Issues of Homeland Security

Kenneth M. Piken Comments
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"Every private citizen or business is a stakeholder in homeland security. Government can identify critical assets, conduct vulnerability assessments, and partner with state and local officials to enhance security and awareness, but only the citizen or business owner can participate at the base level to ensure his area of responsibility is safe and secure.”

—U.S. Secretary Tom Ridge

As a self-storage operator, you should understand how to protect your facility from terrorist activity and what the Homeland Security Act truly empowers the government to do. You should also be clear regarding your rights and responsibilities as citizens of the United States.

The Federal Government has been charged with the task of leading a unified, national effort to secure the country; preventing and deterring terrorist attacks; and protecting against and responding to threats. The Department of Homeland Security has coordinated this effort, and related responsibilities have been allocated to more than 87,000 government jurisdictions at the federal, state and local level.

What does this mean to the private sector, i.e., the nation’s providers of goods and services? According to the National Strategy for Homeland Security issued in 2002, the private sector is “a key homeland security partner” that will be critical in developing systems of information, communication and delivery for the detection and prevention of terrorist activity. Specifically, business owners have been asked to:

  • Take positive, personal action to ensure the security of their facilities and minimize vulnerability.
  • Support enhanced government/industry communication by sharing all information (no matter how small) regarding threats or suspicious activity.

How Does This Affect Self-Storage?

Storage facilities provide easy access to largely unmonitored space in which materials can be delivered, stored and transported with little threat of detection. They are often located near critical infrastructure, such as buildings of national significance or large public-gathering areas, which might be prime targets for the planting and detonation of explosives. Facilities that offer vehicle storage are particular vulnerable to these threats, as explosives could easily be planted in cars, trucks, etc., and left on site.

For example, in April 2004, ammonium-nitrate fertilizer, the same explosive used in a 2002 Bali nightclub bombing that killed 200 people, was discovered in a self-storage warehouse in West London. The year before, chemicals used in the first attack on the World Trade Center were stored at a self-storage facility in a New Jersey suburb. The tenant, Ramzi Youself, had the chemicals delivered to his unit directly from the manufacturer.

What to Watch For

So, what do you do? How do you, as a self-storage operator, protect your facility and country from risk? You have four critical tasks:

  1. Take responsibility for your piece of homeland security.
  2. Report all suspicious activity to authorities.
  3. Increase security and awareness within your facility.
  4. Train employees to recognize indicators and react to suspicious activities.

The key is to be vigilant and involved with customers. Ask about tenants’ need for storage. Dig for more information if a customer’s use sounds unusual, and report any suspicious behavior to local police. Always require identification before renting a unit, and request a second form of ID if the transaction is at all questionable. Verify all addresses and phone numbers—if you can’t confirm them, don’t rent the unit.

You should also conduct routine sweeps of the facility. Be cognizant of strange odors or sounds emanating from units, and check dumpster areas for any suspect discards. Look inside vehicle windows for unusual contents or configurations. Finally, invest in improved security equipment, such as surveillance cameras, and be extra attentive in your monitoring. You’re looking for the following red flags:

  • Movement of unusual items into or out of units
  • Tenants who spend excessive time in their units (especially if they aren’t moving goods in or out)
  • Routine or scheduled visits to a particular unit
  • Tenants who behave suspiciously when in proximity to employees or security personnel
  • Customers who pay in all cash
  • Requests for 24-hour access or any unusual off-hour access
  • Long-term prepayment
  • Abandonment of unused items
  • Dubious identification
  • Unverified phone numbers or addresses

As you walk through your facility, try to get a sense for what your tenants are storing. The following items could indicate a potential threat, especially when present in large quantities:

  • Fuel
  • Industrial chemicals
  • Explosives or other weapons
  • Commercial refrigeration units
  • Flight manuals, military training manuals, blueprints, maps, etc.
  • Chemical containers

Civil Rights

While it’s important to be watchful, bear in mind that the Constitution provides for Civil Rights. While the government has certain powers under the Patriot Act, public officials do not have the right to invade someone’s private space without a court order commonly referred to as a search warrant. The procedure to secure a warrant is quite simple, but the document must be signed by a judge.

If an official asks you to unlock a storage unit or provide access to anything other than a public area of your facility, he must have a warrant, and you should see it before you comply. The intent of this is not to undermine national security; on the contrary, you want to be cooperative. But if you don’t abide by the law, you leave yourself open to legal risk. If the official doesn’t have the paperwork, you can over-lock the unit under the emergency-powers provision of your rental agreement, and await his return with the proper documents.

Furthermore, it is not your responsibility to break locks. You can lend your lock-cutter to a warrant-holding official. But unless the warrant specifically states that you are to open the unit by force, you shouldn’t do so.

Finally, you are under no obligation to provide customer lists or records without a court order. Casually informing your local precinct of suspicious behavior is one thing; providing a printout of customer information is quite another. If you abide an oral request that is improperly issued by an official, you could find yourself sued by a customer and face a judgment of “civil relief ” in court.

This article is not all-inclusive. Its simple intent is to alert you to the protections put in place in the aftermath of 9/11 and your responsibilities as a business owner and citizen. Much of what is recommended here is common sense. If you have questions or concerns, consult your attorney or a self-storage association.

Kenneth M. Piken has practiced law for more than 25 years and is the senior partner in New York-based Kenneth Piken & Associates. The firm encompasses all aspects of law, with a concentration on real estate and logistics matters. It has participated in or handled virtually every appellate New York case affecting self-storage operators, all with favorable results. Mr. Piken was general counsel for the New York Self Storage Association for more than 15 years and participated in drafting and lobbying a New York lien law. He lectures throughout the country and contributes articles to industry publications. For more information, visit www.pikenlaw.com.

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