This article is more than 4 years old

Beware of suspicious packages

Julie Barker calls for calm vigilance in the wake of recent suspicious package incidents.
This article is more than 4 years old

Julie Barker is Non-Executive Director of College and University Business Officers (CUBO)

It is a sad fact that there are more risks today that higher education leaders need to manage than ever before.

Among the top of the list are security incidents that have the potential to penetrate disrupt our university campuses. The immediacies of cause and effect of any single incident are seen at once. But it is the reputational damage that can have longstanding consequences.

Never has it been so important to be on the front foot taking sensible steps now in order to smoothly manage incidents with minimal impact. There is a need to constantly review risk assessments, share best practice and reaffirm security policies.

As the relationship between the onsite security local police forces and external agencies comes increasingly under scrutiny, how all these parties align, collaborate and respond is a key factor in both awareness and prevention. The complexity of these risks means that a much more sophisticated approach to managing them is needed.

The recent incident at the University of Essex where the Ministry of Defence’s Explosive Devices Ordnance team was called in to deal with a suspicious package found on campus should raise concern. At the time of writing, the motive has yet to be confirmed and investigations are ongoing. It appears that the delivery was in an A4-sized white postal bag containing yellow jiffy bags, which appeared to be capable of igniting a small fire when opened. In the same week, the police were called to attend to a suspicious packaged delivered to the University of Glasgow.

In the event of a suspicious package

Each university knows its daily routine best and understands the need for vigilance without panic. Every site will have a comprehensive, and extensive, business continuity and security policy in place that addresses the safety of its university community.

It is important to remind and reinforce policy and procedure to ensure each department is aware of the need for situational awareness of their surroundings and daily routines. This includes cutting through complexities to ensure simple instructions are communicated to all staff and bullet points on escalation of a potential security situation. They really don’t want to be thumbing through a 100-page plan looking for the right section!

Once escalated, that well-documented procedure will be instigated by a designated gold command group (or equivalent). Testing an institution’s preparedness with security drills should be normal practice and considered in the same way as a fire drill.

Keeping our communities safe

Every leader of higher education institutions needs to test the basics are being done, including training, risk assessments, and identifying areas of vulnerability. There are other obvious steps to take:

  • Continually review your risk assessment to give you a good idea of the likely threat to your site. This will focus attention on vulnerable aspects and highlight precautions that may be useful to take. The health sector has been doing this extremely well for years.
  • Regular reminders and refresher training to key staff. As part of this assessment, consider how your procedures can be effective but not needlessly disruptive.
  • Emergency preparedness and management is central to these plans and includes standard precautionary measures. All members of staff should be familiar with emergency terms Evacuate, Shelter in Place, Lockdown and All Clear. Make sure all departments understand the processes and contact points and also have details of the Confidential Phone Line: 0800 789 321 in addition to emergency numbers.
  • Any suspect item should be treated seriously, but be prepared for false alarms and even possible hoaxes.
  • Consider particular areas of vulnerability – for example, the post-room, how students and staff are receiving hand delivered or courier-delivered items, and how equipment, disposables and food deliveries are made into campus. There may be some simple steps to put in place to support process and procedures such as encouraging regular correspondents to put return addresses on each item, or asking for advance notice of the delivery of extraordinary items, reminding colleagues outside of post rooms who receive mail direct of risk and procedures. Regular engagement with your local Police, collaboration with external agencies, should be undertaken as the norm. Incident response should be a multi agency response.
  • Higher education institutions may have heard of ProtectED, which is the first UK higher education accreditation scheme to look comprehensively across the broad area of campus security, focused on student safety, security and wellbeing. The accreditation has been designed to assess the extent to which universities provide services and structures which enable students and staffs to interact safely. ProtectED accreditation supports a joined-up approach with effective collaboration between all relevant stakeholders and has been working with a growing number of universities.
  • Consider accreditations such as British Standards BS7499 (static site guarding and mobile patrol service) as well as BS7958 (CCTV Management and Operation) as well as the Home Office’s Surveillance Camera Code of Practice for CCTV.

Other elements for consideration amidst any review of best practice, is understanding the benefits of membership of the Association of University Chief Security Officers (AUCSO), which is the primary association for security professionals working in Higher Education in the UK and Europe. Both ProtectED and AUCSO offer support to CUBO members on this crucial part of a university’s business.

Keeping our campuses safe and thriving is a continuing task. And one that requires the calm vigilance of students, staff, and the broader community.

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