UK Retailers Beef Up Employees’ Ability to Help Combat Terrorism

Should you follow suit?

A new counter-terrorism training program in the UK is proving popular with businesses, including retailers. Called ACT Awareness e-Learning, more than 1,500 companies have signed up in an effort to boost protection from a terror attack.

The free, 45-minute training course—a product of a partnership between Counter Terrorism Policing and UK retailer Marks & Spencer—instructs workers how to spot signs of suspicious behavior and what to do in the event of an attack. “The feedback from the staff at Marks & Spencer and other organizations taking part has been very positive,” said John Frost, head of business continuity at Marks and Spencer, who helped lead the project.

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Retailers can’t expect store associates to act as security personnel, but they can enhance a retailer’s security, suggested Deputy Assistant Commissioner Lucy D’Orsi. “All staff working in crowded places—not just those who have a security role—can follow the course and be in a stronger position to help protect themselves, colleagues, and the public,” she said.

The program is similar to several efforts, such as one operated in New York City by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which puts thousands of transit workers—from on-board train workers to track inspectors—through a course on how to spot suspicious packages and persons. Such programs recognize that non-security staff are typically well positioned to notice when something is out of the ordinary, act as first responders to an incident, and are the most reliable communicators in the first moments of an incident, according to terrorism expert Brian Jenkins.

How common is it? Do companies typically solicit general employees in protection against terrorism?

One national survey suggests that about half of US organizations regularly ask workers to be alert and report unusual activity that may suggest a terrorist threat. Most security practitioners at these companies say that doing so is useful (62 percent), and some note that employees who are more cognizant of the terrorist threat are also more likely to alert on other (more likely) security events or vulnerabilities.

The remaining security respondents did not find it helpful to engage employees in terrorism prevention, with some reporting mixed results (29.2 percent) and some noting that it was not helpful at all (9 percent).

Loss prevention departments should approach the idea judiciously, and consider the potential downside of soliciting help from employees. Asking untrained employees to alert them to unusual activity will more than likely lead to an increase in the number of unwarranted reports.

It can also lead “to people turning in those they dislike and tips based on racial profiling,” according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU’s review of “tip” programs and similar terrorism prevention strategies found that they often warn people to watch for “anyone who does not appear to belong,” which is a standard that is ripe for abuse along racial lines, the group warns.

What Should Employees Know?

The usual goal of programs directed at employees is to increase their awareness of the possibility of terrorist acts and to encourage them to identify security gaps in store operations that could make an attack more likely or more successful. For example, an education program would likely want to teach employees to be on the lookout for individuals leaving behind packages.

While such security awareness training may help foil a terrorist bomb plot, it is more likely to provide a retailer other benefits. If an employee is taught to be mindful, and thus spots a shopper leaving behind a package, he or she can stop the individual and address the issue immediately. If the unattended package is discovered later, a store could be forced to isolate an area for a misplaced handbag. Similarly, when employees are more attuned to suspicious behavior around them, they are better able to spot a terrorist and, more often, a shoplifter.

Because of the nature of a store environment, a suicide bomber wearing a vest or an individual carrying an explosive device contained in a backpack is a significant vulnerability. Store employees—if taught how to spot a potential threat and how to respond—may offer retailers their best chance to combat it. For example, making “soft contact”—by walking up to a suspect and asking: “Can I help you?”—is often enough to force an attacker to abandon his plan, according to Arik Arad, former head of shopping center security in Israel.

A suicide or knapsack bomber is unlikely to blend seamlessly with the store crowd and may exhibit “multiple anomalies,” according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. These include:

  • wearing inappropriately heavy clothing
  • an unusual gait, especially a robotic walk
  • tunnel vision or a fixated gaze
  • irritability
  • sweating, tics, or nervous behavior
  • unwillingness to make eye contact
  • repeatedly circling or pacing in front of a store

Employees, if trained, may also be capable of alerting store managers to indicators of terrorist planning. These include individuals who exhibit:

  • unusual or prolonged interest in store security measures, personnel, and entry points
  • prolonged static surveillance using disguises such as panhandlers or shoe shiners
  • discreet use of cameras, video recorders, or note-taking
  • repeated surveillance in vehicles

Finally, if a retailer chooses to provide employees with terrorism awareness education, it needs to have a process in place for accepting and investigating employee reports of suspicious vehicles or individuals. Employees need to know, if they “see something” to whom they should “say something.”

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