Security – What’s in a Word?

Physical security is at a crossroads and the future of it will depend largely on what happens now

By Tom M. Conley, M.A., CPP, CISM, CMAS  |   May 3, 2017
Photo Tom Conley

[Publisher’s Note: This opinion article originally appeared in the April, 2017, issue of Security Magazine and is reprinted here, in two parts, with permission.]

Words are a funny thing, and words matter. We use them to define objects, communicate ideas, and describe thoughts and feelings. While there are some words that have a nearly universal meaning, the meaning of other words varies greatly depending on who you ask.

For example, the words “law enforcement officer” conjures up a fairly common mental image of someone who is carefully selected, professionally trained, operationally competent and conducts themselves on a solid moral platform of honesty and integrity. The collective impression is police officers can be depended upon by the public, seemingly without fail, to protect those who are in need or in trouble. The term law enforcement officer has a nearly universal meaning to all people irrespective of the agency type (city, county, state or federal) or the geographic location of the agency. The same is true of most other bona fide professions.

However, the meaning of the word “security” does not, by any stretch of the imagination, have any type of universal meaning. In fact, there are few other words in the English language that have so many different meanings and interpretations as does the word security. This vast difference in connotations needs to change.

The diverse associations and understandings of the word security is confusing to the public as well as those who are public safety professionals such as law enforcement officers, firefighters, medics, emergency managers, et al. As an example, when a homeowner states they have “security” at their home, what they likely mean is they have installed a fire and burglary alarm system. However, the term security may just as well mean that the homeowner has installed high security locks on their doors and windows. Still to another homeowner, the installation of motion activated exterior lighting may mean that the homeowner has installed security at their residence.

Officers complete police defensive tactics courses at the Des Moines Police Academy. Photo Tom Conley

In the business world, the varied meanings of the word security become far more complicated. Security to one business may mean that they have conducted a thorough risk analysis that has resulted in the implementation of perimeter gates, adequate lighting, a CEPTED-devised environment, a card access system, alarm systems, high-security locks, a video camera system, layered internal physical barriers, professional on-site security officers, an excellent visitor control system, a tested business continuity plan, AEDs, robust IT security and an on-site emergency response team. Yet, the term security to another business may mean that they have passwords assigned for their desktop computers but have no other security measures, controls or systems in place.

It is almost as though the term security is a large bucket, and all things security or security-related get dumped in this large bucket. Physical security can and does also mean concierge, greeter, valet, ambassador, reception, janitor, facility specialists, watchman and many more duties that have little to do with security. At least in the short run, organizational protection strategies have become even more confusing with the convergence of the virtual and physical security domains. When comparing the term security where anything and everything security related gets tossed into the bucket when compared to the earlier example of the universal meaning of police officers, it is no wonder there is so much confusion about security. The problem is this confusion is not only perplexing, but it can be dangerous because of the plethora of consequences of a security failure up to and including the death of people.

The bit of good news is there are at least fairly solid industry and manufacturing standards, as well as some laws, covering devices and systems such as locks, lights, fencing, alarm systems, video systems, physical barriers, fire extinguishers, emergency medical tools, and defensive tactics devices. These industry and manufacturing standards create a sense of trustworthiness for the capabilities and dependability of most security hardware devices and components. While security devices and systems need to be installed based on the results of a security and risk management survey, the fact is they will likely work effectively and as designed.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about physical security personnel in terms of the wide variances existing between the selection, training, supervision, and operational capabilities from one security organization to another. When the term security is used to describe private security personnel, trouble often follows with the public as well as the law enforcement community.

While proprietary security programs are certainly not immune from lacking needed competencies, it is in the contract security arena where malignant ineptitude is most pervasive and problematic. The public’s general assumption when seeing an individual who is wearing a police-like uniform is that person knows what to do in case of an emergency. While this is understandable, it is also misleading when it comes to most security personnel.

The public has rightly become accustomed to uniforms that are worn by public safety professionals such as law enforcement officers, firefighters, and medics, as a representation of the skills and capabilities those professionals possess. The sad reality is that the security uniform is not, in most cases, an outward representation of many essential skills or capabilities.

One of the reasons security personnel take the brunt of jokes and movies such as “Armed and Dangerous” and “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is because of the public’s overwhelming perception of security personnel as being untrained and largely incapable of effectively handling emergencies. The lack of meaningful standards and laws for security personnel has resulted in the public having no way of knowing if a person wearing a security uniform is a highly-trained professional who can successfully handle any threat situation from an armed attacker to an emergency medical situation, or if the person wearing a security uniform worked at a fast-food restaurant the day before and has zero protective training and capabilities.

