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BVAMP: Simplifying Assessment of Building Vulnerability

Building comfort, safety, efficiency, and cost reductions are serious matters that traditionally occupy building managers' time. However, in light of recent world events, building managers face an additional concern: the threat of a chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) attack.

Federal and other agencies (e.g., the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers; the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; and the Federal Emergency Management Agency) are developing tools and protocols to understand CBR threats. However, applying these tools can raise complex questions; for example, which action should a building manager take first? What are the costs of improvements to thwart an attack? What degree of threat might a building face? In many cases, only a site-specific analysis can answer these questions.

To help facility managers with this complex task, Environmental Energy Technologies Division (EETD) researchers Tracy Thatcher and others at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) have produced the Building Vulnerability Assessment and Mitigation Program (BVAMP), a user-friendly tool that assesses a building's vulnerability to attack and can also offer building-specific recommendations. Funded by the California Energy Commission (CEC) Public Interest Energy Research (PIER) program, this interactive web program also attempts to minimize the energy penalties that may be associated with improving heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems to withstand CBR attacks.

Know the Building

BVAMP users first answer questions about their buildings' access, risk assessment, emergency response plans, and HVAC systems and controls. The questions are hierarchical; a "yes" answer takes the user to one set of questions, and a "no" answer leads to a different category.

Knowledgeable building managers can often reduce the likelihood or severity of a CBR attack by looking at three general building categories: HVAC system control and operation, building system security, and emergency response planning.

The HVAC system is an important but often overlooked element in reducing a building's vulnerability. HVAC [particle and chemical (gas)] filters can very efficiently remove unwanted airborne agents. A filter upgrade can increase the percentage and type of pollutants removed although in some cases, the additional air pressure required to handle a higher-efficiency filter may require some re-engineering of HVAC fans.

Although simply being inside a building itself provides some protection during an attack, modifying the operation of the HVAC system during an emergency can significantly reduce the impact of a CBR release, potentially saving lives and reducing property contamination. For example, if a tank car carrying a toxic chemical overturns near a building, turning off the HVAC system will reduce the chemical concentration that is carried indoors. Because quick and efficient evacuation of densely populated areas is typically not possible, people are more likely to survive an attack if they shelter in a building that has prepared for chemical emergencies and in which the HVAC system can be quickly shut down to reduce indoor exposures.

Reducing the air exchange rate or leakiness of a building can further reduce occupants' exposure to an accidental or intentional release of CBR agents. Lowering air exchange rates reduces the speed at which outdoor contaminants can enter a building, thereby lowering indoor concentrations and increasing the length of time during which people can safely shelter indoors. (Reducing building leakage may also improve occupants' comfort by eliminating drafts, improving moisture control, and increasing energy efficiency, depending on current building conditions). In addition, reducing the airflow between areas where CBR exposure is most likely, such as lobbies and mailrooms, and the rest of the building can reduce the exposure of occupants outside these high-rise areas.

In addition to improving HVAC control, increasing the security of building systems and building system information is also desirable. Making access to a building difficult can thwart potential terrorists. Many improvements are low cost; however, they may require changes in the way building management shares information and therefore be difficult to implement. The recommendations in BVAMP deal with security as it pertains to HVAC and CBR agent vulnerabilities. They do not deal with threats posed by bombs, thefts, or other issues, which can be addressed by other programs and local law enforcement agencies.

The third key aspect of vulnerability reduction and mitigation for buildings is emergency-response planning. Up-to-date and complete emergency-response plans are a crucial component of any vulnerability reduction strategy. Pre-planning and employee awareness, coupled with a well-thought-out and rehearsed emergency plan can reduce confusion and save lives during an actual emergency. Many of the measures recommended for preparing for CBR attack are also helpful for responding to other types of emergencies, such as fires or tornadoes.


BVAMP is a freestanding Java application. After start up, a set of tabbed panes appears with a series of yes-or-no questions. Users can complete the questionnaires in any order or save to a profile to return to later. After questions are answered, BVAMP saves relevant recommendations to a plain text file, which is opened using a word-processing program.

The recommendations report consists of two sections. The first gives general information and building-specific recommendations grouped into the following categories: Emergency Response Plans, Shelter-in-Place Rooms or Zones, HVAC System, Air Exchange Rate Reduction, Security, and Special Risk Areas. For each category, building- specific recommendations are grouped by cost (higher and lower) and by risk category (actions warranted for all facilities and actions most appropriate for facilities that face high risk). The second section of the report lists all of the questions and answers given. Some questions may be listed as unanswered, which either means that the user skipped the question or that the program skipped the question based on previous answers. For instance, if the user answers that his/her building does not have a mailroom, the program will not present any further questions regarding mailroom security, and all mailroom questions will be marked as unanswered.

Addressing Vulnerabilities

Although the probability of a CBR event in or near a building is low, the consequences of such an event could be catastrophic. Accidents involving tanker cars, hazardous materials trucks, chemical manufacturing facilities, and refineries are among the risks many buildings face. Of additional concern is the risk of deliberate attack by terrorists using hazardous materials. BVAMP is the first field tested, easy-to-use protocol that building owners and operators can use to reduce the likelihood and severity of a CBR event. BVAMP can help building managers improve emergency preparedness in a cost effective and efficient manner. Increased preparedness reduces the likelihood and severity of a CBR event.

— Ted Gartner

For more information, contact:

  • Tracy Thatcher
  • (510) 486-5215; Fax (510) 486-6658

Building Vulnerability Assessment & Mitigation Program (BVAMP)

This research was funded by the California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy Research program.

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