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Advances in technology are leading to new ways of working within the manned guarding sector, reports Adam Leach.

© Getty
© Getty

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06 January 2020 | Adam Leach

Crime may not pay, but it sure does cost. According to the latest figures from the Centre for Retail Research, shoplifting across the UK in 2019 has left retailers almost £2 billion (£1,993 million) out of pocket, while crimes at warehouses – including goods lost by suppliers – stung them for another £915 million.

Budget cuts to policing and the wider impacts of austerity have certainly played their part, but the factor that is highlighted most frequently by retailers and their security providers is the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 and its introduction of a £200 threshold that effectively meant thefts of goods valued below it would not be pursued by police.

“The worst-case scenario is that thieves read all this information, that the police aren’t coming out for less than £200, which tells them to keep their retail theft frequent and reasonably low value and the chances of getting caught are quite slim,” explained Nick Fisher, CEO of facial recognition technology provider Facewatch.

For the perpetrators, the consequences are unanimously positive, for the retailers exclusively negative, but for those that sit at the intersection of the two – the companies providing the manned guards and monitoring equipment to deter them and build a case against them – matters are more nuanced.

The increase in both the cost and the number of incidents serves to highlight the importance of their role. But the reduced role of the police and the added pressures placed on retailers’ security budgets require them to go further and deliver far greater levels of service to their clients to justify their contracts.

“Manned guarding isn’t cheap,” says Alan Blake, commercial, sales and marketing director at Secom UK. “If you’re a retailer or anybody who requires a manned presence then you are looking at £120 to £150 a day. Manned guards will deal with the occasional incident, but pro rata with the number of hours on site, it does work out expensive.”

Retail therapy

To combat this expense, Secom has sought to enhance the effectiveness of the CCTV cameras and monitoring centres that it operates by not just capturing incidents of theft, but actively preventing them from occurring.

Through the installation of a number of incident report buttons at client properties those on the frontline, whether staff or guards, are able to notify the Secom monitoring centre of a potential incident immediately, with the system differentiating between situations such as antisocial behaviour or that a cash in-transit collection is about to take place.

“If the retailer presses the incident support button for the wines and spirits section because they believe an offence is taking place, then it brings up the relevant cameras in our control and command centre so that we can watch either live or retrospectively the concerns that have caused them to press the button,” adds Blake.

In the event that the notification is submitted before an offence has been committed, the Secom team in the alarm response centre can verbally intervene to deter the suspect by issuing a warning message that states the time, date and reason for the announcement with making any explicit accusations.

“If it’s furtive behaviour or someone acting suspiciously, an announcement is usually enough to deter them without making any actual accusations because an offence hasn’t actually taken place,” says Blake.

More interesting, and more effective in enabling clients to tackle the issue in the long term, is the systems capability in tackling habitual offending.

Through its Repeat Offender Gallery Under Electronic Surveillance System (ROGUES) Secom operatives build up a detailed picture of repeat offenders in a GDPR-compliant manner and identify when and where those carrying out the most costly thefts are operating.

The system is able to notify on-site guards or staff when a known suspect is on site so that they are ready to take action to stop a further incident. Its intelligence trained operatives then pull together video evidence, witness statements and details of previous thefts by the perpetrator to build a strong case for the police to act – including evidence that the £200 threshold has been reached.

“When we report into the police forces we’re working with they have access to our secure server so, in effect, from the moment a potential prosecutable incident occurs, the footage and the report can often be with them before a police officer has even left the station,” adds Blake.

This analytics and data-driven approach enables firms like Secom to provide clients with a detailed picture of which premises are most at risk and which days or times of the week the risks are at their highest, enabling them to more effectively manage their expenditure and resources.

“Most customers are having to cut costs and reduce budgets so we build up heat maps for our customers,” says Blake. “If they are currently employing 30 guards across their estate, we’re able to say 25 of them are in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’re constantly updating that information to allow them to make more informed decisions where the problems are and which premises need the added security of a manned guard.”

