A technology-backed customer focus helps the security team at Queen Mary University of London achieve a relaxed atmosphere on campus, as Cathy Hayward discovers
by Cathy Hayward
FM World magazine: 24 July 2008
Fifteen thousand students, 2,800 staff, three sites across London totalling 2.4 million sq ft, a £195 million investment in facilities over the past decade and an open campus policy where anyone can wander into the site - for the security team at Queen Mary University of London the a relaxed atmosphere is part of the university environment.
"Lock downs would be practical and desirable from the security team's point of view but would spoil the environment of the university and are not what the academics and students want," explains Lorraine Farrugia, head of business support at the university, one of the world's leading research-focused higher education institutions. "But at the same time we have to keep students safe and the facilities secure. It's a tricky balance to maintain."
It was this balancing act and to keep security unobtrusive but effective which led head of security Bob Hunt to review the university's security function eight years ago. He benchmarked the college against members of the Association of University Chief Security Officers and realised that the function was lacking in certain areas.
"The university is a business. We're in a market and have to deliver the best to attract the best students," explains Farrugia, adding that foreign students, who bring in much-needed funds, need to know that they are going to a safe and secure environment. Queen Mary is ranked in the top 14 universities in the UK and in the top 100 in the world.
Hunt started by looking at access control - an analogue system "which didn't control much". It was a blue card which staff and students held to a door. But people also had to carry several cards - an ID card, a security card for each of the university's three sites in Mile End, Whitechapel and Charterhouse Square - and a catering and a library card. Hunt introduced a Windows-based digital system with one card which is a proximity security card access card, ID card and library card.
In 2005 he started looking at staffing levels and what the business required. At that time there were 16 staff employed in-house directly by the university and approximately 24 employed through an agency. "We didn't have loyalty or continuity from agencies," Hunt explains. "We wanted to build a professional in-house security team which gave us loyalty, commitment and continuity and the college therefore decided to take security in-house."
Hunt took on about 20 per cent of the regular agency staff and now has 54 directly-employed security staff. The security structure has also changed from a shift leaders and security guards pattern to having 40 security officers, 10 shift leaders, four supervisors and a head of security.
Hunt and his team recruited guards from the local community but faced the challenge of competing with local employers such as the new London hospital and the Olympics site. The package offered by the university is competitive with guards on the same terms as academics: £25,000 basic pay without overtime, the equivalent of 30 days' annual leave, final salary pension scheme, full uniform and overtime at time-and-a-half.
The supervisors came on board in June 2007, the shift leaders in September 2007 and the security officers in October. Paul Markham-James, one of the university's security supervisors, organised a two-week training course, matching existing guards with new recruits, covering the who, why, what, when and where.
The move from a partially contracted-out to a totally in-house security function was completed in less than a year. Markham-James acknowledges that there were grumbles from the existing in-house staff and it took time for the them-and-us culture to dissipate. But the existing staff soon recognised that security was becoming a more professional function and was better valued by the university itself.
"We are totally customer focused, the student is our customer," he says. "The student doesn't want to get to the gate and find that the security guard is reading The Sun."
The security review also covered CCTV. Under the old regime there were 16 cameras. There are now 96 securing the interior as well as the perimeter, some of which are static while others can turn and follow subjects. A new security control room in the university's Queen's building receives data from the cameras fed into a main visual display plasma screen surrounded by 12 slave monitors. The control room is set up for two operators and a supervisor who can manipulate images and copy/paste data regarding car parking and security status. CCTV cameras also cover security officers when they investigate incidents and footage, at three frames per second, is held on a hard disk for 14 days. The team get regular requests from the local authority and police to use footage as the site is surrounded by housing estates.
In addition there are several help points situated around the site so students or staff can summon help or ask for information. These points perhaps best sum up the role of the security guard at the university. "Our security guards deal with everything from students bawling their eyes out over their exam results to those drunks who want to fight the world," explains Markham-James relating one recent experience where a fight had erupted after one student used the crockery and cutlery, belonging to a strict vegetarian, to eat meat. "The security officer spent two hours with them both discussing the issue and negotiating a solution." Officers also aim to help to reduce the university's carbon footprint, by turning off lights when they're not needed.
The majority of crime is low-level ranging from petty theft of laptops and bikes to break-ins. "And the normal Friday night putting the students to bed routine," says Markham-James. As a non-smoking campus, officers also deal with smokers flouting the rules. And with a canal in the site, running through the 2,000-bed student village, there are health and safety issues, especially at night.
The security staff reflect the local area, which is ethically diverse. The team includes two women and many Bengali, Pakistani and Polish workers. "If there is a disruption caused by non-students, we send a local lad down to deal with it. Nine times out of 10 the security staff can sort out problems with local residents in the own cultural way and there is no language barrier," explains Markham-James.
The site operates 365 days a year, because even during college holidays, the campus is used for conferences and events. It will be the home of the media and press corps during the 2012 Olympics, for example. This means that all staff are CRB-checked and have SIA certification - although as an in-house security function they are exempt from the SIA law. "The SIA training standard is the minimum standard, and we train above this benchmark," says Markham-James. This is particularly important in the area of conflict management and first aid.
Staff also have to deal with three different campuses and cultures. Those at Mile End and Whitechapel are turbulent at times and are in the heart of the East End and close to Canary Wharf, whereas Hunt describes Charterhouse Square as a "sleepy backwater" where the main issue "is people having picnics in the square". Each site has a control room, which is linked to the hub at Mile End and equipment is standard across the sites.
The team work in a variety of buildings from the grandeur of the Queen's building, dating back to 1887, modern student accommodation and standard lecture and seminar rooms to the largest open plan laboratories in Europe in the stunning Will Alsop Blizzard building at Whitechapel which is home to part of Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry. The Mile End campus includes cafés, bars and restaurants, the students' union, canal-side accommodation, a bank and a bookshop.
Markham-James describes his role as "trying to operate a private security operation in the public sector" and Faruggia admits that it is an education process and it takes time to change people's perceptions of security. "Academics used to complain to the principal but are now starting to follow procedure which is a start." Hunt believes that students have respect for the security team because "we are professional, we look and act the part."
But Markham-James says it is the paternal role of the security officer that has encouraged respect for the team. "Security officer is the wrong word. It's more of a counsellor, eco warrior, life saver and interpreter."
FM Quick facts
- 15,000 people study at the university every year, taught by more than 2,800 staff
- There are 2,000 accommodation spaces in the student village
- The university employs 54 in-house uniformed security staff and uses more than 90 on-site cameras
- It employs two female security officers and many of its staff are bilingual