City’s Hall’s evacuation plan: How Philly government has responded to past breaches

The most dangerous situation in recent history was a 1990 pipe bomb in the basement.

Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
michaelawinberg-2020-2

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn email newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.


Elected officials in DC were quickly evacuated when insurrectionists swarmed the United States Capitol building Wednesday, rushing through the central Rotunda and breaking into the House chamber.

What would happen if that kind of thing went down in Philadelphia?

City Hall, the building that houses all three branches of Philly’s government, keeps details on its security protocol pretty tight.

But it does conduct evacuation drills twice per year, said city spokesperson Lauren Cox, as do the Municipal Services Building and the One Parkway Building, which both hold city offices,. Whoever’s there at the time is required to participate — including Mayor Jim Kenney and any members of City Council.

These folks are moved to undisclosed locations, communicated privately to staff via safety officers, Cox said. Kenney and his security detail have even more specific procedures.

If there’s an emergency, officials and security staff can make announcements over the building’s loudspeaker system, and send instructions on what to do via email, text and phone call.

“The City of Philadelphia places the safety of its employees, contractors, visitors and the public among its highest priorities,” Cox said.

Since Kenney took office, there haven’t been any evacuations mandated by violent incidents, Cox confirmed — just some standard fire alarm pulls and power outages. Also, some staff were advised to leave early ahead of the June protests.

But vacating the Philly government building isn’t unheard of. City Hall has seen a few evacuations over the last century. Here’s what went down.

1976: Three fires in the annex

Officials had to clear the City Hall Annex at Juniper and Filbert on Jan. 8, 1976 because an arsonist set not one, not two, but three fires in the 15-story building. Investigators told the Inquirer that the suspect set fire to a trash bin in the 11th floor hallway… and then a bulletin board on the 10th floor… and then some more trash in the basement.

Everyone fled the building at 4:20 p.m. that day.

1990: A pipe bomb in the basement

It was drizzling when hundreds of lawyers, jurors and other court peeps had to flee a section of City Hall on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 1990. They were evacuated when maintenance workers found a 6-inch pipe bomb in storage room 381. It was a live device, Philly police said at the time, and could’ve detonated at any time.

The weird thing? They couldn’t figure out when it was put there.

“We don’t know if it had been there 20 years, or was just put there today,” Philly police Captain William Markert told the Inquirer. “It’s designed to injure or kill people.”

Regardless, a hazardous device tech was called in and carried the thing out of City Hall wrapped in a blanket — “not the safest way,” Markert acknowledged at the time, “but our safest option,” since a bomb robot couldn’t get up the stairs. (They can do that now.)

The bomb was safely detonated at a Philadelphia Police Department facility, and the only unfortunate outcome was the sight of a judge wearing a cowboy hat to stay dry in the rain.

1991: Bad ventilation = false alarm

The thing about City Hall in the 1990s is that the building’s HVAC system was old as hell. That became apparent on April 30, 1991.

The building’s heating and cooling system randomly pushed a ton of steam out of the vents that Tuesday. It billowed through the building that Tuesday so thick that the steam set off a bunch of the City Hall fire alarms. The building was evacuated, firefighters barreled into the building to find the cause.

It was chalked up, of course, to crappy ventilation. City Hall workers got a 40-minute break that day.

Later in 1991: A literal trash fire

A City Hall employee working on the fourth floor started to smell smoke around 4 p.m. on Sept. 28, 1991. So they called for help.

Thirty-five firefighters showed up and cleared the building at 4:40 p.m. then set out to find the blaze. It didn’t take long — in just 18 minutes they figured out it was a small trash fire that had erupted in the basement. It would’ve been quicker, too, but the fire truck got stuck in rush-hour traffic around City Hall, Philadelphia police told the Inquirer.

2018: City Hall went dark 

It was eerie on Nov. 26, 2018 when Philadelphia’s City Hall suddenly went black. Municipal employees had to find their way out of the building, navigating with the light from their cell phones, as random strobes of light flashed through the halls.

Turns out the random darkness that Monday afternoon was just a regular PECO power outage. There were no injuries — not even anyone stuck in an elevator — and the building was closed for the rest of the day while PECO crews figured out what went wrong.

Preventing the need to evacuate

Kenney was quick to condemn the rioters in our nation’s capital on Twitter Wednesday afternoon. He called the incident an “insurrection incited by [Trump], who threatens the foundation of our democracy.”

City Hall’s regular security operation requires you to have a badge to get into any of the private entrances. To enforce that, there are security guards stationed at all the building’s entrances, plus Sheriff’s Office and Philly police officers.

Even more officers are set up outside the Mayor’s Office on the second floor, and there are metal detectors on the fourth floor for use during public City Council sessions.

Kenney’s spokesperson said security measures are constantly being upgraded.

“The city continuously works to improve safety, mitigate threats and hazards,” said Cox, “and to keep all individuals informed of potentially dangerous situations.”

Thanks for reading another Billy Penn story

Find everything you need to know about Philly, every day — in clear, direct language, like a good friend might say.

No clickbait, no cliffhangers: the Billy Penn morning newsletter.

Thanks for supporting Billy Penn!

Test your local knowledge — join us for the next Philly Quizzo virtual event, or take the quiz online.

Lock in your support

Reader support powers our local pandemic reporting. A monthly membership helps lock it in.

Can we count on you as a Billy Penn sustainer?