December 15, 2020


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Rising to the challenge: Perspectives from security leaders on 2020 and beyond

For those who work in the security industry 2020 has been a particularly challenging year. Chris Price talks to five industry leaders from different perspectives in the sector about how they coped with COVID and asks them to look forward to 2021.


Jamie Allam, CEO of installation and integration firm Amthal Fire & Security

JamieAllam-Amthal-20“2020 was supposed to see us celebrating 20 years in business, but when COVID hit that turned all of our plans on their head. Literally overnight we went from a very traditional set up with everyone working in the office to buying laptops and a cloud-based phone system so that everyone, except our engineers, could work from home.

“While new installations and maintenance work for private residential homeowners all stopped during lockdown, what made up for this was our work on multiple-occupancy, multiple-floor buildings. This still had to go ahead regardless of COVID in order to maintain safety. In fact, we found that getting hold of building managers to sign off remedials and repairs was much easier. What’s more, with commercial buildings empty it was a good opportunity to carry out work such as emergency light testing.

“Initially, when the pandemic first broke we took a really defensive position to protect the business, putting recruitment on hold and furloughing staff. But with hindsight we probably didn’t need to do that. We had very little business that was actually cancelled, aside from a hotel CCTV and access control upgrade which was understandable. We also had a large job at an industrial park where we were installing a fibre network which was put back by a few months.

“Now we know a lot more about the virus we’re able to continue to work with some precautions. Everyone who comes into the building is temperature checked and the teams work in bubbles so they can be isolated if something does happen. We’re also able to offer clients contactless access systems for entering/leaving a building to help stop the spread of the virus. Looking forward to 2021, I’m massively optimistic. We haven’t changed our five-year targets, we’re still scaling the business and we’re recruiting again.”


James Morris, Head of Security Services, EMEA, Aon

“This year has been about how we’ve transitioned to new ways of working. While our traditional business continuity model worked on the assumption we would have to move to alternate sites during a crisis, the reality was that 98.9% of our 55,000 employees were working from home at the height of this pandemic.

“Obviously it had a bigger technology impact, but from a physical security perspective we had to think about the implications of having huge numbers of offices that were empty, as well as how we supported the security and safety of our global workforce in a very different environment.

“We worked quite closely with our security providers within the UK to ensure our offices were secure, especially once the number of break-ins started to rise. One of our offices is in an iconic building in central London so there was also a concern about urban explorers trying to climb to the top of it.

“Generally, we are quite risk averse so we have encouraged people to work from home, rather than going back into the office. However, about four years ago we moved some of our staff to agile working which helped identify a number of issues, including those who don’t like working from home or who can’t work because of mental health issues or challenging domestic environments. This experience proved a very useful dry run for the COVID pandemic.

“While some of offices are now open, others remain closed or they opened and then had to close again. We also had to make our offices COVID secure – generally easier for buildings we own, rather than those we rent and share with other companies.

“I’m optimistic about 2021, but do think business environments will become much more agile. There will be many companies who realise from a cost perspective, if nothing else, that the old ways of working don’t really make much sense anymore.”

James was named as one of IFSEC Global’s Top Influencers in Security and Fire in 2020. 


Chris Middleton, Security Director, ABM UK

“2020 has been challenging for everyone. We’ve all had to find new ways of working. Although we try to be as proactive as possible in the security industry, no one could’ve prepared for the impact COVID would have.

“During the pandemic we’ve worked closely with all of our clients, especially those in the retail portfolio, sharing best practice from lessons learned in Europe. Obviously we had to place a number of staff on furlough because many of our clients had to downsize their requirements, with only a minimum of security on some contracts to keep premises secure. We also had to implement robust cleaning programmes, such as fogging, or our enhanced clean programme.

“Whereas before security officers spent much of their time providing guidance to people coming into offices or shopping centres, they’ve had to take on much a broader role, picking up additional duties such as topping up hand sanitising stations or undertaking office related duties which were previously carried out by other employees.

