Protecting people on a closed campus by Darren Chalmers-Stevens

(TPSO magazine is always campaigning for improved lone worker safety, as it applies to so many security officers, especially during night shifts. We spoke to Darren Chalmers-Stevens, MD of Critical Arc, about their ‘Safe Zone’ system and how it is protecting many in the education sector…..)

Protecting university students and staff is still a challenge for universities around the world because, even though they may not be operating normally, they are not actually closed.

While the majority of students and academics are working remotely and adapting to distance-learning, at most universities, hundreds of people remain on campus.

And for many higher education institutions, essential services are continuing.

Those still on campus include executive leaders, public safety and security teams, residential students unable to return home, students and academics performing critical research, facilities management personnel, and contract workers.

And with these people still on campus, universities and colleges have a continued duty of care.

Challenges tied to protecting on-campus students & staff

Protecting students and staff on a large open campus can be difficult at the best of times. But with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, there are a host of new challenges for public safety and security teams to deal with. These include:

  • Ensuring the safety and security of students and staff who are now more isolated and must be treated, effectively, as lone workers
  • Providing timely communications and updates to those still using on-campus accommodations, and to those who are abroad – and both groups may include some who want to return home, but can’t
  • Protecting people operating in high risk lab environments 24/7, including those doing unfamiliar work in different circumstances to those they are used to
  • The need to sign-in and sign-out authorized campus users
  • The need to ensure continued first aid and fire protection with potentially fewer wardens and marshals on site to help
  • The inability to easily view and coordinate all available resources, to efficiently manage those who are actually on site, including in-house security, emergency management, sworn officers, and contract security staff
  • The need to keep watch over those in self-quarantine, while protecting the health and safety of staff
  • The need to communicate information about Covid-19, including new measures that apply on campus, and resources available to campus users.

Innovative solutions through technology

When faced with limited resources, higher education institutions can look to technology for innovative ways to be more effective. For example, universities with SafeZone are increasingly mandating students and staff to download the SafeZone app on their phone and check-in, and making it a condition of continuing to use the campus.

This lets the security team know their location and identity in the event of them needing assistance.

This makes it quick and easy to send daily notices to users, to check on the wellbeing of each individual and offer assistance as needed.

And, the moment an individual needs assistance, they can use the app to be connected directly to the university security team.

For example, Aston University in the UK currently has about a 100 students and staff overseas who are unable to fly home and they’re using SafeZone to check in daily with these individuals spread across the globe.

The technology enables Aston to quickly make sure everyone is OK and if any of them don’t check in, the security team can call them specifically to verify they’re still well.

Protecting Lone Workers on Campus

Due to the lack of staff and students on campus, those remaining on campus are usually working alone, which results in a net increase in lone workers and high-risk workers. Based upon this, the effectiveness of the security and safety teams to respond is paramount.

One of the most common types of lone workers at universities involves students and staff working in high risk lab environments. This is especially prevalent at research-based institutions and involves research that is conducted 24 hours a day, up to 7 days a week. Several universities decided to shut down all lab activities except for those deemed essential, such as maintaining costly cell lines, feeding live animals, and in some cases, research relating to Covid-19.

Traditionally, universities require those conducting experiments to do so with a colleague or buddy for enhanced safety. In the current Covid-19 environment, this is no longer possible. So SafeZone customers are using SafeZone as a virtual buddy. Many have configured their system, and users have opted in, so those entering the lab buildings are automatically checked in on the SafeZone system, so users do not have to interact with their devices or remember to follow the protocol. Those working alone in the labs can additionally use the timed check-in feature so if they expect to leave the building in two hours, and they haven’t yet left or failed to extend the timer when prompted, an alarm will be triggered to the university’s response teams so that a verified response can be performed by the security team.

Protecting Contractors on Campus

In the current emergency, some institutions have increased their use of contractors for maintenance of facilities and plant, to keep buildings operational and the grounds well-tended. These contractors may previously have signed-in when entering the campus, but this process has been replaced by checking-in using SafeZone, which is both more efficient and carries less risk of transmission.

This has been the approach at York University, where dozens of contractors are helping to manage the campus critical operations. The system has been configured to auto check-in, so security operators know who is on site and where they are.  Auto check-out when they leave ensures there’s no privacy infringement.

At the University of South Australia, where more than 300 people are typically on site during the current lockdown, the access card reader system has been re-configured to remind users they need to check in with SafeZone.

Monitoring those in self-isolation

Perhaps the most complex challenge universities are facing, is how to monitor the safety and wellbeing of those in self-isolation in university designated accommodation.

Finding the best way to check in regularly with these students, while protecting the health and safety of staff, is a challenge.

Some universities have enabled SafeZone’s ‘report something’feature, creating specific categories for Covid-19 and allowing students and staff to easily and confidentially relay any concerns, for example: “I haven’t heard from an individual and I am concerned”.

The platform’s flexibility has allowed several universities to add ‘Coronavirus Update’ information to the home screen of the SafeZone App, to allow real time information to be communicated. Some of these universities report significant increases in downloads of the SafeZone App, which shows how much people are looking for up to date information and reassurance.

“We’ve changed the leading page details with the Help button being renamed ‘Covid-19’ and the information banner taking people to the coronavirus webpage,” says Alison Levy, Director of Student and Academic Services at Aston University. “This has been well received – SafeZone is coming into its own at the moment.”

Following the volunteer spirit of the one million UK citizens who’ve stepped forward to help vulnerable people and those in need during pandemic, one of our customers showed their ingenuity by creating a specific group for any students who wanted to volunteer to help those stuck on campus or unable to leave the building – running errands to get food, medicine or supplies for example. This creative, ad-hoc service is supported by the ability of their real-time location to be shared, so the nearest volunteer able to assist can be called upon.

Targeted communications

When you have limited staff and several individuals isolated or operating in a lone worker environment, you need the ability to communicate updates to those who are actively on-site. In addition, there remains the possibility of critical incidents on campus, such as a fire, a flood or spillage. SafeZone can deliver geo-targeted communications to only those impacted by a particular incident. This is critical because it allows teams to be precise with the information they share, avoiding sending irrelevant information to users or alarming them unnecessarily.

Force multiplier via a common operating view

When you’re short-staffed, but still responsible for patrolling one or more large open campuses, your resources can come under pressure.

SafeZone Secure now helps security teams secure campuses, coordinate security assets in real time, and maintain oversight across campus. The service acts as a force multiplier by enabling campus security teams to visualise where assets are so they can be dispatched in real-time, and is particularly well-suited for the challenges of patrolling and responding to incidents across large estates in the most effective way possible.

SafeZone provides command and control functionality by enabling customers to visualize and distinguish between in-house security and safety officers and contract personnel in real-time, array their coverage and respond faster.

And despite campus closures, the ability of security teams to monitor patrol coverage, making sure they are maintaining a visible patrol team presence, will reassure those who remain on campus that they are safe.

As universities take stock and plan their way through the next academic year, which is likely to be equally novel and challenging, security teams will continue to be under strain for some time to come.

I would encourage them to evaluate SafeZone technology as a force multiplier that will make an immediate difference to what can be achieved with the team resources you already have.

Darren Chalmers-Stevens


Darren is the Managing Director of CriticalArc, the company behind SafeZone™, a cloud-based software service that is focused on solving the problems of securing and making safe large campus environments. A former Vice President, EMEA at VidSys Inc. and Technology Consultant with ADT he is an internationally respected expert in his field.