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Skilled in avoiding problems

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Interview with Karel Simpson, senior manager of compliance and assurance at GardaWorld International


For GardaWorld, the world’s largest privately-owned security and cash services company, working in 28 countries worldwide, risk avoidance is the cornerstone of all its operations.

Karel Simpson, senior manager, compliance and assurance at GardaWorld International Protective Services, says that employment of local workforce, detailed planning and preparations and constant testing of the systems is its risk-mitigation strategy. Winning the International Safety Award with distinction in 2017 is a testament to the company’s commitment to safety.

With headquarters in Montreal, Canada, GardaWorld employs over 62,000 staff globally. Its international protective services business works in complex, high threat and emerging markets, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, providing avoidance-based security, risk management and protective services. It employs 28,000 regional staff to provide protection, training and crisis response to corporate and private clients.

Moving clients between locations in Libya. Photograph: GardaWorld International.

Since 1995, the company has seen extensive growth, both organic and through the acquisition of several defence and security companies. “Today, GardaWorld leads the development of industry standards, as one of the founder signatories of the International Code of Conduct,
and a member of the International Code of Conduct; for Private Security Service Providers’ Association (ICOCA),” explains Karel Simpson.

“GardaWorld International Protective Services was the first security company in the world to achieve global certification to ISO 18788 [Management system for private security operations]. We are trying to challenge the general public’s perception of the industry and are exploring the best ways of working and looking after our staff.”

Risk management and security services

Karel explains: “We provide services to identify and manage security risk. Our capabilities include: mobile and static security, canine security, comprehensive diplomatic security, low-profile executive protection, traveller tracking, and large static infrastructure security services.  Our physical security services are underpinned by a sophisticated network of information analysis and reporting.

“We offer a range of risk management and security services from static guarding, which is the provision of armed and/or unarmed guards, depending on the client’s operations, in accordance with our licences. This can be anything from access control at a power plant, an oil and gas plant or an embassy. We will conduct checks on vehicles or personnel, similar to airport scanning systems for luggage. We can additionally provide canine services within that, with explosive, weapon or narcotic detection dogs or general patrol/guard dogs in support of our manned security.

Road safety is a main risk for staff. Photograph: GardaWorld International

“A large part of our services to clients is mobile security and journey management, where we move clients between locations, e.g. airports to a working site or moving them around town to meetings. Mobile teams can be one to three vehicles dependent on the threat in the country or the insurance mandate from the client. As much as possible, we try and adopt a low-profile approach with unmarked vehicles and staff in plain clothes. But in certain markets we are mandated to use armoured vehicles. Our journey management includes risk reporting to plan routes and vehicle tracking.”

“Our Crisis24 global traveller tracking service allows clients to monitor their staff when travelling via a smartphone app. The system also allows targeted messages to be sent to the traveller in the event of an incident – natural or terrorist – and for the traveller to call for response services.

“We also provide a crisis management consultancy and kidnap response service following an incident, which focuses on negotiations and supporting affected families. Close protection and executive protection, could involve taking a VIP to a location or providing them with a bodyguard.” 

Employment of a local workforce

“In any sector, but particularly in the security sector, it is important not to be perceived as an outsider. We have a ‘locals first’ recruitment policy across our business and aim to give back to the communities in which we work through employment, training and corporate social responsibility. Our local staff are also valuable in providing insight into the current risks, threat or mood in an area. This insight can be used to support client movements. Our staff are `fully vetted and trained to the highest standards prior to deployment.”

“However, this approach presents several challenges, also in relation to health and safety. For example, if we recruit a new staff member in Iraq, somebody who’s never worked with an international company, when asked about health and safety, they will probably point to a hard hat and a yellow vest. They won’t understand that risk management is one of the principles of health and safety. That it’s simply about being aware. That’s why we have to start from breaking down these perception barriers. Then you need to incentivise them, to make them feel that these efforts are worthwhile, not just paperwork.”

Unique challenges

“The biggest challenge for the company is the fact that we operate in many different countries around the world. We need to have an in-depth understanding of each country: their political and social systems, culture and the ways of working in the best way under different legislations. For example, in Muslim countries, you must understand the principles of Ramadan and cannot expect people to work a 12-hour day during that time.

“Our corporate staff tend to be located in our management offices in Dubai, Washington DC, London, Brussels and Paris. We must provide adequate equipment and assets in countries where we conduct our operations. However, not all countries can sell a product that meets a British, European or an American standard.  Something as simple as a fire-retardant overall that should be used on an oil and gas site may not be easily available in that country. This is a challenge and a risk at the same time.”

What are the challenges faced by the sector in general?

“One of the biggest challenges in this business is getting the recognition and acceptance by our current and future clients of the specific standards that we meet (PSC.1-2012 and ISO 18788), which are not commonly known. It’s also about getting clients to understand that we work to these standards to ensure continual safe delivery of services and that the sector is constantly trying to improve its reputation, which is often misunderstood.

“Many people’s perception is that the security sector is ‘unprofessional’. The public commonly don’t see us as a professional industry. They don’t really understand how we operate; that we work to very safe standards and protect human rights. Our work is about risk avoidance; we are skilled in avoiding problems.”

Mitigating staff risks

“Our biggest health and safety risks come from road traffic accidents. The contributory factors are usually poor road conditions, local standards of driving and the local perception of road safety. In some countries, people drive how they want; they may drive through red lights or drive in the wrong lane. 

“Other significant risks are poor medical care and welfare. We have people working in remote locations, so it’s essential to assure them that they have adequate medical care and healthcare facilities, if they fall ill.

“Our risk mitigation strategy is based on our in-depth understanding of the countries in which we work. We thoroughly analyse the available intelligence, the current situation in a location and potential threats. We operate in high-risk environments, but as long as we prepare and plan well, we are able to mitigate these risks.
The nature of our work is defensive, not offensive. The weapons are rarely on show. Our weapons are a deterrent used to reduce risk to our staff and clients. It’s the same as putting an alarm system on your house.

“Risk management is embedded in everything we do. When purchasing protective equipment, such as body armour, we make sure it’s the right equipment. We have a set standard that we apply as a business. We apply due diligence to our suppliers and we are selective with whom we do business. We always strive towards achieving UK standards, even in these complex environments. The compliance and assurance team carries out a constant review process to identify hazards. If we have incidents, we do a full investigation. We undertake a root- cause analysis and look for trends, not just in that location but globally. This information is communicated throughout the company every month.

“GardaWorld is very committed to training. Our recruitment and screening process helps us to ensure that we employ the right staff and train them well. We upskill people and make sure people fully understand what they are doing.

“All expatriate and local staff undergo mandatory core competency training in health, safety and environmental management. We have also implemented a highly successful ‘Train the trainer’ programme with our local personnel in Kurdistan, Basra and Baghdad. It gives local staff valuable skills and internationally recognised training qualifications, such as Royal Society of Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) Accredited Safe Driving training and Highfield Awarding Body of Compliance (HABC) accredited First Aid at Work training. We were the first security company to offer internationally-accredited training to our local national staff.”

Changing perceptions

“We are constantly trying to challenge people’s perception of what is accepted as the norm in this sector and to find better ways of working and looking after our staff. This has been evident in the way we’ve reduced accidents and incidents as a company. We’ve achieved a 54 per cent reduction in recordable incidents during the period 2013 to 2016. We’ve joined the British Safety Council and applied for the International Safety Awards to demonstrate this commitment. During the first couple of years, we received merits but this year, after further investments in training, we managed to secure a distinction. This greatly pleased our CEO, Oliver Westmacott, who is committed to making sure that the company is leading the way in professionalising the industry.”

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