The Role of Private Security in Counter TerrorismThere are more than 120,000 licensed security guards in Australia. No one knows the exact number, as each jurisdiction has a different way of defining security operators, determining who should be licensed and how. Also, some practitioners have licences in more than one state or territory and, of course, not all security personnel are or need to be licensed.

Security personnel are the eyes and ears on the ground; they are the day-to-day interface with the community and, when an incident does occur, they are the real first responders: moving people away, observing, reporting, applying first aid and briefing the emergency services. The government, the private sector and the public rely on security guards to protect them and their assets.

Why then is the private security sector not mentioned in any of the top-level strategic counter-terrorist plans? The first and only mention is in the Mass Gathering Strategy issued by the Australian New Zealand Counter Terrorist Committee issued in 2017.

The Australian Strategic Policy Centre (ASPI), which examines issues related to defence and national security, has released a Special Report Safety in Numbers – Australia’s private security guard force and counter-terrorism. The report outlines the issues, the actual and potential capabilities and the problems that are holding the sector back from being an active participant in the national counter-terrorist plans, and presents recommendations to enable the private security industry to become a recognised and effective part of the counter-terrorist capability. The report is downloadable from the ASPI website [www.aspi.org.au]

The authors gathered information, guidance, opinions and advice from representatives of security services providers, clients, government, law enforcement, regulators, recognised leaders in the security sector and representative organisations. Strong common themes emerged, which are reflected in the report. All submissions were unattributed.

There was a strong divergence of opinion on how involved the private security industry was, specifically the guarding sector, in counter-terrorist planning.

The ASPI report found:

The private security manpower sector plays a significant role in both preventing and responding to critical incidents, including terrorist attacks.

Private security staff provide the ‘eyes, ears and hands’ before any attack and an ability to be first responders after any security-related incident.

By observing non-routine behaviour and unusual objects, they provide a deterrent through their presence, maintaining checkpoints, conducting bag screening and so on.

They’re already on the spot and generally have an intimate knowledge of the normal comings and goings at each site. They’re uniformed and easily recognisable.

They’re trained, albeit to varying levels, and can provide a cordon or direct people away from dangers. They understand command and control and communications.

They’re used at large public gatherings such as major sporting events, community festivals, celebrations and special events, such as the Commonwealth Games. Private security also provides an important and significant presence at public transport hubs such as airports, railway stations and shipping ports as a line of defence and deterrence.

In manpower numbers, the private guarding industry is much more significant than the police or military. The security industry has more than double the personnel of Australia’s combined police agencies and permanent Australian Defence Force.

National and jurisdictional forums for addressing counter-terrorism (CT) include venue owners and operators, but the providers of guarding services aren’t always at the table.

Given the many thousands of men and women working around the clock every day in every type of private, business and community facility, it’s critical to recognise their efforts in helping to prevent attacks and responding to security incidents.

While the guarding services workforce is expected and may even be contracted to carry out actions that relate to CT, the current lack of appropriate and consistent training, the lack of consistent ‘fit and proper’ person requirements, the poor pay, general low esteem and inconsistencies between jurisdictions limit its ability and full potential in this role.

Governments have failed to provide consistent definitions, ‘fit and proper’ person tests, training requirements and monitoring of training for the guarding sector, especially in the area of terrorism preparedness and response.

Based on wide stakeholder consultation, it’s clear that clients (including government) of guarding providers often seek the lowest prices, often below award rates, without consideration of the quality of service provided.

There are, however, pockets of excellence where private security is fully integrated, trusted and delivering effective security outcomes, but multijurisdictional inconsistencies and poorly delivered training remain key problems for the security guarding workforce.

A nationally consistent vetting, training and licensing system would greatly enhance the ability of licensed security officers to identify, prevent and respond to critical incidents and hostile threats, such as terrorism.

As the ASPI report found, the key limitations on the security industry are jurisdictional legislative and regulatory inconsistencies, variations on who is a ‘fit and proper’ person to be a security officer, poor training standards and a lack of respect and appreciation due to the guarding sector being perceived as an entry-level, easily accessible job with limited or no career progression.

