29 March 2021
Staff Sergeant Paul Evans sat in the back of a van with five special forces operatives, parked just out of sight of one the most secure places he had ever encountered. The objective on this particular training mission was to get in and out undetected. Virtually impossible, they’d been told.
But in their reconnaissance, the team had noticed construction work at the site – a small team of builders and a few white vans coming in and out throughout the day. So they hired a van, parked up and waited for their moment. It came just at the end of the working day, when one of the construction vans drove out. The team left it a few minutes, then drove up to the gate and pretended to be the very same van. The driver explained to the guard that he’d forgotten his pass and come back for it. The guard waved them through. Evans and his crew hopped out, placed a Post-It note on the front doors and left. Mission accomplished.
Risk consultants: better than burglars
Evans spent 17 and a half years in the British Army, with a significant amount of that time in the Intelligence Corps. As with most people in the Corps, almost everything he did was classified. Suffice to say he spent a lot of the time learning about the weaknesses of various security measures, and some of the time actually used this knowledge at high-risk and high-security establishments.
This turns out to be the perfect experience for his civilian career in business continuity. As Business Resilience and Security Practice Lead, he shows companies how to reduce their risk of burglary and theft. It is, he says, mostly about making life just a little bit harder for criminals – enough to make them go elsewhere, and not to bother with your property at all.
“What are the weak links you’re going to look for?” he says. “When you think like an intruder, you don’t necessarily think, ‘I’m going to pick that lock and smash that door in.’ You go in thinking, ‘What’s under the doormat. Is the key under a loose brick?’”
Anti-burglary tactic: think like a thief
You might not have the opportunity to join a mission with a bunch of special forces operatives, but that shouldn’t stop you approaching your property as an intruder might. Evans encourages everyone to set themselves a mission to test the systems they have in place. “What are the weak links you’re going to look for?” he says. “When you think like an intruder, you don’t necessarily think, ‘I’m going to pick that lock and smash that door in.’ You go in thinking, ‘What’s under the doormat. Is the key under a loose brick?’” It can be the simplest things that provide an opening.
Alarm systems are easy to get wrong
One of the first things Evans looks at when it comes to property security is the alarm system. “They all have one,” he says, “but it’s often not very well deployed. Most reports I do will have a risk improvement around the placement of the detection devices.” When these devices are badly positioned, it makes it easy for an intruder to move through the property without tripping the alarms.
Once the alarm works, the key thing to measure is the time it takes between setting the alarm off and the police arriving at the property. “Let’s say it takes 10 minutes for the police to show up. OK, so are your key assets at least 10 minutes from the perimeter?” The rest of the security plan will be delaying tactics – using layers of security to slow an intruder down, rather than relying on an outer perimeter to stop them getting in in the first place.
Companies can often have the right equipment in place, but it will be set up badly or compromised by something else. There are plenty of times when Evans has seen an impressive-looking security fence, only to spot a handy tree overhanging it, or a tower of pallets stacked up against it – both make useful climbing aids.
One rule applies across the board: don’t buy the cheapest options. When companies have gone to expense of installing an alarm system, Evans is always dismayed when they’ve chosen the cheapest units. “For a few quid more you can get a much more effective level of security,” he says.
Even the air con units can be business-critical
It may sound obvious to make sure you know which bits of your property are business-critical, but things can easily be overlooked. A data centre once had all the air con units stolen from the side of the building. No one had thought to protect them – there was no CCTV, not even a security light. And yet the data centre relied on AC to cool its servers, so there was a significant period of downtime and a significant loss to the business while the units were replaced.
Ways to protect commercial property from burglary
Evans recommends several simple ways to increase security and improve your risk:
- Don’t be an easy target. Use deterrents like CCTV and alarms, but also use physical barriers that intruders need to overcome even if they’ve got into the property
- Layer up. Create layers of security, such as an outer boundary, alarms and secure areas within the site to build up ‘onion skin security’ that’s more effective than a single measure on its own
- Protect your assets. Keep them as far from your first layer of security as practically possible
- Integrate everything. All your security should be joined up, so make sure your CCTV covers your alarms and secure entry points, and that all staff observe your security rules
- Don’t be silly. Never label keys with the address of the building they unlock, and make sure people don’t walk around in public with lanyards and passes on display
Train your people to be engaged and alert
People are just as much a part of your security as the physical boundaries and alarm systems. “A high percentage of the risk to any building is the people connection,” says Evans. He often grills companies on the basics. “Who knows what information, and who has access to it? How confident do people feel in challenging tailgaters in the lobby? And so on. It’s really important to have people engaged, trained and alert.”
In the end, says Evans, there’s no single fix for property security. It’s about the cumulative effect of everything you do, and the strength that comes from integrating everything. It’s also worth remembering, he says, recalling a training mission when he stood frozen in shock on someone’s lawn having just triggered a security light, how easy it can be to spook people. “CCTV, alarm boxes and motion-detecting lights can be enough,” he says, “to stop you looking like an easy target, and make them go somewhere else.”
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