Vive La Securite Keeping your building safe and sound

In the wake of the World Trade Center attack, many boards are re-assessing their building’s security needs and taking steps to insure that their residents and residents’ property are well looked-after. Clearly, a building’s most valuable contents are not its Italian marble foyer, its antique gilded moldings, or its turn-of-the-century solid brass fixtures. No, the most important, most precious commodity in any given building is its residents. But making the decision to increase security is only the first step. Deciding what type of protection is most appropriate and which company to go with can be extremely daunting, particularly when considering the repercussions a poorly advised choice might have.

The Basic Questions

Once your board has decided that the time has come to invest in some real building security–before posting a battalion of armed sentries at every point of entrance to your home–it’s important to determine the actual needs of the building. Is it located in a high-crime neighborhood, or is the neighborhood more stable? Are you looking for a security presence that will intimidate and act as a deterrent, or are you looking for one that simply will be there in the event of an emergency? What kind of budget is available? Could you conceivably train existing building staff–doormen, porters, and the like–to act as security guards as well?

"Who wouldn’t want to have a security guard?" says Dr. Mark Lerner, criminologist and president of Manhattan’s Epic Security Corp., one of New York City’s largest security firms. "But [ultimately] it’s mostly a budget decision." A board has to start the process by looking at both its budget and its crime problem. "No building is exactly the same. Some buildings can afford 24-hour a day security. Some can only do it for a certain number of hours per day," Lerner says.

Companies like Epic and Astoria’s Criminal Intelligence Administration can help boards make these basic assessments and determine just what sort of security force is needed. Since 1987, Criminal Intelligence Administration has advised people on everything from security management to counter terrorism tactics. "We’ll do a security survey for a property," says Tim O’Brien, the company’s president. "We’ll look over established plans and procedures and put out a procurement order to find the proper service. If a security force already exists in the building, we’ll do an audit." Criminal Intelligence Administration will also look at contingency plans and procedures, assist in resident training, even help engineer the installation of closed circuit televisions. "We do everything except actually provide security officers," O’Brien says.

There are two basic ways a board can go in terms of security: an in-house security team, or an outsourced team. O’Brien believes a proprietary staff or in-house "peace officer" may provide the best option for many buildings. "Officers who patrol on site get to know the environment, residents, the kids in the building," he says. He feels that security officers for hire–guards who drop in for a day or two before being rotated with another officer–may not be as well trained. According to O’Brien, "A professional law enforcement ‘peace officer’ has the same status as a corrections officer. They can make arrests, process arrests and more."

Lerner agrees with O’Brien on the subject of officers getting to know their buildings. Epic provides uniformed armed and unarmed guards, doorman and concierge-type services as well as vehicular and walking patrols. Lerner believes its vitally important to familiarize guards with their surroundings and with the people they are protecting. With each new job, Epic sends a supervisor along with the guard to familiarize him or her with the ins-and-outs of the building. They’ll make sure the guard knows all the rules and regulations, the layout of the building and how to operate any existing security systems.

Both Lerner and O’Brien would discourage boards from going with a staff that’s drawn purely from retired law enforcement officers. "Every building has someone who’s brother is a retired police officer," Lerner says. "Unfortunately, many don’t have proper licensing and insurance." O’Brien concurs. "You want someone who is proactive," he says. "Many retired officers want to just take it easy and are not looking to get involved."

And most definitely stay away from any "aggressive" security forces, offering muscle as a form of protection. If your building is approached by individuals who imply that you "must" use their services, both Lerner and O’Brien advise you to end the conversation and sever that connection immediately. It might be a set up by a "coalition"–individuals not quite on the side of legitimacy and lawfulness. "If anyone threatens or says you have to use their company because they are used in that neighborhood, don’t fall for it," Lerner says. "Call the police and ask for the coalition unit."

