Editor, IFSEC Global

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James Moore is the Editor of IFSEC Global, the leading resource for security and fire news in the industry. James was previously Editor of Professional Heating & Plumbing Installer magazine.
August 19, 2020

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University security

Imperial College’s security team on the front line: securing education in a pandemic

Terry Branch, Head of Security, Imperial College London

IFSEC Global talks to Terry Branch, Head of Security at Imperial College London, about his team’s work over the last five months.

The security team at Imperial College London have been playing a vital role during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, as they look to reopen their campuses safely in September, they have valuable insights to share.

Imperial never actually shut down of course – throughout the pandemic, work continued at the university’s laboratories, and its COVID-19 Response Team was very much in the spotlight advising governments and public authorities globally, including the state of New York as they looked to re-open after lockdown. Imperial researchers have been at the forefront of tracking and modelling the spread of the virus, designing mitigation measures, and developing a vaccine.

A clear message: prepare now

Most recently the university has contributed to a sobering report from the Academy of Medical Sciences, produced at the request of the UK’s Chief Scientific Advisor.

This report’s warnings, about the possible scale and impact of a new wave of coronavirus infections this winter, are worth heeding – not least by security managers looking to build resilience over the summer and early autumn.

The message from Imperial’s scientists is clear: the time to prepare is now.

During all this, the security team has been responsible for protecting the university’s people and its estate of nine separate locations, spread over across London and beyond – including accommodation that was opened as an emergency measure for NHS key workers from the Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust.

Significant evolution

Terry Branch, Head of Security, says his team’s operations have evolved significantly over the past five months. This has required officers to rapidly adapt the way they work – no small task given the scale of the operation. With 116 in-house officers, and a support team contracted from specialist provider Diligence, Imperial’s security department is one of the biggest among all UK universities.

Nobody could have predicted the timing of this pandemic of course – even those who knew it was a question of ‘when’ not ‘if’ – but at Imperial preparedness has long been prioritised. Over the last three years, the team have invested in enhanced training and team capabilities, and they have introduced technology to improve situational awareness and command and control.

“Although we don’t require SIA licenses, we operate well above the licence standard,” Terry says. “All our officers are not just first aid trained, but have regular refresher training, including major incident trauma.”

A more rapid response

Rapid, effective response to medical emergencies is a priority, with laboratories identified as higher risk environments and the threat of terrorism remaining a concern in the capital. Officers are also prepared to provide a first response in hostile situations, with conflict management and physical intervention training.

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“We operate on a 48-hour shift basis, not 42, which allows a full day of training for each member of the team every month.”

It’s also significant that in recent years the softer skills have seen increased focus too, not just at Imperial but right across the higher education sector. Positive engagement between officers and students really matters. Safety is always a top concern when prospective students and their parents are surveyed.

At Imperial, the surveillance and access control infrastructure has been upgraded, and this has coincided with greater focus on communicating the importance of crime reduction. One very practical example: bike theft. Bikes are notoriously vulnerable – and valuable – and every incident not only affects the victim, but is reflected in crime stats.

Incident footage and practical help

“To work all day then find that your bike has been stolen is traumatic,” adds Terry. “We’ve done a lot to mitigate this risk.”

Surveillance footage of one recent incident (evidence now with the police) has been used to warn students about the simple trick used by the thief: wearing a high-vis vest and pushing an old bike, he tailgated into the secure storage area before leaving with a much more valuable model.

In fact, the Imperial security team now offers ‘A grade’ D-locks to students, providing them at a 30% discount compared with commercially available stocks. This deceptively simple initiative – real, practical help – is making it much harder for thieves, and having such high take-up from students has also helped push crime prevention awareness up the agenda, with Terry Branch’s deputy Nigel Ward, a former police chief inspector, leading a personal safety awareness programme.

Imperial’s crime prevention awareness programme, led by Nigel, includes strategies such as “Safe and Secure briefings” which are held at all Imperial campuses where his team offer advice on staying safe on and off campus. Nigel has also written a victim’s charter which ensures every victim of crime is fully engaged with and supported by the security team, from the reporting stage to closure, no matter how small the crime. This is extremely well received, particularly within the College’s international community.

Adoption of SafeZone adds new capabilities

There has also been impressively high student and staff adoption of another measure, particularly since the pandemic began: in October 2019, the university adopted the safety, security, and emergency management SafeZone solution from CriticalArc.

A single platform solution combining a wide range of capabilities –  including emergency call, lone worker protection, targeted mass communications and command and control – the technology is now used by more than a third of UK universities, and its deployment is spreading into other sectors too.

“I was first introduced to SafeZone at an AUCSO (Association of University Chief Security Officers) conference and I immediately saw its value. The opportunity came when we were looking to adopt a mass communications solution. CriticalArc gave us much wider capabilities than alternative suppliers,” explains Terry.


Find out more about CriticalArc’s Safezone solution in our recent interview with the team.


In a few short months, he says, SafeZone has already proved its value. It has allowed officers to respond more quickly and efficiently to calls for assistance – including one medical emergency – and word has spread among students that, when the app is used, the response is fast and effective.

This improved protection is really appreciated, says Terry. In the half year since it was introduced at Imperial, 3,000 staff and students have begun using the app.

Looking ahead

Going forward, SafeZone will also now make it much easier for the team to adapt to the challenges of the autumn and winter.

“The technology will provide a big confidence boost for our students – particularly our large international community – and it’s making it easier for us to ramp up our operations safely.”

Over recent weeks some institutions have been looking nervously towards the coming academic year – how would student recruitment and retention be affected by the pandemic? – but the picture at Imperial is incredibly positive.

“We’re working hard to make sure that students have the same excellent student experience they always have here, even as we adapt to COVID,” assures Terry. “In turn, we’re seeing a lot of excitement from students to begin the new academic year.”

The fact that many students continue to look forward to their university experience will in part be down to today’s highly responsive security operations. And, those using the advanced safety and security tools, as well as contact tracing capabilities (offered by technologies such as SafeZone), ensure enhanced incident preparedness and an extended ‘duty of care’ is offered to students and staff across campuses, at remote locations, and even those travelling abroad.

A few years ago, all this would have been surprising. Security departments at universities were too-often seen as quiet backwaters compared with those facing more obvious challenges, such as operations in retail, healthcare, critical infrastructure, and public-area settings.

But no longer. Today university security teams are increasingly well trained and resourced. And they are making crucial contributors to the success, prosperity – and post-COVID, even the resilient viability – of their institutions.

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