Prepare and survive

Published:  22 November, 2013

The Westgate Mall atrocities in Nairobi have thrust anti-terrorist measures back into the spotlight. What can centres realistically do to prevent such an attack here?

We all watched with horror as the terrorist attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi unfolded last month. It served as a reminder that, as high footfall locations, shopping centres across the world are possible targets for terrorist groups. And while the attack hasn’t affected the threat level in the UK, it has brought the threat of terrorism to the front of people’s minds, instigating healthy debate surrounding preventative measures and emergency response plans.

“The attack on Westgate shopping mall was carried out by Somalians angered by the presence of Kenyan troops in their country, so keep in mind that it’s contextual,” says an advisor from the National Counter Terrorism Security Office (NaCTSO)..

“What happened in Nairobi hasn’t changed the threat level in the UK, but it has prompted the shopping centre industry to review counter terrorism strategy, and that can only be healthy.”

So, what can shopping centre owners and operators do to try to prevent a potential terrorist attack, and how they should plan to deal one should the worst happen?

“The thing about shopping centres is that while they’re privately owned, they are open to the public and should always be as accessible as possible,” says Helen Drury, sustainability and community engagement advisor at BCSC and member of its Security and Safer Shopping Committee. “Because you can’t restrict people getting in you have to be vigilant when it comes to spotting odd behaviour. And if something does happen, you have to be able to respond to an incident while causing shoppers as little distress as possible.”

Last month BCSC published Firearms Attacks in Shopping Centres, the latest in its series of guidance notes, designed to share practical advice and promote best practice in dealing with a range of emergency situations involving guns, not only in the name of terrorism, but also gang violence, to aid in a robbery, or wielded by someone suffering mental illness.

It details suitable preparations and actions including devising a response plan outlining, for example, the use of a secondary control room and remote monitoring back-up should the main control room be taken over by attackers, as was the case in Nairobi.

The guidance note encourages management staff to identify brickwork, steelwork or concrete which may provide shelter and areas, like storerooms, that are out of sight of public view, allowing them to map safe routes out through service areas to evacuate people, as well as plans for ‘invacuation’ – all details that should be shared with retailers.

Any plans should be shared with police, who can provide comments and suggestions, as well as detailed floor and layout plans. It also advises walking the centre with police to help identify vulnerable targets, and asking officers to join the exercise if testing your plan.

In the event of an attack, the note advises coming up with a site specific codeword for use over the PA system to alert staff on the ground without panicking customers.

There should be separate staff watching CCTV, using phones and logging events. And staff should be mindful of the type of information police will need when they arrive on site including the number of terrorists, descriptions of their appearance, where they are and in which direction they are moving, and whether there are any casualties.

“Two way communications between the centre management team and local police is vital in getting a good plan in place and understanding what your response should be,” says Drury. “Even if it isn’t a full scale plan, every centre should have some processes in place that all staff know about and that is regularly updated.”

When it comes to government advice, the UK’s counter terrorism strategy, Contest, was brought in by government more than 10 years ago, and was updated by the Home Office in June 2012.

The strategy outlines four pillars – Pursue, Prevent, Protect and Prepare, and NaCTSO work on the Protect and Prepare strands with an objective to improve the safety of crowded places.

It talks to business owners and operators about the policies and processes they can adopt to counter terrorism, and provides them with access to high quality advice via the police and other security agencies. In 2011 it produced Counter Terrorism Protective Security Advice for Shopping Centres in conjunction with BCSC.

Making up 25 per cent of the sites NaCTSO are actively engaged with, shopping centres represent a significant proportion of what it calls ‘nationally significant crowded places’.

“Shopping centres have an implicit invitation for anyone to come in,” says the NaCTSO advisor. “We’re doing all we can but we can’t protect all sites, so working in partnership with vulnerable sites, not just in isolation, can only be a good thing.”

The NaCTSO service is delivered via a number of avenues. The first is the Counter Terrorism Network, a group of 220 counter terrorism security advisors (CTSAs), trained and tasked by NaCTSO and stationed across every police force nationally.

The CTSAs carry out free onsite surveys for all identified significant crowded places and provide advice on physical measures like security glass, or materials that protect against hostile vehicles or explosive devices, as well as advising managers on relevant policy.

The CTSAs can also help shopping centres to train security guards, working with managers to devise new patrol routes, for example. Training exercises are delivered through Project Argus, which involves working through a terrorist attack scenario on a computer, and Project Griffin, a bespoke training programme for security guards.

“We look at what shopping centres can realistically do to widen their security bubble?” explains the NaCTSO advisor. “It’s about continual engagement and development, and the sharing of information.”

Hostile reconnissance

In terms of trying to prevent an act of terrorism, stopping potential attackers gathering information about the scheme is often the first step, as John Briggs, operations director at First Security Guards, a subsidiary of Interserve, explains: “There’s always a degree of reconnaissance when it comes to terrorism attacks on civilians. The perpetrators have to have been to a potential site to work out where they can cause the maximum amount of damage, identify areas where they can hide etc, and in order to find out these things, they have to have been to the target location a number of times.