The ROGUES solution, which led to 25 convictions within its first six months of being installed in a selection of Co-Op stores when it was launched, is now in operation across a number of Secom clients and has drastically increased the number of repeat offenders who are identified in stores.

With solutions such as this combining cameras, sophisticated back-office analytics and processing, and voice prompts to make inroads successfully into shoplifting and make buildings more secure at a much lower cost than a physical human presence, those in the manned guard profession could be forgiven for thinking their very proposition is at risk.

Emma Potter
© iStock
© iStock

The deployment dimension 

However, for Brendan Musgrove, managing director of Cordant Security, the days in which technology, whether through networks of cameras and operators or through robotic guards – that have thus far proved little more than a quirk to date – are still some way off.

“You will see people talking about security robots, but all a security robot is, as I’ve seen thus far, pretty much a mobile CCTV unit,” he says.

Instead, Cordant – one of the largest suppliers of guards in the UK – is capitalising on the same technologies and deploying its frontline presence more efficiently and effectively. 

“Manned guarding is an expensive resource because it is all labour-based, so actually being able to deploy that in a more intelligent way by using data captured from the field is a very important part,” says Musgrove.

“By understanding the nature and number of incidents we can better understand the risk profile of a particular area,” he explains. This more data-led tack enables the guards on the ground to focus on those areas most in need of a physical presence while mobile apps linked to the cameras ensure that they are still in touch with what’s going on across the site.

Away from the shop floor, new technologies are also enabling more comprehensive management of the security at commercial sites.

Steve Gardner, head of security at OCS, highlights the advances made in automatic number plate recognition systems as having proved particularly valuable. The current systems are able to link in with virtual concierge systems to manage a wide range of administrative tasks that would otherwise be done by guards.

Using this technology, OCS is able to verify that a visitor or staff member is allowed on site as soon as they arrive and notify them of where to park, which meeting room to use or who they will be meeting, while drawing attention to any potential intruders not verified by the system.

This technology, alongside the latest CCTV cameras such as the Panomera range made by German manufacturer Dalmaier, which uses multiple sensors that can operate at different focal lengths, mean that activities across large-scale sites can be monitored and detected with far fewer resources than would have previously been needed.

“These multifocal HD cameras can comprehensively manage a huge range of field,” says Gardner, explaining that the technology can be used in settings such as a large operational site or within a sports stadium to highlight specific people or activities.

Biometric system 

Another area where recent advances pose the potential to reshape the role of physical guards is biometrics. Although it has significantly grown in profile with the addition of fingerprint and facial scanners to control access to smartphones, the use of the technology to control access to whole buildings or specific rooms in a security setting has so far been fledgling, despite it being trailed for a long time.

Teething problems such as dust particles interfering with fingerprint scanners have hindered its adoption beyond those facilities where security is a particularly strong priority, but the most recent iterations have proved far more reliable.

Through the use of multispectral imaging (MSI), the scanners are able to use multiple light sources to read not only the surface of the skin and its print, but up to 4mm deep in a finger or hand, increasing both their reliability in terms of operation and the effectiveness in identifying a match.

Blake, who has witnessed the issues with earlier applications, believes that the latest generation of finger and handprint scanners, and those using iris pattern detection to enable eye-scanning, are starting to make inroads, albeit gradually.

“[Biometrics] has a definite part to play in terms of replacing access tokens that could be lost or stolen, but I would say that in its adoption, it’s in its infancy.” But he adds: “It’s definitely developing and from an ease-of-use perspective, you always carry your hand or your eye with you.”

From scanners taking the place of key cards to verbal warnings issued from camera monitoring centres located many miles away from where a potential shoplifting is taking place, technology advances in the security domain appear to be ushering in an era of evolution rather than revolution.

Those on both the technology and guard provision side are clear that there remains a need for a physical presence to deter unwanted acts and to deal with people on site, but by combining the guards with tech analytics, resources can be more efficiently targeted to manage security at a manageable cost.