Safety Dance

After all these years, I still have vivid memories from 1983 as a 12-year-old attending a school play in Harrison, New York when a nearby explosion rocked the building. At first we thought it might have been thunder, but it wasn’t. It was a bomb detonated at a building about a mile away by people who had a serious beef with the international investment policies of one of the building’s occupants.

I was reminded of this incident recently when there were two bomb threats at schools in my community—one that my daughter had attended, and the other where my son is currently enrolled. In the latest incident, the school went into full lockdown mode. The police were called and, after several hours, the building was cleared and normal operations resumed.

While you might expect me to cheer these precautions, you’d be wrong. What I saw at my kids’ schools and elsewhere around the country during the recent spate of bomb threats was an overreaction.

Some of you may think I am reckless or worse for having such apparent callous disregard for safety. You’d be wrong again. I care deeply about safety, particularly with regard to my kids, but I am clear-eyed about why people overreact to these threats and underreact to many of those that are actually carried out. It is because concerns about liability oftentimes outweigh those of safety. People consistently over-calculate the odds and their reactions when liability is at stake, and under-calculate and fail to act when considering safety in the absence of potential liability.

I reached this conclusion after several other incidents involving my kids. One of them was when hospital employees refused my request to double check that I had correctly strapped my newborn baby in the car seat. Others were the multiple times my car struck deer with my kids aboard (not to mention the time a man was killed on my street when a deer went through his windshield), and when a neighbor’s German Shepherd got loose and bit my son in our backyard. When I called the police and my elected officials about what could be done, I was met with a resounding response of indifference. At least one of the politicians was honest enough to admit that he was supported by groups that disagreed with my position on animal control. The safety of my kids mattered less to him than concerns over his electoral prospects.

The refusal to help with a car seat, the dog bite and the deer running into my car aren’t acts of God—they are acts of people. As I explored in my prior blog “Don’t Trust Me, Trust “We”, there are numerous instances where overzealous concerns about liability have high cost and little benefit. We often care more about not getting in trouble than we do about other people when we are not liable for the consequences. We are better than this.

As commercial real estate owners and agents, the means by which we secure our buildings make the debate over which way to swing the safety pendulum a lot more than just philosophical. The Real Estate Roundtable and other industry lobbying groups did a terrific job in 2015 supporting renewal of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. They correctly argued that certain risks can only be insured by the federal government.

Beyond insuring for things that are uninsurable, building owners have to make day-to-day choices on security measures. Neither the extreme “full lockdown response to any threat” nor the optimistic “hope for the best because people are basically good” is the right one. Rather, a staged approach of escalation is the way to go.

As the largest commercial property manager in the world, CBRE has devised certain “Emergency Escalation Procedures” for potential threats that ratchet up the level of our response based on the type of threat and the resources and time required to counter it. The staged approach is the right one and should be employed more broadly in our schools and neighborhoods.  Just as underreaction to threats makes us worse off, so too does overreaction.

Safety first?

By Spencer Levy, Head of Research, Americas, CBRE.