An Australian security professional reflects on the Kenya attacks, and the need for appropriate physical security in public places.
After any act of mass violence, amid outpourings of sympathy and dismay, there’s the commentary: knowing pronouncements from crusty old retired generals, wheeled out for a TV panel of so-called experts; the ravings of some hill-country survivalist, warning that a vengeful God has spoken again, via His AK-47-wielding messengers.
As abhorrent as these events may be (and as meaningless as most of the commentary that follows), there are productive ways to examine these tragedies, with an eye to preventing a repeat of such acts.
As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Of course, it’s too soon to look to the Kenyan incident for specific lessons; however, this tragedy can serve to remind us how important it is to think carefully about security strategies for public spaces.
“Maybe nothing will happen.”
In a race to maintain attractive bottom lines on the company’s spreadsheet, the physical security department is often one of the first to be whittled down. Unfortunately, many organizations think “security” means a physical body in a uniform pacing their floors—whatever bare minimum will satisfy their insurers’ demands and maybe deter the odd petty criminal in the process.
Many companies are betting on the odds: The fact is, a serious security breach (in the form of a violent attack such as the Kenyan tragedy) is extremely unlikely. Hence, it’s no surprise when a CEO decides that if the likelihood of a security threat is very remote, then a very small investment in security (as a percentage of a company’s total outlay) is justified.
But if that remote possibility comes to pass, as it did so terribly in Nairobi and Mumbai, the difference between having a poorly-trained, unmotivated staff and a dedicated, well-trained team of career security professionals can be very stark indeed.
The Case for Investing in Security
How confident are you in your security staff? Are you 100% sure they’ll step up to the plate in a life-threatening situation, instead of dropping their weapons and running away?
Plenty of security officers have fallen into the latter category over the years. It’s easy to see why: When companies offer bare-bones wages, long hours, and little or no training, they’ll be wildly lucky to end up with dedicated security professionals on staff. Instead, they’ll likely see applicants who can’t get any other kind of work, or for whom the job is merely a means to an end—a little extra cash to get through school, say.
So, consider this: If you were a young student working the graveyard shift to support your family whilst completing an accounting degree, which direction would you be heading when a gang of armed thugs starts shooting?
Less is more.
What if, instead, those responsible for the operation of large public venues (such as shopping centers and sporting stadiums) concentrated on quality over quantity?
What if, instead of employing six mouth-breathing piles of flesh to patrol your mall, you hired three highly-trained security professionals? You’d do your best to keep these career officers on board by paying them decent wages. And you’d be more likely to afford those salaries, because you’ve reduced your guard numbers.
This would allow you to recruit and retain guards who want to stay in the industry, and who won’t leave the job as soon as they finish their accounting degrees.
With your new set of skilled and committed professionals, you’d want to think about how best to use them. One excellent method is to assign two officers to the floor, ready to respond immediately to the first signs of trouble, while the other monitors and coordinates their response from a secure onsite control center.
The control-room operator can simultaneously offer guidance to the guards on the ground and summon and provide government agencies with accurate, real-time situational information as any incident unfolds. This system not only helps the on-the-ground guards see the big picture, but also greatly assists responding agencies, reducing the enormous level of situational blindness and misinformation during the initial stages of critical incidents.
When the Worst Isn’t Happening
Skilled security professionals can also prove their worth during the non-eventful hours that make up the majority of an officer’s time on shift. Instead of just being an alert physical presence, active only in times of disaster, a skilled professional can put into play a wide range of safety-enhancing strategies—anything from conducting security audits and intelligence gathering to proactive crime prevention programs, staff safety education, and evacuation training.
Consider the enormous increase in response capability during a major site incident if security officers had already trained other non-security personnel to be evacuation wardens, thus freeing guards to focus on mitigating an attack.
Even the best security practices, though they may offer a certain level of deterrence, will never guarantee that a public place is 100% impervious to a violent incident. Even the best trained guards would be hard-pressed to ward off a massive assault by fanatical extremists wielding military grade weaponry—like the attack unleashed in Nairobi.
But if such a horrific event does occur, a well-organized and trained team could greatly dampen the attackers’ ability to inflict their maximum intended damage, by taking immediate coordinated action before law enforcement arrives, and by providing government agencies with accurate and up-to-date threat information.
With terrorist organizations increasingly carrying out attacks on civilian infrastructure worldwide, those responsible for protecting public spaces should think carefully about ways to keep their staff and patrons safe in fact, instead of providing the mere appearance of safety. And with strategic thinking and spending, companies don’t have to increase their security investment costs one bit.
About the Author:
James Fry is a Sydney-based investigator and crime prevention professional. In an atmosphere of ever-increasing cyber risks and escalating security responses, James’ professional passion is to ensure that we don’t let these new virtual threats divert us from the ever-present danger that physical attacks pose. You can follow him on Twitter at @JamesFry_Sydney