From Strasbourg to Malaysia: Safeguarding students remotely through emergency response management

Darren Chalmers-Stevens

managing director, EMEA, CriticalArc

Author Bio ▼

Darren Chalmers-Stevens is managing director for the EMEA region at CriticalArc, a leading technology innovator, designing and developing the distributed command and control solution, SafeZone™. His professional career has focused particularly on security technology matters. He served as technology development manager for ADT Fire & Security, where he led UK and Ireland IP physical security strategy and business development. Before that, Darren held several senior positions for Computer Network Limited (CNL), including VP Professional Services. He also was Business Manager for Integrated Communications at IBM in the UK, where he managed global solution development and delivery. More recently he was Vice President for EMEA Operations at CSIM specialist VidSys.
January 14, 2019

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Two incidents, both in the last fortnight, illustrate how the nature of security control room operations is changing rapidly and significantly.

On 11 December three people were killed, and around a dozen injured, when a man armed with a knife and a gun began attacking people in Strasbourg city centre.

The incident began a few minutes before 8pm local time as people enjoyed themselves at the city’s Christmas market. During the following minutes the suspect made his way through the streets attacking people along the way.

Almost 900 miles away in Edinburgh, officers on duty in the control room at Herriot-Watt University were monitoring international news channels and within a few minutes they were aware that, in France, a serious incident was developing.

What is the connection?

Several students from Herriot-Watt university happened to be in Strasbourg, in the potential danger zone within a mile of the ongoing attacks.

The university’s emergency response team was quickly able to establish the precise location of each student, thanks to the SafeZone geolocation and visualisation technology which they now use. And the same system allowed warnings to be sent directly to those students’ phones, advising them keep off the streets and to remain in a secured area.

From the moment the news first broke to the moment all students had been located and advised to remain in their secured buildings, only 20 minutes had elapsed

Les Allan, Director of SafeGuarding & Logistics Services at Herriot-Watt, explains how his team handled the incident.

“We have a live travel database which has details of all our staff and students travelling or on placements anywhere in the world,” he says. “As soon as news of the attack began to break, we did a search on our system and established that we had three students on placements in Strasbourg.”

Using their SafeZone system, the team set up a ‘geofence’ around the city and contacted the students to get them to ‘check in’ with the SafeZone app on their phones.

“Once they had done that, we could see their locations in live time. We established that all three were in same location, within one mile of the incident locus, and indications were that the shooter was still on the loose.”

From the moment the news first broke to the moment when all the students had been located and advised to remain in their secured buildings, only 20 minutes had elapsed.

Outside, a full scale security operation was just getting under way, the European Parliament building was going into lockdown, and police were using Twitter to relay information to the public.

Vulnerable away from home

Another incident had occurred just few days earlier – a very different one, but which also illustrates how the Herriot-Watt security team is able to provide much greater care today than it did in the past.

On 2 December a student, travelling in Malaysia, fell ill. Anxious and suddenly aware of her vulnerability far from home, she sent a message to her parents in the UK ­– and her parents, themselves unsure what to do, called Les Allan’s security team.

It was after 9pm on a Sunday night, normally one of the quietest shifts in the campus control room.

If the officers on duty had answered that call just two years earlier they would have had neither the tools, nor the skills, to help – but today, with SafeZone, they have both.

It’s a system that lets the Herriot-Watt team provide direct advice and assistance not only to students and staff at the university’s five international campuses, but also to those travelling to any location with a signal, worldwide. Developed by CriticalArc, it is already deployed at campuses in 84 countries.

At Herriot-Watt, all students and staff are encouraged to download the SafeZone app as a matter of routine practice and particularly before travelling or working alone out-of-hours. Almost 4,000 of them have already done so. But what about human error?

In this case, with the student taken ill in Malaysia, there was a problem. As he spoke to the worried parents, the control room operator could see on his screen that the student had neglected to download the SafeZone app.

So he phoned her to provide reassurance, then he talked her through the simple process of downloading and configuring the app.

Within a few minutes the app was operational and the officer was explaining to the student that a geo-fence had now been placed around her to allow her exact location to be continually monitored and for direct communications to be maintained.