“Unfortunately, one thing we have seen during the pandemic is an upsurge in violence towards security personnel. Whereas in the early days people were very compliant with instructions such as wearing a face mask and social distancing, the patience level has dropped among the general public more recently. As people have been made redundant or finding it difficult to cope with changes in society, our staff have also had to deal with more mental health problems, even suicides. Everyone of all ages has been affected.

“One positive we have witnessed, though, is that the stigma around working in security – that it’s an uneducated and reactive profession – is changing. COVID has allowed us to come to the fore and demonstrate the value we bring as an industry. Perhaps for the first time those working in security are now considered key workers.”


Sarb Sembhi, CISM, CTO & CISO, Virtually Informed

“With lockdown we had a scenario that we’d never had before – that office buildings were suddenly empty and homes were full. This meant that users found themselves in an environment which is considered insecure at the best of times and armed with training that was meant for the office, not for the home.

“One of the big problems was that staff were using technologies such as Zoom for the first time and didn’t know how to set it up properly. For example, uninvited guests were ‘zoom bombing’ calls, not because there was a problem with the security of the video conferencing software so much as users didn’t know how to set it up to ensure guests needed permission from the organiser to join.

“Another issue we saw during lockdown was an increase in IoT (Internet of Things) devices in the home, such as surveillance cameras and fitness trackers. Many of these have got either open ports or they’ve got ports that announce and ping to say ‘I’m around.’ You’ve now got search engines like Shodan which can help you find these sorts of devices very easily. All it takes is for one cheap vulnerable device and it could threaten the entire network.”

“In 2021 we may well see the potential cyberthreat grow as small businesses use IoT devices for the first time to monitor empty premises while people continue to work from home where the number of these devices continues to grow astronomically. One of the risks is that we may see is that rivals use IoT devices to spy on employees from other companies, to see who comes in and who goes out, even potentially to launch an attack on a competitor.”

Sarb has been a regular contributor to IFSEC Global in 2020. Read his articles on IoT security and convergence, here. 


Finally, we asked Mike Reddington, Chief Executive of the British Security Industry Association (BSIA), for his thoughts on the year and how the Association is looking to support professionals going forward…

“2020 has been an unpredictable year for most industries with the professional security industry affected to varying degrees. As the global pandemic emerged and Governments across the world reacted, guidance and rules appeared as to what was and was not allowed, who could potentially work or not, thus changing how society functions.

“Security does not always spring to mind as a key worker job, even though we in the industry know it is. Instead of waiting for our Hidden Workforce to be recognised as key workers, the BSIA along with other leading organisations lobbied Government to obtain key worker status for those operating in our industry. Upon achieving this success, the opportunity for us to address public perceptions of the security industry opened up, which we hope will make a difference to those who have made security their career of choice. Our public research has confirmed there is work to be done to change current public perceptions of our industry sector.

“On a technical front, the BSIA continued its proactive work in 2020 – with a key focus on collaboration. Our Cyber Product Assurance Group (CySPAG) produced an award-winning Code of Practice which is currently being converted into an auditable process, our video surveillance members are close to completing an ethical and legal guide on the use of Artificial Intelligence and Automated Facial Recognition (AFR) and we continue to lobby Government to raise awareness of the UKCA mark and its implications (with the BSIA and FIA working together to raise this issue).

“2021 will see us all having to adapt to a new ‘normal’ which the pandemic has brought about, whether these are events or offices being COVID-19 secure, or a hybrid mix of virtual and face-to-face (with facemasks and social distancing) meetings.

“As for the BSIA, we will continue to raise awareness of important and pressing industry issues such as the switch to IP Voice and AFR ethics and compliance, plus any other challenges 2021 may bring. The BSIA will continue with its remit to represent its members as the recognised voice of the professional security industry’.”

Keep up to date on all the latest in the industry related to the pandemic via our coronavirus security and fire hub page

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