Alarmed by the cost?

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Alastair Buchan looks at the cost-benefit equation for school security measures.

The challenge facing schools wishing to improve their security is deciding how much to spend and which measures offer value for money. This is not easy. Schools rely upon a balanced package of counter-measures. Since every school is different, so too is this package. The nearest to a set answer is when a school's insurers insist on work being carried out, but even then price is not a measure of worth. What is sensible and cost-effective at one school can be outrageously expensive and inappropriate at another. Intruder alarms cost from under Pounds 5,000 to over Pounds 50,000 and it can be difficult to show that the extra cash is well spent.

Each school must find its own way. The usual starting point is that protection should be in proportion to the risk. This is normally taken to mean that the cost of security should not exceed the value of the property it protects. It would be more accurate to say that its cost ought to be rather less than the best estimate of future losses.

Past experience is a good indicator of the type and scale of risk. Like all businessmen, criminals reinforce success and follow trends. A history of trespass, vandalism or burglaries is a warning of more to come. So too are the misfortunes of others. The problems of neighbouring schools could soon be yours.

Losses are often underestimated. Burglaries are priced on the value of the items stolen, while administrative costs, building repairs, wages and the cost of counter-measures, including insurance, often ignored. Research by the NorthEast Risk Management Group showed that even modest burglaries start at over Pounds 1,000. Non-financial costs such as loss of lessons or morale must be included, even though they introduce subjective judgments on the relative importance of each risk and the share of the resources devoted to controlling it.

Every possible security measure should be considered even though a second glance will dismiss some as inappropriate. The assessment process is helped if there are clear objectives and realistic targets. Is the intention to stop all trespassers or just the less determined? To prevent all theft or safeguard valuable equipment? Defeat the vandal? Stop the arsonist? Protect staff and pupils from violence? Does this include bullying? No single counter-measure covers all risks, but evaluating what is available creates a menu from which a package of mutually supporting measures can be chosen.

There should be a clear understanding of what each counter-measure does and how this will contribute to reducing losses. An intruder alarm detects uninvited visitors. If this is all that it does then it is worthless. It must tell someone of the intruder's arrival so that arrangements can be made for them to be given a proper welcome. The price of a simple alarm system quickly grows to include remote signalling devices, 24-hours-a-day monitoring and prompt response to alarms.

The same applies to other surveillance systems such as security lighting or closed circuit elevision. If the monitors are unwatched or if there are no arrangements for someone to deal with the problems on location as they happen, then the most likely outcome is a regular supply of clips for You' ve Been Framed . The growing number of crooks who choose to star on national TV throws doubt on the traditional wisdom that they do not like working in the spotlight. What is certain is that if no one is watching, then all security lighting provides is a light to work by.

There are British Standards for some security measures, but for others, like secure storage, preparing a specification becomes a matter of common sense. A secure store buys time. If it is coupled with an intruder alarm then it should withstand attack for the maximum response time to an alarm activation. This will be a minimum of 10 minutes.

Every element of cost, capital and revenue needed to introduce and then run a counter-measure should be identified. The supply, installation and maintenance of a system are obvious. Staff training, time spent operating the system, call-out charges are less so, but can quickly make the purchase price look like a special offer.

Nothing is forever. Even longer-lasting measures like fencing or secure doors eventually need replacing. One way of calculating a countermeasure's payback period is to divide the purchase price by its expected useful working life. If this is too long, then impose an arbitrary payback period of two or three years and see what effect this has on the cost.

Counter-measures have their non-financial costs. Some may affect the organisation of a school to a point where they are not administratively feasible. Others will not be politically practicable, for example, body searches. Training for systems whose operation demands skill costs either cash or time. This will impose restrictions on its use. Staff absences could mean the system is operated by untrained staff (the most common cause of false alarms on intruder alarms) or not used at all.

Measures requiring special equipment have their own drawbacks. Engraving can be an effective form of property marking, but only if the engraving tools are not broken or missing. Specially printed self-adhesive security labels might be a better alternative.

Inconvenience may mean that the willing support of the staff is short-lived. If equipment has to be carried any distance to and from a secure store, then very soon it will either remain in the store or spend its entire life in the classroom.

When evaluating the worth of each system, it is important to use measures which allow like to be compared with like. The ideal will be effective, reliable, cheap to buy, install and run, require no special equipment or training and be used by all staff as a natural part of their normal duties. In practice every system is a compromise. Each school must decide on the best compromise, but before an irrevocable decision is taken on which systems to use, a final check should be made that the most economical have been chosen. If the answer is yes, then all that remains to do is to make them work.

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