inspections of cars entering NIH's main campus have become routine. Such measures are only one signal that security here has been elevated over the last 3 months.

During the overview, Ficca addressed two categories of threats: perceived and real. Given the visibility and importance of NIH research, he said, it would be unwise not to consider the possibility that the agency could be a target for terrorism. Citing animal rights protests and AIDS activism events that required unusual safety measures, Ficca recalled that NIH has contended with potentially harmful actions in the past. Besides those who may not agree with the research NIH conducts, or the way it is conducted, he said, there is also the possibility that miscreants could view NIH as a source for materials to be used harmfully in terrorism elsewhere in the country.

"These are perceived threats," Ficca said, "but in reality we have an outstanding biosafety program" in place to secure research and related materials.

Real threats do exist, he continued, according to information provided to him by intelligence agencies. In addition, security is threatened by crimes such as petty thefts "and other ongoing criminal activity not atypical of a small city, which we are."

Ficca also outlined several constraints to planning NIH's security, including limited resources. So far, NIH has not been provided with additional funds to pay for added security, he noted. Resources on every front have been strained, Ficca pointed out, noting, for example, that the 50-officer NIH police force has been working 12-hour shifts 6 days a week since 9/11 and that they will require a rest soon. Other problems in devising safety procedures so far include the need for clarity of the rules and fairness in their execution across all of NIH, he said.

"This has caused some inconvenience, no doubt about it," Ficca acknowledged. "Our initial response was very awkward, but we've tried to improve as time goes on, and we're still trying to improve."

Audience Members Respond

Many of the measures taken to ensure NIH's security have been debated by employees among themselves, but the town meeting gave attendees an opportunity to air grievances and share ideas publicly with NIH security and policy officials. It was during the feedback portion of the meeting, which ran nearly an hour past its scheduled 60 minutes, that emotions ran particularly high. Comments from the audience ranged from a researcher who suggested that no additional security at all is warranted on campus, to an R&W worker who wants vendor sales and other extracurricular activities to resume, to an employee who requested that shuttle buses stop at Metrobus stops within campus now that bus traffic has been limited to one campus shuttle. Many also remarked on the inconsistency of security checks at different buildings, or at different parts of the same building. Ficca responded that officials are aware of such inconsistencies and are continuing to fine-tune procedures.

"I totally and thoroughly disagree with everything that has been done since Sept. 11," remarked a scientist who said he has worked at NIH for 18 years. "I do not understand the reason for it. It's not been made clear to me at all. Has there ever been a credible threat to NIH? Every day I go through this indignity of having to prove who I am. In other words, we're all guilty until we can show our innocence, turning American jurisprudence on its head.

"I want the jersey barriers gone," he continued. "I want life back to normal. President Bush said we should get back to normal. This is not normal what's going on here. We've been turned into some sort of fort. It's wrong. It's not the American way."

Ficca responded that security procedures were not being undertaken capriciously, and that NIH must continue to be guided by alerts from GSA, HHS and other information it receives from intelligence sources.

To respond to questions, a panel was formed consisting of Gottesman; NIH Police Chief Al Hinton; Dr. Robert McKinney, director of NIH's Division of Safety; Stella Serras-Fiotes, director of the Office of Facilities Planning; and Leonard Taylor, ORS deputy director. Queries included:

  • Whether the Clinical Center gym would reopen after business hours for employee use ("We don't have the manpower to monitor each activity, and mission-based activities are given priority," replied Taylor. "We want to be able to return many of these activities, and we are constantly reevaluating which ones we can resume.");

  • What can be done to improve the performance of contract security workers ("We agree that some have not been performing up to our standards," Hinton said, "but we are training them as quickly as we can, and we have already let several go."); and

  • Why all incoming mail is not irradiated ("The technology to improve mail handling is still under investigation," Ficca said. "Irradiation is not a cure-all and is not without complications in itself, so we have to weigh the benefits against the risks. NIH mail facilities have all been tested for possible anthrax contamination and we have been cleared. We have been in contact with security officials at UPS and FedEx. Right now they are manually inspecting and looking for suspicious packages, but mainly they are relying on chain of custody — confirming who sent and handled mail before it was delivered to us").

Several respondents reiterated that they were offended that NIH employees are being searched and suspected without just cause. Hinton pointed out that such searches have led to weapons and other contraband being found and confiscated, and while screenings are not 100 percent effective, they are conducted to reduce the possibility of danger.

Jersey barriers are a familiar addition to the campus's landscape now, but many may be replaced by a perimeter fence, which has been cited as the number one item on NIH's security wish list.

Foreseeing the outcries of discontent among employees — and having fielded similar sentiments via phone calls and emails — Gottesman had summed up the feedback at the outset of the meeting: "Given a community as diverse and as intellectually challenging as NIH," he noted, "it's no surprise that people have diverse feelings and opinions about what's going on."

What the Future Holds

To address problems of access by employees to all campus buildings and to identify visitors better, a perimeter fence for the main campus is planned. In conjunction with the fence, a central visitors center is being proposed, which would relocate the Visitor Information Center (currently residing in the B1 atrium of Bldg. 10) to the perimeter of campus. Ficca said the proposal suggests that all of the nearly 5,000 daily visitors to campus be welcomed through this central facility before proceeding to their various campus destinations.

"Every security study has made the fence the highest priority of all to allow more efficient access to the campus," he said.

Similarly, Ficca continued, security planners are considering creation of a central clearing and inspection center for deliveries. Such a center would permit careful screening of all incoming materials before wider distribution to campus buildings.

"Central receiving at the individual buildings is certainly possible," he said, "but it would require a tremendous amount of support and cooperation from building occupants as well as our vendor community."

Also on the horizon is a new proximity-card access system that will replace the current cardkey process by June. Already in place are guidelines for the use of campus facilities for special events; soon, Ficca said, a broader collection of standard operating procedures will be developed and available to help employees who coordinate large-capacity meetings and functions at NIH.

"We have to be sure that what we're doing is in fact directly addressing the goals we're trying to achieve," Ficca concluded. "One way of doing that is to involve the people we're trying to protect... The goal in all of this is to achieve the security without hindering the mission. The atmosphere of openness and collegiality of the campus has always been a hallmark of NIH, and we certainly are striving to maintain that as much as possible without compromising the safety issues. That is our challenge in the future."

More town meetings were held later at Lipsett Amphitheater and other off-campus NIH sites in an effort to reach all employees. In addition a web site, http://security.nih.gov, has been established to communicate the most current information, and any policy changes to staff.


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