Managing Editor, IFSEC Insider

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James Moore is the Managing Editor of IFSEC Insider, the leading online publication for security and fire news in the industry. James writes, commissions, edits and produces content for IFSEC Insider, including articles, breaking news stories and exclusive industry reports. He liaises and speaks with leading industry figures, vendors and associations to ensure security and fire professionals remain abreast of all the latest developments in the sector.
December 17, 2019


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‘Making it easy for university security teams’: CriticalArc’s SafeZone

CriticalArc-SafeZone-19As CriticalArc’s Safezone system continues to be adopted by numerous university institutions, as well as winning a Security & Fire Excellence award in November, we find out what it’s all about. Here, we speak to Darren Chalmers-Stevens, Managing Director at CriticalArc, and Les Allan, Director of Safeguarding Services & Logistics, Heriot-Watt University.


What is SafeZone?

Darren Chalmers-Stevens (DCS): CriticalArc’s safety, security and emergency management solution, SafeZone, has been adopted by organisations around the world.

It is now used to improve student safety, security and wellbeing – and to raise levels of student recruitment, satisfaction and retention – by more than 25% of universities in the UK. It is also deployed at 30% of universities in Australia and, increasingly in the US, with some ground-breaking projects in other sectors to include government, transportation, enterprise and aerospace and defence.

SafeZone works by putting students and staff directly in touch with security first responders, allowing calls for assistance to be made and responded to rapidly using the precise location information shared by checked-in users.

The system makes it easy for users to call for emergency and non-emergency assistance at the touch of a button, either using their phones or dedicated wearable devices. As an incident command system, it enhances team efficiency, with heat-mapping to enable patrol pattern refinements to ensure adequate coverage, including incident hotspots.

SafeZone also improves workplace health & safety, serving as a powerful lone worker solution on campus and off, and raises security team preparedness for a full range of events, including major incidents.


You recently won the award for In-house Security Team of the Year at the Security & Fire Excellence awards – congratulations! What was the initiative at Heriot-Wat University all about?

DCS: Three years ago, the Heriot-Watt security service, directed by Les Allan, set about transforming operations at five international campuses. To enhance safety and security and prepare for a multitude of potential threats, including weather events, natural disasters, and even the potential of an active threat, Heriot-Watt’s officers undertook higher level training – to ensure they have enhanced skills – and enthusiastically implemented CriticalArc’s SafeZone technology.

Les Allan then decided to stress-test the team’s capabilities with an evolving incident attack exercise. In the live drill, initial reports of a traffic accident were followed within minutes by reports of a knife attack. Without prior knowledge, security controllers quickly formed an accurate assessment and responded.

Following the exercise, team members contributed to a debrief, review and identify potential enhancements to their safety and security provisions. These improvements included the need for upgraded CCTV coverage to fill critical gaps; the value of being able to lock-down areas under threat, using upgraded remote access control; and the need to ensure situational awareness, even in areas with limited network/cellular coverage. Lessons from the exercise are being taken to all five campuses (UK, Dubai and Malaysia) with the video now key to training for all officers, and at all locations there is increased focus on rapid emergency response for a range of scenarios.


Judging by the case studies, SafeZone is clearly relevant at universities and campus-based organisations. Why do you think this is?

DCS: SafeZone really addresses the priority issues in the higher education sector, but more than that, we are one of the few organisations really investing in engagement and long term, successful deployment of the technology. Many companies get excited by the opportunity to sell to universities, but they don’t have the industry expertise, or the long-term commitment required to make their solutions work.

Our philosophy is fairly unique in the market and that is, we will only succeed if our customers truly succeed, so CriticalArc is committed to working with our customers long term as a partnership, and they know that. For example, AUCSO (Association of University Chief Security Officers) has recognised the work that we are doing, helping to fund modernisation, training and the development of best practice in the sector. Above all we are providing security teams with a customer success model, offering them a service that raises their value and importance internally.

Because we are investing in this way, we rarely lose customers. We have an attrition rate of 0.5% globally. As earliest stakeholders have reached the end of their first six-year engagement they have all signed up for the next five years because they can see how much the partnership and SafeZone has added value and transformed their service offering.

Our whole team took to SafeZone very quickly, partly because it’s so intuitive and straightforward to use, and partly because CriticalArc provides a high level of support.  As a result, our officers are spending much more time interacting with students and staff, providing a visible and engaging service.

What levels of training and support do security professionals need in order to use CriticalArc efficiently?

DCS: It takes less than two hours for a security officer to become proficient at using the SafeZone platform. We now have over 1000 security officers trained and using it, including those with a wide range of skill sets and levels of experience.

We also run a SafeZone Champion programme, which involves training nominated champions in first responder teams who can then go on to share their skills and knowledge with colleagues. Because of our commitment to ongoing innovation, we regularly go back and train those champions as a way of bringing the whole team up to speed. This works very well as a way of keeping everyone on board.


Les Allan (LA): Our whole team took to SafeZone very quickly, partly because it’s so intuitive and straightforward to use, and partly because CriticalArc provides a high level of support.  As a result, our officers are spending much more time interacting with students and staff, providing a visible and engaging service.

For our team in the control room it’s now an indispensable tool, for the first time giving them a clear picture of what’s going on, where their colleagues are, and where checked-in users are so they can respond efficiently. We hear a lot of claims in the industry about ‘situational awareness’ but SafeZone really does provide it, as our unrehearsed exercise dramatically demonstrated.


Les, what challenges has CriticalArc specifically been able to overcome that you may have struggled with before in ensuring Heriot-Watt is a secure and safe environment?

LA: We’ve totally changed the way people think about our service, rebranding our team as ‘Safeguarding’ and transforming the way our officers engage with the community, on campus and off. The fact that students can now use SafeZone to get emergency help, or just friendly advice, at the touch of a button has been a big part of that transformation.

Most importantly we’ve reduced the response time for our officers to attend incidents on campus from an average of 20 minutes down to four. In practice that’s meant we’ve been able to deal with medical emergencies involving both staff and students, we provided emergency support during international terrorist incidents, we’ve improved security, and on other occasions we’ve been able to intervene early to prevent potentially disruptive behaviour from getting out of hand.

We’ve also extended our duty of care provision, with better protection for students and staff who are travelling or working abroad on university business. For example, we had one member of staff travelling in South America who was unable to leave the airport as she didn’t have the appropriate visa. Using SafeZone our team was able to rapidly reassure her, monitor her position using geo-fencing, and provide the necessary assistance for the onwards journey.

In the UK, we’re able to accommodate our overseas students more efficiently and comply fully with Home Office Tier 4 visa requirements. And we’re using SafeZone at all our campuses globally to provide consistent better care for the many Heriot-Watt students who spend a year studying abroad.

We’re thrilled to have won the Security & Fire Excellence Award and received recognition at such a prestigious event where we had the opportunity to celebrate with our industry peers. I think it demonstrates how much we have raised our capabilities and the level of service we now provide, which would have been undreamed of just a few years ago. And of course, it’s testament to the ongoing partnership between Heriot-Watt University and CriticalArc.

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