Thinking the unthinkable

Published:  28 November, 2012

A full scale exercise for a terrorist attack on a shopping centre pushed the security team to find new ways of working.

Under Operation Argus shopping centre security teams are trained to act as the eyes and ears of the anti-terrorist system, keeping a lookout for potential terrorists carrying out surveillance ahead of an attack. But how many train for how they would react if the attack actually took place? 

CastleCourt in Belfast did precisely that. Hermes and Westfield’s Security manager Stewart McConnell led a year-long programme to train his security officers in the way the emergency services would deal with a major incident at the centre. He points out that the Mumbai attack, the Oklahoma bombing and the Oslo massacre showed that public spaces can be vulnerable to determined – and even suicidal – attackers.

CastleCourt worked on the scenario of a lone gunman entering the centre and opening fire on shoppers. “We looked at what were the vulnerabilities and worked with the police,” says McConnell. The training took place in two phases – a desk-top exercise in 2010 leading on to a full-scale rehearsal in the centre in 2011.

“The first responders are obviously the uniformed police, who we know well, but if it’s a prolonged event it’s a matter for armed police – and it’s escalated to a higher command,” says McConnell. “The exercise was all about the centre team and the emergency services getting to know the way each other works.”

He says this worked both ways, and the exercise was as much about training the emergency services as training the centre team. “We looked at how we’d deal with someone coming into the centre and shooting people, and we asked what would be the expectations placed on our security team, and what could they expect from the police?”

McConnell says the aim – apart from giving the emergency services the opportunity to train in a real-life scenario - was to test the centre’s procedures. “Obviously you can’t prepare for everything, but it gave us an insight into what might happen,” he says. “For example how do you evacuate the centre? You don’t want to send people into harm’s way so perhaps it’s better to go for a partial evacuation.”

And there were clear benefits for both sides. “Our team learned a lot, and the police say they took a lot away from it,” McConnell says, “So much so that we’re looking at repeating it in the future.”

On the day of the full-scale exercise – which took place while the centre was closed – the aim was to make the incident as realistic as possible, with volunteers playing the roles of casualties, hostages and the assailant.

“The police had access to all areas of the centre while we split into four teams so everybody – security staff as well as centre management – saw all aspects of the police activity,” McConnell recalls.

So what were the key lessons of the exercise? “The most important thing is to record why you made the decisions you did,” McConnell says. “The police will be looking for the CCTV and the notes made by the team because the centre has become a crime scene and a year later you could be in court giving evidence. You’re going to be scrutinised for making certain decisions and you need to be able to recall and justify those decisions.”

McConnell believes that, while the chances of such a major attack are minimal, the training exercise had real benefits. “We need to exercise and be building up those relationships so casualties could be kept to a minimum. We learned that our actions at those times could save lives.” 

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