Les Allan has taken over as the new chairman of The Association of University Chief Security Officers (AUCSO), which brings together security professionals working in higher and further education institutions across the UK, Europe and the world to share knowledge, best practice and training.
What has changed for university security officers over the past year? What are the most common issues they’re faced with? And what piece of tech does Les swear by?
How has the pandemic affected the work of university security professionals?
Throughout the pandemic AUCSO members have been very aware of the personal risks our officers have faced – and are still facing – and we’ve also been reminded how vital our role is to ensuring continuity for universities.
And this extends to universities across the globe, with many security services teams working through long and difficult periods of lockdown that began over a year ago. During that time, frontline staff have been constantly exposed to virus risk yet have consistently delivered outstanding service to their university communities.
By necessity, many security teams had to refresh their business models and evolve away from traditional role of ‘asset protection’ and into a more a holistic service embracing support, pastoral care, wellbeing and first responder duties. We’ve seen this particularly in the support given to the staff and students who have remained on campus during lockdowns.
In many cases, the experience of the last year has brought the security function and students closer together
In many cases – in the UK for example – the security role then had to evolve again when the first phase of lockdown eased, and students and staff returned to campuses in greater numbers. The inevitable second wave of the pandemic followed, and became a driver for change on an almost daily basis. Security officers had to meet a whole new set of challenges. At times it became very difficult and there was enormous pressure as a result of officers either falling ill or having to self-isolate.
Often greater collaboration with other services within universities, and with external agencies such as contract security companies, was needed to ensure that appropriate support was always in place.
In many cases, the experience of the last year has brought the security function and students closer together. Our hope is that those mutually supportive relationships will be nurtured so that they continue post-pandemic.
One other important impact of the pandemic is also worth noting. Senior managers have become more aware of the mental health of security officers, and the effect that working in higher risk roles can have on individuals. In recent years, we have rightly focused on improving the mental wellbeing of students, academics and others in the communities that we protect, but I think that now, in light of the pandemic, we must take seriously the emotional and mental wellbeing of our frontline officers too. They’ve placed themselves at personal risk and worked incredibly hard in sometimes very difficult circumstances.
This increased visibility has meant that that more people, including wider stakeholders, appreciate the value of security teams. Getting this message across is one of AUCSO’s key objectives.
Vandalism; injured wildlife; public enquiries; lost and found property – these are often daily occurrences
We’re sure there’s no such thing as a typical day for a university security officer. But what are the most common issues they will encounter within a 24-hour period at a typical university, in non-pandemic times?
Every day officers need to deal with a wide variety of situations. A typical shift will usually encompass routine work such as opening and securing buildings at the start or finish of the working day, and general security and crime prevention patrols around campus. Every day our officers could also be required to attend reactive situations such as fire alarm activations, calls for first aid, parking problems, disturbances and disputes, traffic accidents, lock outs in student halls and students needing welfare support.
Other common examples include vandalism; injured wildlife; public enquiries; lost and found property – these are often daily occurrences. So, shifts are never dull, and officers never know what to expect next.
What’s your personal view on the best types of technology for keeping campuses safe?
I am in no doubt that advanced technology underpins campus safety and enhances our ability to deliver it.
What’s the best type? There is no single tech solution that does everything, of course, so we need a combination of measures: surveillance; electronic access control systems; fire and intruder systems; and communications infrastructure including radios and smartphone systems designed for security teams. Smart management platforms which support reporting and data collection are essential, as are mobile device apps that allow more effective response to emergency situations and greater preparedness.
One technology is worth mentioning by name here because it’s really in a category of its own: CriticalArc’s SafeZone combines many of these core functions in one platform, and is used by scores of universities, in the UK and across the globe, to ensure highly coordinated, emergency response for students and staff requesting help, wherever they are.
If most or all of the above technology solutions are implemented, the capacity for protection is multiplied significantly. However, it should be kept in mind that technology evolves rapidly, and universities should frequently review the technology tools they use and check that their capabilities match the pace of change.
Officers have adapted to evolving challenges and have been seen as supportive and helpful friends by most students
We know drug taking and binge-drinking have risen due to the pandemic. Are your members seeing this on campus and what challenges does this pose?
It is likely that every university has seen such evidence during the pandemic. The lockdown restrictions across the globe have had a very significant impact on student communities, both on and off campus. The past year for many students will have been full of frustrations and disappointments – this at a time when, coming to university for the first time or continuing with studies, their lives should have been exciting and full of adventure.
So, it has been inevitable that behaviours would sometimes become more challenging for university security teams, particularly since many have been tasked with enforcing lockdown restrictions on campus.
AUCSO members will continue to focus on these areas of concern, promoting greater knowledge of mental health issues for example. That way, if problems with drink or drugs do become apparent, officers are better prepared to spot the signs and help. It is a testimony to the professionalism of our sector that, throughout the pandemic, officers have adapted to evolving challenges and have been seen as supportive and helpful friends by most students.
What do you think are the most important training gaps at the moment that university security services need to invest in?
Training and officer competency needs to be constantly reviewed, and most universities now recognise this.
For example, they need to ensure that their frontline security staff are appropriately trained in mental health first aid as well as physical first aid at work. Communications skills training is also essential – after all, what use are support skills if officers don’t know how to communicate?
At my own university, for example, when new officers complete their competency training, they are then tasked for a period to introduce themselves to six people every day, to find out a bit about that person, and to write a report on their experience afterwards. The benefits of this communications skills training are very evident at open days and applicant days. Instead of officers standing around at the edge we see them fully engaged, confident and making a positive contribution, which encourages enrolment and benefits the university.
So perhaps let’s not talk about training gaps but opportunities – for example, to increases job satisfaction for the individuals concerned and to raise the profile of our service.
At my own university, for example, when new officers complete their competency training, they are then tasked for a period to introduce themselves to six people every day
Can you talk us through the new counter-terrorism legislation, Martyn’s Law? What does it mean for universities, and how can they make sure they’re prepared?
The UK government is currently running a consultation process during its review of its counter-terrorism CONTEST Strategy. In particular, it is anticipated that the PROTECT strand of the strategy will introduce new legislation which will require event and public space operators to consider the risk of a terrorist attack and take steps to protect the public and others attending events.
It is probable that many aspects of such legislation would encompass universities. AUCSO is consulting with all its members and will submit a collective UK tertiary education security response to the government consultation. It is also likely that many universities will submit their individual responses to the consultation.
The outcome for universities is likely to be a need to review their risk assessment processes and to strengthen arrangements to protect against the risk of terrorism activities.
We are, of course, starting from a position of reasonable preparedness anyway. Terrorism is a threat that most university security teams are already well focused on, which is why a growing number are using the technology solutions that I’ve already mentioned to mitigate the risk.
It’s vital to remember that safer campuses attract students
Finally, what is the key message you’d like to communicate, on behalf of security teams, to the institutions where they work?
It’s vital to remember that safer campuses attract students, and that reputation management is as important as asset protection. That’s why security and safeguarding services should not be seen as ‘prohibitors’ but become known as supportive enablers.
During the pandemic, university security services have proved themselves to be a key asset for their institutions. In many cases we’ve seen closer and more positive relations develop between security officers and the campus communities they protect.
Longer-term, security teams should focus on adding value to their institutions and contributing to economic recovery by adapting practices and making best use of existing resources.
Key factors for success going forward will include ensuring that security and safeguarding services are student-focussed, that they work in partnership with other internal services; and that they share best practice with other institutions locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally where appropriate.
This is an ideal time for university security services to improve professionalism, motivate and upskill their staff and make better use of technology to enhance their profile within the higher education environment.
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