Words are a funny thing, and words matter. We use them to define objects, communicate ideas, and describe thoughts and feelings. While there are some words that have a nearly universal meaning, the meaning of other words varies greatly depending on who you ask. For example, the words “law enforcement officer” conjures up a fairly common mental image of someone who is carefully selected, professionally trained, operationally competent and conducts themselves on a solid moral platform of honesty and integrity. The collective impression is that police officers can be depended upon by the public, seemingly without fail, to protect those who are in need or in trouble. The term “law enforcement officer” has a nearly universal meaning to all people irrespective of the agency type (city, county, state or federal) or the geographic location of the agency. The same is true of most other bona fide professions. However, the meaning of the word “security” does not, by any stretch of the imagination, have any type of universal meaning. In fact, there are few other words in the English language that have so many different meanings and interpretations as does the word security. This vast difference in connotations needs to change.

The diverse associations and understandings of the word security is confusing to the public as well as those who are public safety professionals such as law enforcement officers, firefighters, medics, emergency managers, et al. As an example, when a homeowner states they have “security” at their home, what they likely mean is they have installed a fire and burglary alarm system. However, the term security may just as well mean that the homeowner has installed high-security locks on their doors and windows. Still to another homeowner, the installation of motion activated exterior lighting may mean that the homeowner has installed security at their residence. In the business world, the varied meanings of the word security become far more complicated. Security to one business may mean that they have conducted a thorough risk analysis that has resulted in the implementation of perimeter gates, adequate lighting, a CPTED-devised environment, a card access system, alarm systems, high-security locks, a video camera system, layered internal physical barriers, professional on-site security officers, an excellent visitor control system, a tested business continuity plan, AEDs, robust IT security and an on-site emergency response team. Yet, the term security to another business may mean that they have passwords assigned for their desktop computers but have no other security measures, controls or systems in place.

It is almost as though the term security is a large bucket, and all things security or security-related get dumped in this large bucket. Physical security can and does also mean concierge, greeter, valet, ambassador, reception, janitor, facility specialists, watchman and many more duties that have little to do with security. At least in the short run, organizational protection strategies have become even more confusing with the convergence of the virtual and physical security domains. When comparing the term “security”  where anything and everything security related gets tossed into the bucket when compared to the earlier example of the universal meaning of “police officers,”  it is no wonder there is so much confusion about security. The problem is this confusion is not only perplexing, but it can be dangerous because of the plethora of consequences of a security failure, up to and including the death of people.

The bit of good news is there are at least fairly solid industry and manufacturing standards, as well as some laws, covering devices and systems such as locks, lights, fencing, alarm systems, video systems, physical barriers, fire extinguishers, emergency medical tools, and defensive tactics devices. These industry and manufacturing standards create a sense of trustworthiness for the capabilities and dependability of most security hardware devices and components. While security devices and systems need to be installed based on the results of a security and risk management survey, the fact is they will likely work effectively and as designed. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about physical security personnel in terms of the wide variances existing between the selection, training, supervision and operational capabilities from one security organization to another. When the term security is used to describe private security personnel, trouble often follows with the public as well as the law enforcement community.

While proprietary security programs are certainly not immune from lacking needed competencies, it is in the contract security arena where malignant ineptitude is most pervasive and problematic. The public’s general assumption when seeing an individual who is wearing a police-like uniform is that person knows what to do in case of an emergency. While this is understandable, it is also misleading when it comes to most security personnel. The public has rightly become accustomed to uniforms that are worn by public safety professionals, such as law enforcement officers, firefighters and medics, as a representation of the skills and capabilities those professionals possess. The sad reality is that the security uniform is not, in most cases, an outward representation of many essential skills or capabilities. One of the reasons security personnel are the brunt of jokes and movies such as “Armed and Dangerous” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is because of the public’s overwhelming perception of security personnel as being untrained and largely incapable of effectively handling emergencies. The lack of meaningful standards and laws for security personnel has resulted in the public having no way of knowing if a person wearing a security uniform is a highly-trained professional who can successfully handle about any threat situation from an armed attacker to an emergency medical situation, or if the person wearing a security uniform worked at a fast-food restaurant the day before and has zero protective training and capabilities.

