Chicago has a long, difficult history with fire. The Great Chicago Fire in 1871 lasted two days, killing hundreds and destroying about 3.3 square miles. In 2003, a fire in a Chicago high-rise left workers in a smoke-filled stairwell while the doors locked behind them – six workers died, and eight were hospitalized. Therefore, Chicago’s fire code is one of the strictest in the country, and the Second City’s security executives are taking proactive measures to address it.

The Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) is the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. At 1,450-feet tall (1,730 including antennas), the office building hosts some 12,000 employees, 125 trucks and an additional 10,000-15,000 tourists daily. The building has 104 elevators and two locomotive engine emergency generators.

In order to combat the 2003 fire hazards, Keith Kambic, Director of Security and Life Safety, U.S. Equities Realty – the contract company managing Willis Tower – stairwells feature automatic unlocking devices. However, he says that “You can have anything in the world protected from a product standpoint, but it comes down to people.”

Kambic, who joined the Willis Tower team in 2004, follows the four “P”s of security: Product, People, Policy and Procedures. Training is a major component of the last three, he adds. He insists that the building’s staff – including in the individual tenant offices – train for everything: medical emergencies, severe weather and workplace violence.

The Willis Tower also has an annual drill with the Chicago Fire Department, hosting 110-180 people for three hours on a Saturday to simulate fire or severe weather situations. These close relationships with the Chicago Police and Fire Departments led to the installation of an additional repeater in the building designated for emergency fire communication between first responders.

The City of Chicago requires two evacuation drills a year, but the Willis Tower performed between 320 and 350 drills in 2012. Officials will group together as many people as possible for training, including several floors at a time, and each office is debriefed afterward to reemphasize policies that might have gotten a bit rusty or remind tenants of proper procedures.

However, the tenants aren’t the only visitors to the building – the Willis Tower registers about 325,000 business guests a year, and the Skydeck (the top level of the Willis Tower, flanked with windows and pop-out “ledges” over the city) attracts 1.3 million visitors annually. While business guests are the responsibility of the tenants, “Tourists can’t be trained,” says Mike Schroeder, Director of Business Continuity and Life Safety, Willis Tower, U.S. Equities Realty. That is why security and Skydeck staff are trained to relocate tourists in the event of an emergency, or even provide medical assistance if necessary.

A little further south, along Lakeshore Drive, the Museum of Science and Industry was built with the Great Chicago Fire fresh in the founders’ minds. Originally constructed as the Palace of Fine Arts for the 1892 World’s Fair (the White City, as it is often known), the museum’s first permanent exhibit is a genuine coal mine brought up from Southern Illinois.

“The fire department tells us that we can’t have real coal in there anymore, but..." jokes Ed McDonald, Director, Facilities and Operations, who is also responsible for life safety at the museum.

The museum is open 363 days a year. The 400,000 square-feet of exhibit space hosts 1.4 million visitors a year, including between 375,000 and 450,000 schoolchildren between September and June.

The building can receive upward of 10,000 visitors a day, between the IMAX Theater, space capsule exhibit, transportation gallery and the U-505 – a Nazi U-boat that was captured during World War II and placed in an underground vault, practically, at the museum.

As an aside here: you can see the U-505 and many other Museum of Science and Industry exhibits (as a work event!) at the ASIS President’s Reception on ­­September 24. It is a ticketed event, but conference attendees with full registration get free tickets.

Security at the museum is the first responder for first aid and emergencies. The building has seven radio channels for active communication between parties, including specific communication protocols for lost children or, as McDonald calls it, “lost chaperones.”

The museum also holds at least one full evacuation a year, and new City of Chicago requirements have instated fire guards in general areas – i.e. someone with training and knowledge on how to evacuate the building. But getting the building clear after hours is rarely a problem, as McDonald tells younger attendees (and sometimes their chaperones) that anyone left in the museum after closing has to help clean. 

No one usually volunteers.