He explained that the SafeZone app would also allow her to contact emergency responders in her location – or get help from nearby consular staff – simply at the touch of a button on her phone.  Thanks to technology and a confident response she was no longer isolated.

Unpredictable situations

These two incidents, both in December 2018, show how this is not just a clever system – fine in theory but compromised when faced with messy, real life situations. Far from it, says Les Allan.

Time and again SafeZone is proving to be effective and giving his officers the ability to deal with new, unpredictable situations as they arise.

“We have almost four thousand users on the system already and word is spreading. Each time we provide help and respond to an incident the take-up increases further,” he explains.

In the social media age, how an organisation responds to an incident – and how effective their customer-facing security teams are – is a matter of urgent focus

The numbers speak for themselves: between August and November the security team responded to 424 activations, including 13 first aid emergencies and seven incidents which they class as genuine emergencies. With each incident successfully handled, word spreads and more people become aware of the rapid response service available to them.

New, global capability

At Herriot-Watt and at sites like it around the world security control rooms are being upgraded, with previously undreamed of communications and monitoring capability at their fingertips.

They can watch over and assist individuals or groups of users via smartphones, wearable devices and desktops – not just hundreds of people, but many tens of thousands, across multiple sites.

Without the expense and complexity of traditional PSIM architecture, faster and more adaptable geo-location/visualisation alternatives are allowing security departments to improve preparedness, track situations as they develop and deliver higher value services.

How things have changed. It’s not all that long since a key benefit of security technology was its ability to simply replace people. While there was talk of increasing capability, in reality cutting costs was the main driver as remotely monitored systems allowed traditional guarding teams to be slimmed down, reducing wage bills.

By contrast, today a more realistic attitude towards risk is emerging, not only because threats have become more complex but because hardly a month passes when organisations aren’t confronted with the vulnerability of what they now recognise as one of their main assets: their brand reputation.

In the age of social media the way that any organisation responds to an incident – and how effective their customer-facing security teams are – is a matter of urgent focus. In this new world, security staff have renewed importance as first responders, providers of customer care and ambassadors for the brand.

A combination of more powerful technology and a new understanding of risk is transforming the way security departments work and changing the very nature of the jobs – and that includes increasing pay.

Catalyst for improvement

Before 2016, Herriot-Watt’s security operation was limited and traditional, with a focus on basic property protection and janitorial duties. Under this old model relatively little attention was paid to pastoral care, customer service and reputation management, all of which are crucial to a modern university competing internationally.

Now, with technology a prime catalyst to modernisation, all members of Les Allan’s rebranded ‘SafeGuarding Services’ team are enrolled on a competency programme designed to give them higher skills to manage a wider range of challenges. All now undertake not only first aid training but NHS mental health awareness training, giving them greater understanding of the issues that can affect vulnerable students away from their normal support networks.

Previously, 37% of officers’ time was spent patrolling inside empty buildings out-of-hours – now much more of it is spent interacting with students and staff.  Officers provide a more personalised service and are more connected with those they watch over. They are also better equipped to deal with major incidents and future risks.

In the Herriot-Watt control room, officers now monitor global news feeds from the BBC, CNN, Helix and Reuters and almost overnight they have extended their safeguarding service around the world.

In December 2018, they put a geo-fence around Paris and established direct monitoring and information exchange with seven of their users during the weeks of civil unrest.

Earlier, during August, severe flooding affected parts of southern India and the team arranged for a student travelling alone to be escorted to safety as the situation deteriorated.

“The technology has given the team a global vision. We now have a much bigger role to play and we are seen to be contributing to the university’s work around the world,” says Les Allan.

The change has been transformational and is one reason why the Herriot Watt team this year won a Security & Fire Excellence Award. And it’s not exaggerating to say that much of the change has been driven by the SafeZone technology.

“This is now an absolutely key system for us and everything comes off of it,” confirms Les Allan.  “It’s given us capacity beyond our expectations. We are constantly looking at new ways to use it and CriticalArc are willing to listen to us as users and help us squeeze every last ounce out of it.”

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