Why does my hotel need lockdown plans and safe zones?

The difference between evacuation and invacuation

The recent release of the film ‘Hotel Mumbai’ has stirred vivid memories of the threat that terrorism poses to the hospitality industry. The attack on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in 2008, depicted in the film, provides a stark reminder of the havoc that marauding attackers can wreak in crowded places. Sadly, these attackers do not have to be armed with assault rifles and grenades to be effective. The modern threat is much more low-tech, simply weaponising vehicles and kitchen knives, as seen in the 2017 Westminster and London Bridge attacks.

However, the Mumbai attack also proved to be a watershed for law enforcement, which led to major improvements in the response to marauding attacks, both by the security services and private industry globally. Major exercises are now run regularly to test police and military armed response, as well as the critical decision-making of senior leaders. Governments have developed strategies, such as ‘Run, Hide, Tell’, to ensure the public respond in the best way possible to maintain their safety; and the private industry, especially the hospitality industry, has developed emergency plans to keep their staff and customers safe during such an attack.


How should hotels react to an active external threat?

Undoubtedly the biggest change in emergency planning in the last 10 years has been the introduction of invacuation procedures – where the circumstances of an incident mean evacuation is not an option. These incidents range from terrorist attacks through to civil disorder and more benign, but equally serious, incidents such as gas leaks.

There are two clear actions that need to be undertaken almost simultaneously – firstly the hotel needs to instigate a pre-planned ‘lockdown’ procedure and secondly, guests and staff in public areas need to be given access to pre-determined ‘safe zones’ within the hotel.



The basic principle of lockdown is to create a delay in time and distance between an external threat and those inside the hotel. We are trying to increase the time that people have to get away to a safe zone or hiding place and reduce the impact of the threat.  Even the most secure doors can be breached by a determined attacker, but we are building a delay by locking them and potentially reducing casualties.

In order to be able to lockdown effectively, the main hotel building should have a ‘hard perimeter’ – this means all the external doors and windows on the ground floor or street level are either kept locked or are capable of being locked. Many of the external doors will be emergency exit doors, which cannot be opened from the outside. However, the hotel will have a main entrance and possibly side entrances that remain open and accessible to the public. It is these entrances that must be secured quickly during an incident.

Speed is essential during a lockdown – the less time it takes to lock your doors, the more time you are buying for your guests and staff. For example, the use of magnetic locks that can be automatically and remotely operated, is preferable to fumbling with a bunch of keys in a high-pressure situation. Consideration should also be given to dividing your hotel internally into sectors, that can be individually locked down; this provides layers of delay and frustration for attackers, slowing their progress further.

It is so important that you formulate lockdown plans and procedures for your hotel and exercise them regularly. The more your staff practice lockdown procedures, the more likely they are to react quickly to a real incident; to use a military saying, ‘Train hard, fight easy’. Your staff need to know their roles and responsibilities, especially in a multi-layered lockdown plan.


Safe Zones

We are trying to create time and distance between the threat and those we are trying to protect, so pre-determined safe zones within the hotel which can be accessed quickly are key to the invacuation plan. Safe zones need to be carefully selected and you should consider rooms with the following features:

  • The room should be centrally placed within the building, away from external walls.
  • The room should have its own ‘hard perimeter’, doors that can be locked from the inside and preferably no windows. In a marauding attack the attackers will be actively looking for victims, so being hidden from view is key to staying safe.
  • The room should have multiple entrances, if attackers attempt to breach one entrance then you can escape through the others. Try to avoid rooms with only one way in and out.
  • Ensure the room has a landline telephone that can dial out onto a public network and test mobile phone and WiFi signal strengths in the room; bear in mind that mobile phone networks may temporarily fail during major incidents.
  • The room should have some form of ventilation, incidents may become protracted and the room will get hot and stuffy. A stockpile of bottled water should be considered as well.
  • If there is CCTV coverage of the corridors leading to the room, consider providing a CCTV monitor within the room; this will aid identification between threats and friendly forces coming to help.


Communication & Vision

Two additional areas that need to be covered in your invacuation planning are communication (how do you tell people about the lockdown?) and vision (how do you see what is going on outside the hotel once you have locked down?).

Your communication plan needs to consider how you communicate with staff and guests, as well as the emergency services responding to an incident. If you are considering using an alarm sounder as a lockdown alert, then ensure that it is a different sound to your usual fire evacuation alarm.

Once you have locked down your hotel, it is essential that you have the capability to see what is going on in terms of the incident outside. Knowing where the threat is coming from is key to where you move your staff and guests and, eventually, which exit to safely evacuate them through. Sensibly placed CCTV cameras on the external perimeter of the hotel will provide you with the necessary vision during a lockdown.

Finally, as I write this blog, the news of a knife attack in the Arndale Centre in Manchester has just broken, another low-tech marauding attack in a public area. Early indications are that good lockdown procedures by the shops in the centre limited the number of potential casualties. Incidents like these highlight the attitude of ‘it will not happen to me’ needs to change to ‘it might just happen to me and I need to be prepared if it happens’.