9/11 and Self-Storage Security: What’s Changed?
A few weeks after the Sept. 11 tragedy, I was working on a state of the industry report. I spoke with a number of self-storage industry builders, operators and other professionals about new development, a possible recession and improving operations. But every single phone conversation began the same way—thoughts about 9/11.
One of those conversations really stuck with me. Jim Chiswell, an industry veteran and owner of Chiswell and Associates, was with a client that morning. From the second floor of a building in New Jersey, Chiswell and his client saw the second plane hit one of the Twin Towers. "And I thought about my granddaughter. Her America and her world changed forever,” he told me then.
We’re all aware of the many things that have changes since that fateful day. We’ve become accustomed to increased airport security and terrorist alert levels. Most of us changed our perceptions about personal and national security. And businesses, too, began to put new security measures into place, including self-storage operators.
The industry had already had brushes with terrorism, as units were used to store items used in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993. The 9/11 terrorist attack once again reiterated the need for self-storage operator vigilance.
“We became very much more cognizant of who was standing at the front of the counter,” said Bob Taylor, manager of Blue Ridge Self Storage in Cashiers, N.C. Requesting and copying photo identification became a standard at most facilities after 9/11. Many managers were also trained how to spot fake IDs, and some facilities even requested more than one form of identification.
While Gina Six Kudo, manager of Cochrane Road Self Storage in Morgan Hill, Calif., said she’s always been cautious of who she rents to, 9/11 did have an impact on the way she scrutinizes potential tenants. “The money in the register or someone’s intent to use our site for illegal activity isn’t worth the risk to the safety or lives of our staff and my family,” she said. “You can call it ‘women’s intuition,’ your ‘gut sense’ or a ‘sixth sense,’ but whatever you call it, I’ve learned over my lifetime to trust it implicitly.”
The threat at self-storage facilities remain very real today. ISS has posted countless news items over the past year about bombs, guns, hazardous materials and other illegal items found by operators in storage units.
Just two years ago, the national Self Storage Association and Department of Homeland Security sent a written alert to thousands of self-storage companies nationwide about the potential for illegal use of self-storage in connection with terrorism. Authorities requested that anyone suspecting terrorist, suspicious or illegal activity immediately contact the Joint Terrorism Task Force in their area, the FBI or local law enforcement. A few self-storage operators report having been visited by federal agents. You can read about their experiences on this Self-Storage Talk thread.
“Many of the security measures we openly discuss now can be attributed to the heightened security levels across the country at facilities,” Kudo said. “Coupled with the fact that the Department of Homeland Security suddenly became aware of self-storage and started sending officers out across the nation to make us aware of suspect behavior 9/11 definitely impacted our industry.” But Kudo fears that as time passes, self-storage operators will become lax on security measures and procedures. “9/11 is a day in our history that we can’t forget, but also one we shouldn’t be complacent about. Too many Americans lost their lives that day and in the wars waged since that time to protect us.”
Jim Chiswell has the same concerns. He said the recession’s affect on occupancy and rental rates may put pressure on operators to overlook security measures in lieu of generating revenue. Training in the detection of counterfeit driver’s licenses or other forms of identification, for example, should be a priority, but often isn’t. “I have been in many facilities that don’t even require government-issued identification,” he said. However, Chiswell noted there are also many owners and managers who are doing an outstanding job in customer screening.
For those who aren’t, there’s no excuse. Unfortunately, self-storage units can be the perfect place to store objects for nefarious crimes. Guns and ammo, hazardous chemicals, the makings for a bomb, even money or fake documents and identifications can easily be stored and accessed. The goal is to not let it happen. As owners and managers, you’re on the front line. Be proactive by stopping it at your front door. Here are some potential red flags from the Department of Homeland Security:
- Cash customers
- Requests for 24-hour access or any unusual off-hour access
- Long-term prepayment
- Suspicious behavior in proximity to any employees or security personnel
- Abandonment of unused, suspicious items after leaving the facility
- Suspicious identification
- Unverified telephone or address information
- Physical damage on the person, i.e., burns and scars with irrational or non-credible explanations about injuries
While turning down a rental will never be easy, it may be the right thing to do. “As a whole, we’ve turned down more people to rent than before 9/11. Are we too cautious? Almost certainly,” Taylor said. “We’ve learned that vigilance is very important. Caution is critical.”
How has 9/11 affected security at your facility? Post a comment below or join the discussion at Self-Storage Talk.