As is too often the case, the public thinks the worst, and organizations that purchase security services should have many of those same concerns. There are traditional contract security guard providers as well as a few truly professional contract security services companies that provide competent security personnel to their clients. The problem is both traditional contract security guards and professional contract security officers wear uniforms with the moniker “security” plainly showing. However, the core competencies between a traditional contract security guard and a professional security officer are most often cavernous. The widespread incompetence of most traditional security guards is the “dirty little secret” of the security industry and one that sadly comprises the lion’s share of the traditional contract security services community. This faulty process begins with traditional contract security companies hiring whomever they can get right off the street and then placing them in a uniform that is likely still warm from the guard who just turned it in. The new guard is then immediately sent to a post for “training” and a 16-hour shift. When the new guard arrives on post, another senior guard (who was likely hired the week before) points to an outdated and incomplete post instruction manual and tells the new guard, “Read that.” And, the cycle of incompetence continues. This is made possible in the name of the purchasers of security services wanting to save money while disregarding investing in a security program that will actually work.

It is sadly common for sales people who represent traditional guard companies to misrepresent the capabilities of the services they provide to prospective clients. Instead of being honest and forthright, the traditional guard sales representative will tell the prospective client that the guards the client will be getting if they choose to go with their service are all carefully selected and highly trained professionals when the sales representative knows what they have stated is just not true. Since the individual who actually purchases the guard services for the organization does not really have anything personally to lose if security fails, they go ahead and buy the cheap guard service. After all, the purchaser looks like a hero to his or her manager because of all the money they saved the organization by going with cut-rate security. All is good – that is right up until the time that someone gets hurt or dies because of the choice of the organization to purchase substandard guard service. What may initially appear to be a choice that saved the organization money by purchasing an inexpensive traditional guard company versus the organization investing in a professional security program, may well be one of the worst decisions made because the consequences of having a cheap but incapable security force can literally be catastrophic.

Under the supply and demand concept, those who purchase security services absolutely shoulder the blame and liability for having incompetent security when things go wrong. The simple truth is there would be no supply of traditional warm body security unless there was a demand for such a service. In fairness to many who purchase security services, some have the best of intentions and want to do a good job for their employer. As a result, they end up unknowingly hiring inept contract security services through no fault of their own. However, they should learn after being fooled once. Sadly, many more purchasers of guard services know full well they are placing their organization and its people at great risk by the decision to buy the cheap guard service and forging ahead while hoping nothing will happen. If an adverse event does occur, the purchaser of the guard services can hide behind what they know or should know are the misrepresentations they were told by the traditional guard company representative. The purchaser of the security services therefore believes they have plausible deniability in case an adverse event occurs. There are some purchasers of security services who are actually trusting enough to believe they can get a highly trained, professional security officer for nearly nothing, then quickly find out what they have really purchased is a warm body in a uniform and their traditional contract security company is, in reality, nothing more than an employment agency for people that wear a security uniform.

Those who purchase security services need to know exactly what they are and are not getting from their security services provider. They also need to insist on quality security and be willing to pay fairly for those services. Purchasers of contract security services also need to be candid with their organizations. No more accepting outlandish “we’ll give you everything for nothing” assertions from the sales people of traditional guard companies and thinking that doing so is somehow okay. Doing so is not only unacceptable from an ethical standpoint, but can place the lives of their co-workers and their very organization in danger. Those who purchase traditional guard services to perform concierge, greeter, valet, ambassador, janitor, reception, facility specialist, watchman and other types of non-specific security work can hire or contract personnel to perform those functions, but they should call those jobs what they are, and not call them security. In short, security needs to mean security first and foremost. If anyone who purchases security services lacks the integrity or courage to have a professional risk analysis completed and then contract with the appropriate service that can provide the right protection, then that individual needs to find another job with a far lower level of responsibility, thus clearing the way for someone to take the job who will properly look out for the organization’s people, property, information and profits.