“The biggest problem is that it’s very difficult to train people to counter a terrorist attack because once it’s happening, it’s very difficult to control,” says Briggs. “So prevention is the key, and the principle is simple – it’s a defensive strategy used for years by the military and security services and it comes down to making it as difficult as possible for terrorists to plan an attack, and in turn, making the venue a hard and undesirable target.”

He says there are a number of things that can be done to stop terrorists gathering information. First Security Guards carry out hostile reconnaissance training with shopping centre security staff to teach them how to identify potential terrorists or suspicious activity. The training includes desktop exercises, taking trainees through different scenarios, and films detailing real life missions that were carried out prior to attacks like 9/11. Part of the training looks into people taking photographs, helping security to identify the difference between a harmless family shot or something else – an attempt to show the location of CCTV or doors that lead back of house, for example. “Often it comes down to drawing a line under what is acceptable and what isn’t,” says Briggs.

Hostile reconnaissance comes under the Contest ‘Pursue’ pillar: “It’s about stopping the planning rather than stopping an attack once it’s underway, and it comes down to awareness training,” says NaCTSO’s spokesperson.

“Make your centre look professional and robust to a terrorist but not to the customer. Prevent them from doing what they want to do, which is to gather as much information as possible about the location – if it’s too difficult, they’ll be put off.”

Centres can also take advantage of long-used technology to help identify criminals and suspicious activity, such as facial recognition cameras and video analytics software that helps to identify patterns: “A CCTV camera might pick up on an unattended bag, the software can run back through its memory and help to identify when that bag was brought into the centre, by who, and how long it’s has been left unattended,” explains Briggs.

But he warns: “Security guards are often better than CCTV because most CCTV systems are only 95 per cent correct. That might sound like a good statistic but that’s five people in every 100 that are missed and when you have 15,000 people in and out every day, it soon adds up. Constant patrols, including back of house, and constant vigilance are just as important as the use of CCTV.”

NaCTSO also offers advice on building anti-crime measures into new shopping centres by design. An initiative called Secured by Design which aims to ‘design out crime’ is run by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), and a guidance note is available from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). It is a practice NaCTSO is keen to promote.

Long term view

As NaCTSO’s spokesperson explains: “It’s critical to take a long term approach when building a new shopping centre,” he says. “Securing a building by design is much cheaper than retrofitting, and crime prevention is holistic, so any measures taken at the design and development stages will often mean it’s more secure against terrorism too. Designing out vulnerability and risk should be considered at stage one of concept design for it to have maximum benefit. And it may help in the planning process.”

“Shopping centres want to create the right atmosphere,” he continues. “They should be big, warm, welcoming places that are safe for visitors, with staff that are able to deal with poor behaviour effectively.

“We understand there will be limiting factors like finances, so when it comes to implementation we look at what can be done realistically. We’re not interested in making fortresses; businesses are there to make money and security is something of a grey area financially, so it’s about taking a proportionate approach.

“It could be something as simple as changing a patrol regime. Things like that are often overlooked but it’s surprising what a difference they can make.”

He says that when people think of counter terrorism measures, they often think of pound signs, but he talks of sweating the asset, giving an example: “Eight-five to ninety per cent of people killed or injured in a bomb blast suffer or die not from the bomb itself but from a secondary reactions like glass and falling masonry. Laminated glazing has very good resistant capabilities but it’s not cheap. However, it has other uses such as carbon reduction because there’s less need for air conditioning and it reduces excessive heat, in turn creating a better working and visiting environment. So those who invest in laminated glass will get a carbon reduction benefit from something that could also save lives.”

He advises reviewing counter terrorism plans annually, as a minimum. “An evacuation plan shouldn’t be a huge book. It should be easily accessible, and management should know exactly what it says. Write the plan, keep it short, do a full test if you have time, and don’t be afraid to make changes.”

Management should cascade any information to customer-facing staff and make sure store managers are also aware of any plans. He says there should be buy-in from the ground floor upwards and a push to encourage retail staff to take ownership, because they are often more aware of, and more likely to report, any suspicious behaviour. And because there tends to be a high turnover of retail staff, messages should be sent out periodically, “like a pulsing heartbeat”.

And he’s keen to warn that it isn’t just the “big, spectacular” centres that are at risk.

“The perpetrator could be a lone actor like in Woolwich, or in the case of Nicky Riley in Princesshay shopping centre in Exeter. He didn’t travel to one of the biggest shopping centres, he travelled to Exeter because it was local and he could get there easily. There are individuals, large organised groups and everything in between, and each one is targeting different places.

“Small centre managers might be worried about the renewal of a cleaning contract, they could be worried about any number of things, and counter terrorism is often low down on the list, but it shouldn’t be forgotten. Everyone, every centre, can do something. And often there are added benefits of any investment.”

• Visit for more information. The website has a Vulnerability Identification Self Assessment Tool (VISAT) for managers at medium and small centres who want to test their centre’s vulnerability.


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