Exclusive: Getting the balance right around landmark security


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Philip Ingram MBE catches up with Barry Palmer, the Head of Security at the Tate Galleries to discuss the challenges involved with properly securing landmarks.

How often do we walk past an iconic building or location and not pay it a second glance? Depending on what it is, security is unlikely to be an immediate consideration unless it is like the Palace of Westminster, where security is deliberately obvious. However, our iconic landmarks do need securing and to discuss some of the considerations, Philip Ingram MBE chats with Barry Palmer, the Head of Security with the iconic Tate Galleries.

Extra pressure

The Tate Galleries’ most iconic site is the Tate Modern and as one of the country’s most visited sites, it is a globally recognised London landmark based on the South Bank of the River Thames. Before COVID closed everything down, it was receiving 5.9 million visitors annually and often in excess of over 13,000 people a day, seven days a week. It is in the top ten most visited museums and galleries in the world.

There is no doubt that if you look after an iconic building that there is that extra added pressure, especially if that building is loved by the public. You can find yourself under the spotlight for doing either too much or too little. The gallery is open to tens of thousands of people who visit every day, add the fact you have no idea who they are or where in the building they may go and what intentions they may have once they are in, this adds a whole new dimension,” says Palmer

“One of the first considerations you have is the fact that because you are a well-known iconic building. will this add to the attraction for criminality of any description, especially terrorism? Not only because of the people it attracts, a densely populated area and easy soft target, but also the publicity that would be gained from the fact you are a globally known building,” he adds.

A common theme around landmark sights is that of public access and having to balance the experience of the visitor off against the requirement for security. The last thing people want is to feel inconvenienced or to experience long queues and, in some places, public access is a legal right.

Fay Tennet, the Deputy Head of Security Operations in the Parliamentary Security Department at the Houses of Parliament, another of London’s landmark sites, more correctly known as the Palace of Westminster, said previously: “Public access is very important for democracy and public participation is encouraged. Balancing freedom of speech with the safety of the building and the people that work within, is always a challenge for us but it is why we have a layered approach to security and we have support for those that work here to ensure we are doing all we can to keep everyone safe.”

Agreeing, Palmer said: “The public like to feel reassured but at the same time not inconvenienced, they want safety but don’t want to feel restricted, you want to screen people, but you don’t want to cause a queue and cause bottlenecks. If you’re an iconic site, people want to take pictures, but is this tourism or terrorism, a genuine interest or hostile surveillance.”

Buy-in from the top

Critical to getting this right is ensuring that security strategies meet the needs of the function of the site and therefore work with the business model and objectives of the organisation and site. The only way to get the balance right says Palmer is to ensure you have “buy-in from the top”.

You also have to recognise when balancing security with any business model, security staffs are often amongst the first people any visitors see so in essence they are ambassadors for the brand that is the iconic site. Palmer says: “What we say and how we behave is very important, you never get a second chance to make a first good impression! Security is very much a part of the visitor experience therefore you need to take advantage of this and turn it in your strategy.”

That strategy, like any good security strategy, has to be multi-layered, as both Tenet and Palmer said, utilising people, technologies, threat intelligence and well-rehearsed responses. “Customer service skills need to play a major role, with security officers trained how to approach people and ask the right questions in a helpful manner. Once a terrorist or criminal has been approached, they don’t tend to hang around,” adds Palmer.

Trained staff are key as is working with other resources such as Police Project Servator teams. Palmer explains this when he said: “Deploying behavioural detection and intervention is much better than the impossible task of preventing a sudden attack. When you have a building that has restrictions on the amount or type of technology you want to apply, your most valuable security asset will be those highly trained staff members who have situational awareness and the ability to make a decision when it counts and engender alertness and not alarm.”

Another challenge with landmarks is that they weren’t built with modern threats in mind and are often listed. Whilst modern buildings can have security designed in, landmarks and iconic sites have to have it retrofitted, in keeping where possible with the original building. In some places, such as the Palace of Westminster, in London, this is just not possible and given the threat, more practical but out of character solutions have to be provided.

The key themes Palmer kept mentioning were good collaboration with others including other local businesses and the police, good intelligence sharing and the ability to gain wider awareness through professional organisations such as the International Committee for Museum Security (ICMS) for industry expertise.

Concluding Barry Palmer summed up his challenges when he said: “The key objectives for me would not be that much different from most large iconic and cultural sites, protecting visitors, staff and collections (National Heritage). Balancing public access with security considerations and at the same time balancing off putting security measures with reassuring ones. Equally important if you operated in a building that is listed or iconic is understanding your threats and where they come from and equipping the right people with the skills required.”

This article was published in the April 2021 edition of International Security Journal. Pick up your FREE digital copy here

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