The Unglamorous Side: Parking Lots, Manhole Covers, and Homeland Security

(The 20 October 2008 issue of DPJ included an article by Dr. Livingstone on the unglamorous topic of “Parking Security” – which he described as “one of the most important, though often overlooked, areas of physical security protection.” The following article expands on his explication of that topic and includes some helpful information on a closely related, equally important, and even more overlooked subject: manhole covers.)


A lawsuit filed in Stamford, Connecticut, that was settled earlier this year not only underscores the importance of good (meaning safe) parking security but also serves as a casebook example of some of the worst lawyering on record in the United States.  As the famous trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey once observed: “The public regards lawyers with great distrust.  They think lawyers are smarter than the average guy but use their intelligence deviously. Well, they’re wrong.  Usually they [the lawyers] are not smarter.”  Nothing proves that homely wisdom better than the news articles about the “geniuses” who represented Marriott in that recent court case in Connecticut.

In 2006, a woman was raped at gunpoint inside her minivan – and in front of her two children – in the parking garage at the Stamford Marriott Hotel and Spa.  The rapist was later captured and sentenced to twenty years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault, kidnapping, robbery, and risk of injury to a minor.  The woman then sued the hotel for damages, maintaining that the rapist had loitered around the hotel for days without raising any concerns by its security personnel.  Her attorneys also contended that, despite a number of other sexual assaults in the area, the hotel had failed to provide adequate security in the parking garage – and, moreover, that its employees were poorly trained and supervised.

Rather than moving quickly both to upgrade its security systems and training – and settle the lawsuit with the woman – the hotel’s attorneys adopted a “blame-the-victim” defense, saying that she had “failed to exercise due care for her own safety and the safety of her children and proper use of her senses and facilities.” In other words, they were suggesting that the woman was at least partly responsible for what had happened to her simply by parking in the hotel garage (but they refused and/or were unable to provide specifics of just how she had been negligent). To many outside observers it seemed that the only way the lawyers could have justified their argument was to suggest that the very act of patronizing a Marriott Hotel is, in and of itself, a reckless and irresponsible act on the part of the victim.

After a public outcry and widespread criticism, Marriott announced that it was withdrawing its defense (and would, presumably, settle with the woman).  Marriott’s parent company also wisely moved to dissociate itself from the attorneys and management of its franchise hotel in Stamford.

Dangerous When Open – Also While Closed 

To emergency managers, political decision makers, and others directly involved in the protection of the nation’s critical infrastructure, the safety of parking garages is an important but somewhat ancillary aspect of homeland security – as is, not incidentally, an even more obscure, albeit totally visible, feature of the urban landscape: manholes, both open and closed. There have been, in fact, a number of lawsuits instituted by people who were injured by falling into open manholes; one of the most recent resulted in an $85 million judgment won by a medical student who fell into an open manhole in Philadelphia.

In addition to lawsuit damages per se, it costs most American cities thousands of dollars every year to replace stolen manhole covers – which, in some countries, are stolen simply because of the value of their metal and sold to unscrupulous scrap dealers.

But even more important are the national-security considerations related to and/or evolving from inadequate manhole management and maintenance.  Much of America’s critical national infrastructure lies just below the ground – and is therefore accessible through manholes. Included in this rich underground harvest are telecommunications systems (fiber optic lines and telephone cables); water and sewer systems; natural-gas and steam-heat delivery pipes; and systems that manage storm-water removal.

Moreover, as Nikolai Bobylev pointed out in a paper on the so-called “Urban Underground Infrastructure” presented at this year’s Fifth Urban Research Symposium, storm-water sewers “can be connected or adjacent to motor/rail transport tunnels. This physical interdependence increases the vulnerability of both infrastructures.” In addition, of course, underground tunnels carrying pipes and utility lines often provide unimpeded access to department stores and other businesses, hotels and government buildings, and other critical infrastructure.

Inexpensive Fixes – Or Costly Litigation 

Government studies have long shown that a well-planned and -coordinated attack by terrorists on the underground infrastructure of New York City (and/or other major cities) could have catastrophic consequences, knocking out power, interrupting utility flows, disrupting traffic lights and signs, flooding subway lines, and generally bringing commerce to a halt.  Access to certain water and other systems could also be used to disseminate biological warfare agents.  The U.S. Conference of Mayors expressed its concern over such underground vulnerabilities in a resolution passed at its 2007 annual meeting.

From the emergency manager’s – and/or terrorist’s – point of view, the facts are easy to summarize, and impossible to ignore. There are over 22 million manholes in the United States, many of them near to – and/or actually located in – critically important structures and facilities such as airports, nuclear power plants, major financial centers, and government buildings and installations.  Nearly all of these manholes are unsecured and today represent one of the nation’s greatest physical-security vulnerabilities – despite the fact that there are a number of relatively inexpensive ways to address the problem. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has in fact already recommended that all manholes ten inches or more in diameter be secured to prevent unauthorized access, and various DHS documents solemnly address the topic of “manhole access points.” But very little has actually been done so far to make those access points even slightly more secure.

In a few areas in some cities, some manhole covers – but not a large number of them – have been welded shut in high-risk areas (or, in rare cases, before a presidential convoy transits the street).  The trouble with welding a manhole cover shut is that it is time-consuming, costly, and prevents easy access to the manhole in the event of an emergency.  From a practical point of view, though, there are locking systems available that can secure manholes against unauthorized access; each such device usually costs between $600 and $700. A number of studies have examined manholes, ifying them from high-risk to low-risk, and recommending that all high-risk manholes be secured as soon as possible.

Although neither parking nor manhole security are very sexy or glamorous topics, both deserve appropriate attention from security specialists.  One false step, one overlooked vulnerability, about either of these totally public but virtually invisible dangers could easily lead to a major disaster or, at the very least, to serious litigation.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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