For their personal safety if nothing else, the public also has a right to know what capabilities, or the lack thereof, that the security personnel possess where they work, shop and live. Law enforcement as well as other public safety service entities also have a need to know what the competency level and the operational capabilities are of security personnel at all sites within their jurisdiction. For example, if there is a scenario where a law enforcement agency receives a call for service about an active shooter at a site, the competency and operational capabilities of the security personnel who are on scene at that site is highly relevant. If law enforcement knows that the site has highly-trained and certified security professionals who are armed and are trusted by the jurisdiction’s law enforcement personnel, then the response will be far different than if the site has traditional contract security guards that are untrained, have no operational capabilities, and are directed to “observe and report” only.

What gets complicated very quickly is when a situation exists wherein law enforcement is responding to an active shooter call at a site knowing there is armed security on-site, but the jurisdiction’s law enforcement personnel either do not trust the security personnel at that site or they simply do not know if the security personnel are or are not competent. In short, it is in everyone’s best interest for law enforcement personnel to know the competency and operational capabilities of the on-site security personnel before they arrive on scene. One of the many great benefits of strong public/private partnerships is law enforcement knowing what type of security is on-site before a major call for service comes in to law enforcement from a particular location. Having and maintaining excellent public/private collaboration is a force-multiplier that will increase the probability of a positive outcome when things are at their worst.

The foundation of strong and vibrant public/private partnerships is forged out of mutual trust, respect, and is based on a platform of competency at all levels within the respective organizations. Due to nationwide law enforcement standards and core competencies, private security partners need not be concerned about the professional competency level of their law enforcement partners. However, since there are no bona fide nationwide standards and core competencies for private security personnel, competency concerns about private security personnel exist within the law enforcement community. These concerns are not without merit and they highlight the need for meaningful, bona fide standards and core competencies for private security personnel at all levels. The standards and core competencies also need to be codified through legislation so they have the force of law. From the private security side, it is not enough for security managers only to be competent. Rather, all security personnel at all levels must be professionally competent in order for public / private partnerships to be built and sustained. This is because law enforcement cannot wonder about the competency of their private sector partners. If the public sector has any doubt whatsoever about the private sector’s level of competency, a partnership will not work.

Security competency at all levels matters. It is both regretful and amazing that many security managers will earn the Certified Protection Professional (CPP) credential and other professional certifications, yet, those same managers will employ a traditional contract security guard company who furnishes their organization with untrained guards lacking basic skills and capabilities, and who have no professional certifications. Having a well-trained and professionally certified security manager does not really matter unless the line-level security personnel are also fully competent. Unless everyone at every level within the security organization is trained and credentialed, the security program will be inadequate and represent a danger to all persons who the guards are supposed to be protecting.

Ron Minion, Dr. Norm Bottom and others who had the foresight to start the International Foundation for Protection Officers (IFPO) understood with great clarity the considerable problem posed with line-level security officers and security supervisors not being trained. The IFPO’s Certified Protection Officer (CPO) certification and their Certified in Security Supervisor and Management (CSSM) credential have provided security managers with a great tool to help everyone within a security organization, and at all levels, become certified professionals. Like it or not, the onus is on the private sector to prove their mettle to the public and to law enforcement because of the history of traditional contract security companies hiring people right off the street, placing them in a uniform and being directly sent to post for duty. This is one reason why the security industry needs to do the hard work and earn their way into becoming a profession.

The simple truth is there needs to be a new way of doing business with respect to how security personnel are classified and defined. The organizations that purchase security services and the array of public safety sector agencies all need a definitive and quantitative way to know which physical security personnel are highly-trained professionals and which ones are not. In fact, anything less than this “truth in advertising” is truly unconscionable. A good start would be for traditional contract security guard providers to start telling the truth about the operational capabilities (or the lack of) their guards possess and stop calling their guards “security.” As a part of the new way of doing business with respect to how security personnel are classified, the name “security guard” should be deleted and be replaced with a term that does not confuse a security guard with a professional security officer. Again, there are other names and terms that can be used to substitute for security guard, such as, concierge, greeter, valet, ambassador, reception, janitor, facility specialist, watchman and many more types of services. This change is necessary because it is both intellectually dishonest and dangerous for any security services company to assert to anyone that their security personnel possess training and capabilities that they, in fact, do not possess.

