Safer Cities

Last updated 22 Jan 16 @ 13:58 |
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Timothy Compston maps out the implications for city security of the heightened terrorist threat

What transpired in Paris in November has cast a long shadow over cities across Europe and beyond. In the aftermath we have witnessed the French bring in tougher counter-terrorism measures; Brussels – were some of the suspects originally came from – on lockdown for nearly a week, and the evacuation of a stadium in Hannover prior to a football match between Germany and the Netherlands. More recently, New Year celebrations in many cities were impacted by the prevailing threat landscape with all leave cancelled for armed police in London, no fireworks in Paris, and – following an intelligence tip-off regarding a threat from Islamic State (IS) suicide bombers – the evacuation of both of Munich’s main railway stations and the public told to avoid crowded areas.

The tragic events of that Friday evening was not the first time a terrorist attack had been visited on the French capital, the Charlie Hebdo and Jewish supermarket incidents also remain fresh in the memory. In no way wanting to underplay the seriousness of what went before, the shocking thing this time around was the way the assailants were able to maraud through Paris mercilessly targeting bars and restaurants, those attending a rock concert at the Bataclan concert hall and an international football match at France’s national stadium.

So what can be done to shore-up the protection of the public at a time when multiple ‘dynamic’ attacks and, lone wolf incidents are on an upward trajectory?

The sort of action that the Belgium Government took in Brussels post-Paris, with schools and even the metro system shut down for close to a week and soldiers patrolling the streets, may have deterrent value, but is not sustainable over an extended period of time. By contrast intelligence-driven raids to arrest and disrupt the activities of suspects, and the sharing of information across borders are integral to a proactive anti-terrorism effort. When these don’t happen or information isn’t acted on things can slip through the security net with devastating consequences. It was reported by German media, for example, that a vehicle driven by a man from Montenegro who was transporting automatic handguns and explosives was stopped by the Bavarian Police on November 5, only the week before the Paris attacks, and appeared to be on route to the French capital.

In other developments, over the last few months many of the countries, that make up the Schengen area, have re-introduced border controls, the latest being Sweden announcing ID checks for train, bus and ferry passengers from Denmark. There appears to be a realisation that the vision of free movement in a Europe without borders is far from ideal for security if initial checks at the shared external border are ineffective or haphazard. Acknowledging the inadequacies of the current setup, EU leaders announced at a Brussels summit prior to Christmas the ramping up of measures, including a European Border and Coast Guard, with more resources and powers than the Frontex border agency. A connected issue on the radar was the movement of weapons with British Prime Minister David Cameron pushing for a Europe-wide ban on ‘high-powered semi-automatic weapons’ and new measures to stop guns coming in from the Western Balkans.

Given the large loss of life at the Bataclan theatre, in particular, it is clear that when the worst happens time is of the essence. On the other side of the English Channel, London’s Metropolitan Police recently invited the media to a terrorism training exercise for an insight into the tactics that firearms officers would look to employ, given the reality that today’s terrorists are not necessarily looking to negotiate their way out of a siege-type situation but rather will keep on killing those around them. The Metropolitan Police’s assistant commissioner, Patricia Gallan –Scotland Yard’s head of specialist crime and operations – told the BBC that officers would ‘go forward’ to confront gunmen in the event of a Paris-style attack, which may mean they have to “walk over casualties”. Added to this, there is an ongoing debate as to whether there are enough armed police officers in the UK, especially for cities outside London.

Another aspect being brought to the fore is police access, or lack of it, to armoured vehicles. For his part Jez Hermer CEO of OVIK which produces vehicles like the OVIK-CROSSWAY is concerned at the relatively low level of interest post-Paris from the UK police when it comes to reinforcing their armoured vehicle provision: “I believe that is down to a general lack of knowledge and understanding of the employment of armoured vehicles in the police/counter terrorism/firearms support role,” says Hermer.

To move things forward, Hermer circulated a paper to every Chief Constable and PCC (Police and Crime Commissioner), as well as the UK’s lead firearms officer and the Home Secretary for England and Wales, explaining how industry and the UK Government could work together to establish a cost-effective national police armoured vehicle capability. Hermer’s vision, outlined in his paper, is essentially for a leased fleet of multi-role armoured police vehicles. Positioned strategically at key hub locations across the UK, these would be available for “planned firearms led operations” and on “an immediate on-demand basis to support spontaneous operations characterised by a ballistic or blast threat.” Hermer reckons that if all the UK police forces decided to come on-board, the outlay would amount to roughly half the cost of a single BMW X5 per year, per force.

The public also has a vital role to play in keeping their cities safe, whether that is remaining vigilant for suspicious activity or educating themselves about what to do in the event of an attack where they may need to seek safety before the police can reach them. Interestingly, the National Counter Terrorism Policing in the UK has just released an information film detailing specific advice entitled: ‘Stay Safe: Firearms and Weapons Attack’. This sets out three key steps that people can take, under the headings: ‘run, hide, and tell’.

When there is the potential for incidents to escalate at a number of locations simultaneously, causing confusion and stretching resources, a smarter joined-up approach to real-time situational awareness could help the authorities to get a handle on what is going on. Some may look to replicate the approach taken by Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and the Operations Centre (ROC) there. The facility at Cidade Nova brings together government departments and agencies from across the municipality and, in so doing, has helped slash incident response times by an impressive 25 – 30 percent.  As a result of advanced urban systems for visualisation, monitoring, and analysis, it is breaking down many of the traditional barriers that have constrained the way things function.

It is not just access to publically owned video surveillance and other security assets that can help with situational awareness. Andrew Elvish, vice president, marketing and product management, at Genetec points out that a ‘federation’ capability such as that unlocked through a ‘unified security platform’ makes sense for cities. This means, essentially, that cameras from a sports stadium or across the city can be tied into a real-time crime centre run by the police, for example: “In the event of an unpredictable situation, the police and first responders can get eyes on that venue quickly rather than after the fact.” says Elvish.

Post-Paris Lee Doddridge, director at security consultancy Covenant, believes that those responsible for major city-based facilities need to revisit the actions they plan to take should they find themselves in the firing line. He reveals that when scenarios are brought up, many will want to evacuate inside a site like a shopping centre, but that doesn’t necessarily work if the terrorists are already in your facility: “You have got to get people away as quickly as you can.”

Added to this, Doddridge explains that employees need to change their mind set compared to what is the norm in a less threatening situation: “It is amazing when we run through [a terrorist attack] and people say that we can’t use that entry/exit because it is staff only but then you make them realise in this life or death situation all of those things go out the window.” He stresses that another big part of what Covenant does is helping participants understand the response from the emergency services and how long it may be before this kicks in: “Many think that they [the emergency services] are going to rush straight to the scene. Realistically if you are in London then there may be a quick response because of the numbers [of firearms officers] but in some locations an effective response could be 45 minutes away,” says Doddridge.

So to conclude what Paris has demonstrated, above all else, is the extent of the challenge which terrorism presents today. This threat is necessitating new thinking from the police tactics employed to a more joined-up approach to how our cities are monitored and, significantly, a greater onus on what the public can do to ensure its own safety.

Timothy Compston is a journalist and PR professional who specialises in security issues. He studied International Relations and Strategic Studies at Lancaster University, is PR director at Compston PR and a previous chairman of both the National PR Committee and CCTV PR Committee of the British Security Industry Association (BSIA).