The ASPI report makes seven recommendations:

  1. The private security guarding sector should be engaged in relevant national and state forums that consider counter-terrorism.
  2. A federal Security Industry Authority should be established as a statutory authority. The authority would control, record, monitor and enforce the licensing of identified elements of the private security sector.
  3. Consideration should be given to formalising additional powers for suitably trained security officers to enhance their ability to contribute to counter-terrorism
  4. Law enforcement agencies should be encouraged to liaise with the private security sector and have representatives from the sector address training courses to explain their functions and powers.
  5. Training courses should include material on recognising suspicious behaviour associated with pre-incident terrorism activities and how and where to report suspicious activities.
  6. The security guarding sector should consider a career progression model for security officers.
  7. State and territory regulators should better monitor and enforce training standards within the licensed guarding sector.

The ASPI report suggests that the way ahead is to establish a federal Security Industry Authority (SIA). The functions of the SIA would include:

  • the integration of the private security manpower sector into Australia’s counter-terrorism strategy
  • ‘fit and proper’ person definition and assessment
  • training development and monitoring of delivery standards
  • external confirmation of testing and competencies
  • the development and promulgation of additional counter-terrorism awareness and training information

The report notes that there are existing federal vetting, licensing and verification systems in place which could be used as models, for example: the Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s licensing of pilots and of the training assessment system; the licensing of certain classes of maritime operators by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA); and the aviation and maritime security accreditation systems.

The ASPI report noted, “Previous reports have recommended a standardisation of security licensing. The issue was put before the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in July 2008. COAG agreed to adopt a nationally consistent approach to the regulation of the private security industry, ‘focusing initially on the guarding sector of the industry, to improve the probity, competence and skills of security personnel and the mobility of security industry licences across jurisdictions’.

COAG asked the Ministerial Council for Police and Emergency Management to undertake further work on minimum regulatory standards for the technical sector of the industry by mid-2009, as well as proposals for a possible national system for security industry licensing by mid-2010.”

The ASPI report observes, “Given the current rate of progress and the absence of COAG leadership, it would be unfortunate if change were to occur only in the wake of a crisis.”

The ASPI report concentrates on the guarding element, acknowledging that it is the largest part of the private security sector and the one that is the part where the boots meet the ground. The report recognises that the private security sector is a “continuum with the guards on the minimum wage at one end and highly qualified and experienced security consultants and chief security executives of major corporations at the other”. These other elements may be addressed in future reports but it is worth noting:

  • The professional end of the security continuum is responsible for the protection of Australia’s national infrastructure, resources, population, finances and day-to-day and long-term operations. Very little of the country’s assets remain in government hands. These professionals are expected to hold relevant qualifications, certifications, experience, professional affiliations and recognition. For them, terrorism is one of many threat vectors that they address, not in isolation but as part of an enterprise-wide responsibility.
  • Government relies on advice from the professional end of the private security sector and academia for guidance in relation to countering terrorism. In general, the expertise does not reside within government. Few government employees hold protective security specific qualifications or internationally recognised certifications; even fewer are members of the relevant professional institutes with access to the available research and resources.
  • Engineering developments, in relation to protection from terrorist incidents, are largely developed by the private sector with support from academia. Sometimes, the development results from government request or is (partially) funded by government. Many of the developments come from the private sector as they identify the need and the capability to meet it. The engineering element is an important part of the private security sector’s ability to counter terrorism.
  • The academic sector analyses terrorism and security. They publish works that support improved capabilities and developments at all levels.
  • Professional and industry associations not only represent their members but also provide a basis for practical research and the accumulation of expertise and experience. Organisations such as ASIS International and the International Venue Managers Association have tens of thousands of members worldwide and have sub committees looking at means of protecting from and responding to terrorism. These associations should be seen as sources of information to government.

The ASPI report concludes that the private security industry, specifically the guarding sector, is a vital piece of the national security puzzle that has not been identified or put into play. The main limitation is the disparity between jurisdictions, which results in different vetting requirements, training and licensing. It is hoped that government will pay attention to the report and that the industry will be improved so it can more effectively fill its role in protecting Australia.

Caveat: the views expressed in this article are the views of the author and not those of ASPI or any other organisation.