If those who represent traditional guard companies would simply tell prospective clients the truth, then it is the prospective client who can decide the type of protective services they want and, more importantly, what type and level of services they need for proper risk mitigation. If the prospective client chooses to purchase greeter and valet services, then at least that client understands and knows that their organization is not purchasing a security officer. By contrast, if the prospective client wants a professional security program wherein the security officers they will be getting have been carefully selected, highly trained, and are professionally-certified, then the prospective client can and should fully expect security officers to operate at a professional and competent level. Law enforcement personnel in all jurisdictions should also know exactly who in their community competently performs a security function and who does not.

It is the view of this author that the security industry can never transition to becoming a true profession unless the issue of bona fide standards and core competencies for private security personnel is definitively addressed and permanently resolved through both professional standards as well as legislative action that codifies those standards. Unless the right standards become law, the competency vacuum will continue to leave the door open for traditional guard companies to keep on telling prospective clients that the guards the client will be getting are all carefully selected and highly trained professionals when that is simply not factual. The door needs to be opened wide to the proverbial “crazy aunt in the closet” so there can be an open and honest dialogue about the best way to move the security industry forward so the security industry at all levels can become the security profession and competency concerns about private security personnel with the public and within the law enforcement community are no more.

What’s in a word? When it comes to security, the large security bucket needs to be emptied so the various parts can be properly categorized. The lack of a common classification method to describe security is a clear and serious barrier to public confidence as well as to improving public law enforcement and private security relations, thus fostering effective public-private partnerships. Perhaps the security industry should define real, meaningful and adequate minimum training and certification standards so the term “security officer” can conjure up a fairly common mental image of someone who is carefully selected, professionally trained, operationally competent and conducts themselves on a solid moral platform of honesty and integrity. The term “security guard” can still conjure up a common mental image of someone who is untrained, operationally incompetent and who cannot be relied upon. However, at least those who purchase security services and the law enforcement agencies who have to work with private security personnel would know exactly what the capabilities are (and are not) from a particular security services provider. The public as well as law enforcement in the community in which security personnel work have the right to know what the operational competency level of a particular security program and personnel is and is not.

The collective impression of private security by the public as well as by the law enforcement community is less than desirable, to be generous. The decades of the public and law enforcement dealing with one traditional guard failure after another is squarely to blame for the low esteem in which security is held by most people. Law enforcement officers are trained professionals who can be depended upon to protect those who are in need or in trouble. The same needs to be universally true of those who wear the private security uniform. Traditional guard services provide a negative value to organizations, are largely untrusted by the public, and are nearly always problematic to law enforcement. The traditional guard model truly needs to go the way of the dinosaurs and organizations that contract for security services need to do so based on value and capabilities versus low price. A risk management study needs to be completed first and foremost. The result of that study will determine what actual security controls need to be placed at an organization to attain a level of adequate security. This will be completed using electronic security and other hardware security solutions, and likely professional security officers who have been carefully selected, highly trained, are professionally-certified, and who can operate at a professional and competent manner. This change will most certainly serve to drive the “security industry-to-security profession” transformation forward and will do so in a way that adds real value to organizations as well as building public safety trust that will create strong and meaningful public/private partnerships. At the same time, the non-security duties that traditional security guards currently perform can still be done. They should just be called something different and those who perform these non-security functions should not wear police-like uniforms or use the moniker that states or even infers they are bone fide security. Unless and until the time when this transition occurs in the area of physical security, the public and law enforcement will continue to have an overwhelmingly low opinion of security and widespread public/private partnerships will never be able to truly flourish. The time for this change is long past due.