As is too often the case, the public thinks the worst and organizations that purchase security services should have many of those same concerns. There are traditional contract security guard providers as well as a few truly professional contract security services companies that provide competent security personnel to their clients. The problem is both traditional contract security guards and professional contract security officers wear uniforms with the moniker “security” plainly showing. However, the core competencies between a traditional contract security guard and a professional security officer are most often cavernous.

The widespread incompetence of most traditional security guards is the “dirty little secret” of the security industry and one that sadly comprises the lion’s share of the traditional contract security services community. This faulty process begins with traditional contract security companies hiring whomever they can get right off the street and then placing them in a uniform that is likely still warm from the guard who just turned it in. The new guard is then immediately sent to a post for “training” and a 16-hour shift.

When the new guard arrives on post, another senior guard (who was likely hired the week before) points to an outdated and incomplete post instruction manual and tells the new guard, “Read that.” And, the cycle of incompetence continues. This is made possible in the name of the purchasers of security services wanting to save money while disregarding investing in a security program that will actually work.

It is sadly common for sales people who represent traditional guard companies to misrepresent the capabilities of the services they provide to prospective clients. Instead of being honest and forthright, the traditional guard sales representative will tell the prospective client that the guards the client will be getting if they choose to go with their service are all carefully selected and highly trained professionals when the sales representative knows what they have stated is just not true.

Since the individual who actually purchases the guard services for the organization does not really have anything personally to lose if security fails, they go ahead and buy the cheap guard service. After all, the purchaser looks like a hero to his or her manager because of all the money they saved the organization by going with cut-rate security. All is good—that is right up until the time that someone gets hurt or dies because of the choice of the organization to purchase substandard guard service.

What may initially appear to be a choice that saved the organization money by purchasing an inexpensive traditional guard company versus the organization investing in a professional security program, may well be one of the worst decisions made because the consequences of having a cheap but incapable security force can literally be catastrophic.

Under the supply-and-demand concept, those who purchase security services absolutely shoulder the blame and liability for having incompetent security when things go wrong. The simple truth is there would be no supply of traditional warm body security unless there was a demand for such a service. In fairness to many who purchase security services, some have the best of intentions and want to do a good job for their employer. As a result, they end up unknowingly hiring inept contract security services through no fault of their own. However, they should learn after being fooled once.

Sadly, many more purchasers of guard services know full well they are placing their organization and its people at great risk by the decision to buy the cheap guard service and forging ahead while hoping nothing will happen. If an adverse event does occur, the purchaser of the guard services can hide behind what they know or should know are the misrepresentations they were told by the traditional guard company representative. The purchaser of the security services therefore believes they have plausible deniability in case an adverse event occurs.

There are some purchasers of security services who are actually trusting enough to believe they can get a highly trained, professional security officer for nearly nothing, then quickly find out what they have really purchased is a warm body in a uniform and their traditional contract security company is, in reality, nothing more than an employment agency for people who wear a security uniform.

Those who purchase security services need to know exactly what they are and are not getting from their security services provider. They also need to insist on quality security and be willing to pay fairly for those services. Purchasers of contract security services also need to be candid with their organizations. No more accepting outlandish “we’ll give you everything for nothing” assertions from the sales people of traditional guard companies and thinking that doing so is somehow okay. Doing so is not only unacceptable from an ethical standpoint, but can place the lives of their co-workers and their very organization in danger.

Those who purchase traditional guard services to perform concierge, greeter, valet, ambassador, janitor, reception, facility specialist, watchman and other types of non-specific security work can hire or contract personnel to perform those functions, but they should call those jobs what they are, and not call them security. In short, security needs to mean security first and foremost. If anyone who purchases security services lacks the integrity or courage to have a professional risk analysis completed and then contract with the appropriate service that can provide the right protection, then that individual needs to find another job with a far less level of responsibility thus clearing the way for someone to take the job that will properly look out for the organization’s people, property, information and profits.


For their personal safety if nothing else, the public also has a right to know what capabilities, or the lack thereof, that the security personnel possess where they work, shop and live. Law enforcement as well as other public safety service entities also have a need to know what the competency level and the operational capabilities are of security personnel at all sites within their jurisdiction. How else can they work together?