Dollars and Sense

O’Brien estimates the cost for unarmed contract security at $17 to $25 per hour with the price increasing to $18 to $50 per hour for a retired law enforcement officer. A proprietary, in-house officer paid with benefits can run between $25 and $35 per hour.

"If a building’s going to go with a contract firm, they should set a higher pay scale," O’Brien says. "The more money, the better the work force." He encourages boards to make sure that the officers are being paid benefits, recommending that boards "make sure training is continual and that the officers are being rewarded–are there rewards and recognition for good service?"

Lerner says, "Don’t strictly go for the low bid. You’ll positively get people just being paid minimum wage with not as much training. Obviously, people should shop around to get the best value, but best value doesn’t necessarily mean lowest price."

Licensing: Covering Their End

Security can be a risky business, which is why licensing for guard service companies is required. Any legitimate security company should be able to provide proof of licensing without any problem, as should each individual officer. "Every guard gets a New York State identification card" upon completion of the minimum state training, says Lerner. According to the rules mandated by the State of New York Department of Criminal Justice, an unarmed guard must undergo a minimum of 24 hours of training while an armed guard receives an additional 40 hours of handgun training. This kind of state-mandated training ensures a basic level of suitability and competence for all licensed guards. "Years ago, a lot of co-ops or condos would make a porter or one of their employees a security guard," Lerner says. "Now the state makes sure they are all trained."

Proof of licensing and training is important to the safety of building residents. Not only does licensing promote competency, it ensures the guard has undergone a criminal background check by the State. Cases of guards stealing, burglarizing, even assaulting building residents unfortunately do occur, but a simple licensing check can go a long way toward eliminating those worries.

Licensing is also vital in terms of insurance. If an incident occurs–if, for example, an armed guard is forced to shoot–and that guard turns out to be unlicensed, your building’s liability insurance may not cover the resulting legal fall-out. All security companies should be willing to provide a board with copies of their licenses and insurance status. If they don’t, you can take that as a sign that something might not be right. "If you go for a company where the price is too good to be true, you better make sure they’re properly licensed and insured," Lerner says, adding that any time a risk of personal injury is involved, insurance becomes an important factor. "With security guards, stuff can happen. It’s not window cleaning. People can get injured. Make sure there’s proper insurance."

Insurance: Covering Yours

Three basic types of insurance are necessary for a security company to be considered adequately covered: liability, worker’s compensation and fidelity bonding.

Beyond just asking if the security company is insured, it’s important to find out the status of the company doing the insuring. For liability insurance, Lerner advises board members to "check the ‘A.M. Best’ [an insurance information source that offers comprehensive data covering aspects of the insurance industry] ratings and then only use a company who’s insured by an institution rated A or better. If the rating is below an A, that’s an alarm bell saying the insurance company could be having financial problems."

Lerner also says that the insurance company should be licensed by the State of New York. "If it’s not, the New York State Insurance Department wouldn’t back up the company in the event of an emergency."

When it comes to the amount of liability coverage a company should carry, Lerner suggests a minimum of $1 million. "Epic offers $10 million coverage," he says. "Some companies offer $100,000. If there’s a shooting, that might not be enough and the co-op or condo could be responsible for covering [the difference]."

A security firm also should provide worker’s compensation for its employees. If not, again, the building could be held responsible for an on-the-job injury.

Fidelity bonding, or "honesty" insurance, provides another important safety net. This insurance covers the security company for restitution in the unlikely event that a guard steals from building residents or commits other unlawful acts while working for a security company–acts not covered by other insurance. The necessity for this kind of coverage encourages companies to hire honest, competent employees.

Large urban areas like New York City harbor their own unique challenges and dangers. Even in relatively safe, stable neighborhoods, crime is always a concern–more so than ever in these uncertain times. One way to mitigate these concerns and impart a sense of safety and security to your residents is to hire security personnel to watch your property and protect your shareholders’ belongings and personal safety.

Ms. Lent is a freelance writer living in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

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