Time to move on….
Security screening in the post pandemic era
The London bombings of 2005, coming the day after the announcement that London had won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, were a wake-up call to the World. Suicide attacks were no longer a feature of some discrete and distant conflict, they had just become a mainstream tactic of international terrorism.
It was clear from the outset that such a dramatic change in terrorist attack methodology could not be met by an equally radical security response. With few options, the natural reaction was to turn to systems and approaches that had been developed with aviation security in mind. The use of archway metal detectors, baggage x-ray systems and large-scale manual search operations became widespread. Whilst this approach succeeded in delivering an immediate security response to events, it also resulted in unintended consequences.
Queues to enter venues grew, the degree of disruption was significant and the quality of the experience of attending events deteriorated. Most seriously, the queues caused by these measures offered an attractive mass casualty target to attackers and this would become formally recognised as such by Islamic State in due course. Furthermore, there were commercial consequences. Not only did additional security measures cost money to implement but they also delayed the spending public from entering the venue; a double whammy. This was not a good outcome but in the absence of any practical alternatives, this approach would have to endure until specific solutions were arrived at.
In 2015, as Europe reeled under the first of a new wave of mass casualty attacks, technologies designed specifically to screen large numbers of people entering venues started to emerge. Some of these systems provided automatic and real-time screening for thousands of people an hour without the need to divest or remove bags and outer garments. A range of active and passive millimetre wave scanners was developed to detect explosive devices and weapons. No longer confined to detecting metal, now these systems could find low metallic IEDs and bulk explosives as well. They offered a practical solution for protecting crowded places but no longer looked like traditional checkpoints and called for a different way of doing things. At last, there were practical and bespoke solutions that were more efficient and cost-effective, and which enhanced the visitor experience. However, the security industry is a traditional and naturally risk-averse organisation. Whilst far from ideal, the initial approach derived from aviation security had become established and accepted as the norm. In these circumstances, there were no burning drivers for change, and diverging from the accepted approach could be considered a risk.
Despite this situation, the demand for high throughput screening technology is growing rapidly. Whilst this growth was initially threatened by Coronavirus, the pandemic may actually become an irresistible catalyst for change. It is clear to most people that traditional security is not appropriate in a world where we are at risk of widespread infectious disease. An approach to security screening that features high throughput, that has no queues, minimises contact between people and which allows for social distancing, makes a significant contribution to mitigating health risks associated with Coronavirus or any other pandemic.
If venues are to open sooner rather than later, the authorities need to be convinced that they can be opened safely. A University of Nottingham and Finnish National Institute of Health and Welfare study reviewing health risks within public transport networks, concluded that security checkpoints, the very same as those generally used for event security, are thought to be the highest risk areas when it comes to transmitting infectious diseases. This high-risk scenario is not likely to be acceptable to the authorities or the public; things need to change.
High footfall security screening systems are at the heart of a number of projects in mainland Europe specifically aimed at opening up venues and getting businesses moving again. In practice, it is very difficult to envisage traditional security regimes being part of the post-pandemic era. Businesses that do not wake up to the fact that security now needs to be part of the solution are unlikely to survive; even if they’re allowed to open by the authorities the public may still take some convincing.
Contemporary high footfall screening systems can offer automatic and real-time security solutions that are simple to operate. These systems do not offer aviation standard security but they don’t need to. They do deliver robust technology and enable a practical response that constitutes an effective deterrence to terrorism, whilst providing vastly improved levels of service to the public. They offer the opportunity for large savings in operational expenditure and further add to the bottom line by getting people into venues when they would otherwise be standing in large queues; this is now a win-win situation. But most significantly in the current climate and perhaps for the foreseeable future, they enable venues to manage health risks, satisfy decision makers that public safety has been addressed and allow venues to open. Perhaps this is the watershed moment, as venues move away from traditional security approaches that were designed with other needs in mind. Many businesses are already integrating this new generation of technology into their plans for operations in the post-pandemic era; others may do well to do likewise, sooner rather than later.
 The Telegraph, 25 March 2020, by Paul Nuki and Sarah Newey.