T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T     J A N U A R Y  –  F E B R U A R Y  2002



by Fran Pollner

In the wake of September 11, security guards have become as much of the ambience at NIH as excavation pits; and needing to prove daily that one is a legitimate denizen of the NIH community has taken its place among the common gripes, much like not being able to find a parking space.

But unlike razing parking lots to make way for new laboratory buildings—generally accepted as a bothersome but necessary price to pay for expansion of research facilities—the risk-benefit ratio and appropriateness of the security measures undertaken here have been the subject of many a private debate among colleagues.

That debate was given a public airing the days preceding Thanksgiving: A series of town meetings (videocast available) on "safety & security at the NIH" featured Steve Ficca, ORS director, presenting an overview of the current and changing security scenario, followed by a lengthy question-and-answer session, with questions fielded by Ficca and a panel of involved NIH staff.

Objectives, Perceived Risks, Actions and Action Plans

The objective of preserving the safety and security of NIH—its people, intellectual property, and facilities—without impeding the research mission of NIH or its open and collegial atmosphere has remained constant from the day NIH was established to the present moment. Before and after September 11, there is no difference in the objective, Ficca said; it’s the environment that has changed.

The perception that NIH is a potential terrorist target by virtue of the research it conducts and as a source of agents that could be weaponized is larger than the reality, Ficca said. NIH has always been a visible site for activist groups to stage protests—animal rights and AIDS-related demonstrations, for example—and it also has its share of daily petty thefts. Moreover, the Bethesda campus typically accommodates about 5,000 visitors daily. Although it’s difficult to determine the extent of increased risk to NIH posed by the events of September 11, NIH, like other government facilities, was ordered to go "rapidly from low-level to high-level security" status.

There have been no drastic changes in infrastructure, as there might well be under the highest security alert, but steps have been taken to control access to the campus perimeters and building entrances. Inspection of non-NIH vehicles, random inspection of NIH vehicles, the issuing of visitor IDs and checking of employee IDs, and baggage inspection have all become part of campus life. The idea, Ficca said, is to be effective without being obstructive.

The NIH mail facility has been tested, and the mail is being screened; UPS and FedEx are being screened "at the perimeter." Community activities on the Bethesda campus have been curtailed.

Additional actions planned are the building of a fence around the campus perimeter to control pedestrian access, as well as improved electronic control of access to buildings. "There will be a change in the key card system, probably by June," Ficca said. Also being considered are some access controls within buildings, a visitors’ processing and information center somewhere on the campus perimeter, a clearing facility for delivered goods, and an appraisal of risk vulnerability of campus buildings with commensurate security improvements, such as establishing a central receiving area for certain buildings.

NIH Chief of Police Al Hinton invited anyone in the NIH community with security-related concerns to call him at 301-496-2387.


Audience comments and questions revealed that among those concerned enough to speak at the town meeting, complaints ran high. On one hand, there were those who felt that security was inconsistent and inadequate; on the other were those who felt it was excessive and offensive.

Some people expressed dismay that the gym in building 10 was still closed after-hours, unlike that in Building 31, which reopened. Because Building 10 houses the Clinical Center, it’s open and under 24-hour security watch. Because monitoring every corner of activity is quite demanding and requires a lot of manpower, the nonessential corners have been cut.

"We are doing everything to allow activities to proceed that occur during normal hours and are in keeping with the NIH mission," such as the Research Festival in October, which involved a lot of "behind the scenes" security work, said Leonard Taylor, ORS deputy director. As for off-hours activities, a "sliding scale of event priorities" has been established: Staff training would have a high priority, but less relevant activities not directly tied to the NIH mission would not, he said.

Several people focused on the problems posed by curtailed bus and shuttle services and blocked entrances and parking lots—another area where officials are evaluating how to ameliorate the inconveniences.

One person was applauded after he decried the "waste of resources" in subjecting people who have worked here for years to "airport"-type searches every time they enter certain buildings.

"The vigilance in Building 10 must be extreme," Taylor commented. "The foot traffic is enormous in this major federal hospital facility." NIH chief of police Al Hinton noted that weapons had been confiscated during what have become routine searches.

These responses called forth the declaration from an NIH veteran of 18 years that he "thoroughly disagree(s) with everything that’s been done here since September 11." He called the security procedures a "daily indignity" that holds everyone on campus "guilty until proven innocent."

Michael Gottesman, deputy director for intramural research, observed that there are "many here who are terrified by the prospect of terrorism" and that without a certain level of security, some would not work here.

Another scientist cautioned that security procedures were so obstructive they might hamper the recruitment of scientists; she noted, too, that access to seminars in some of the smaller buildings by people without card keys had become very difficult. She compared the situation at the Bethesda campus—where one has to go through security checks, including belongings, just to visit other scientists in different buildings—to that at NCI’s Frederick facility, where, she said, security procedures occur at the perimeter only and are therefore less obstructionist.

Ficca promised that future improvements would alleviate that burden. No one could say whether the daily routine at NIH would ever return to the pre-September 11th normal. (For security updates, visit the ORS information line web site.)

SD and ACD Briefings

The scientific directors (SDs) got a security update during their regular biweekly meeting in early December. ORS deputy director Leonard Taylor reported much the same sort of information released at the town meetings and confirmed that there will be a fence around the Bethesda campus perimeter—the better to screen out unfriendly individuals and objects and therefore to lighten the burden of repeated security checks within campus borders.

Taylor noted that much of what has transpired at NIH reflects compliance with government-wide prescriptions for protecting civilian federal facilities. Whether these security measures have had a deterrent effect is a difficult achievement to prove, he observed.

Security measures may well become less visible and intrusive, but, acting NIH director Ruth Kirschstein told the Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) of NIH at its semiannual meeting December 6, "life at NIH will never be the same as it was before September 11."

Referring to the inspections committee members had undoubtedly experienced upon their arrival here, Kirschstein summed up the changes that had taken place since the ACD had last gathered on the NIH campus in June.

She noted that at least one lesson was learned from the World Trade Center disaster and earlier last summer from Tropical Storm Allison and ensuing floods at Baylor College of Medicine and other facilities in Houston: Data backup in a separate physical location is critical to recovery from such events.

Emergency preparedness has become a priority topic not only in the NIH intramural program but in the extramural community as well, ACD members attested.


CC director John Gallin, then-NIMH director Steve Hyman, and NIAID director Tony Fauci confer in the few minutes before the special grand rounds on bioterrorism held here October 31. Fauci discussed the "bio" in "bioterrorism," and Hyman discussed the "terror." (Videocast available.)

NIAID director Tony Fauci fields questions from the press at the end of the session. Since September 11, Fauci has been called upon repeatedly to brief officials and the public on matters related to bioterrorism, the prevention and treatment of diseases such as anthrax and smallpox, and the NIH role in activities to protect the public from these threats.




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