By Steve Cropper,
Industry Affairs Officer, Australian Security Industry Association Ltd
When the year began, we had already been in drought for ages and much of the country was either on fire or covered in choking smoke. Then came floods and of course COVID-19, which brough in its wake painful lock-downs and the first economic recession in Australia for nearly 30 years. But despite this perfect storm of problems, the country teamed up and overcame. And the security industry played a major frontline role in it all.
A Highly Unlikely Year
History tends to note specific events that cause major changes to the status quo. Revolutions, assassinations, plagues, the movement or isolation of large groups of people, economic crashes and important technical or medical breakthroughs characterise historic events. 2020 had a combination of these. Close to a million deaths worldwide in one of the worst pandemics ever recorded, economic ruin in many countries, entire cities and states locked down, the creative use of technology by entire working populations and the quick development of lifesaving vaccines all contributed to the historical importance of 2020.
In Australia, many businesses may have found it hard to believe only a year earlier that it would become possible to send almost everyone home from the workplace and still continue to function. But this is what happened in 2020 as businesses large and small closed their offices and factories, sending staff home to plug in and work remotely. The Federal Government certainly made important financial contributions so companies could keep the doors open, but to a very large extent, success (or at least survival) can be attributed to the adaptability and willingness of workers to carry on at home. Technology proved itself the great enabler this year with the likes of MS Teams, Zoom and Skype becoming household names.
Of course, 2020 saw many failures and tragedies too. Close to a thousand COVID related deaths nation-wide, nearly a million out of work and of course, the unthinkable – economic recession (albeit short-lived). Some in the security industry were very concerned that the overall shrinkage in business activity would mean hardship for the industry. Indeed, in Victoria alone, some major events were closed to the public or cancelled outright, which impacted many security companies. But in Queensland, the AFL Grand Final was an example of compensators around the country generating a ‘swings-and-roundabouts’ effect. The anticipated widespread cancellation or suspension of security contracts did not eventuate and some security companies even recorded one of their busiest years in 2020. ASIAL recorded a net increase in membership, which may be due in part to a hike in security demand across the country.
A Year of Challenges and Innovation
They say that necessity is the mother of invention and this was certainly the experience of 2020 for the Security Industry. Resourceful security companies innovated new and improved ways of marshalling their people to meet increased demand – and not just the labour-intensive hotel quarantine programs. The problematic Victorian Hotel Quarantine Program covered about 16 hotels and about 400 security officers sourced from three companies. Two of those hotels experienced serious shortcomings in the way security officers and other staff were trained, equipped and supervised, contributing to the escape of the virus into the community, the lockdowns and other restrictions imposed on Victorians. However, their difficulties were not experienced in other states (such as the much larger New South Wales program with 850 security officers per day working in 26 hotels), where private security was engaged to great effect. The various inquiries still underway in Victoria seek to reveal why and how the Victorian program failed – not just in the corridors of quarantine hotels, but at all levels of the Victorian Government. ASIAL has maintained a close dialogue with all governments, including Victoria, contributing data, advice and expertise. Without carelessly inflaming an already sensitive situation, the Security Industry has worked very hard behind the scenes through 2020 to help build improvements into Hotel Quarantine Program and add value to security across the board.
Technology has also undergone accelerated development and deployment in 2020 with some security companies bringing forward plans to equip body cameras to Security Officers and roll out new thermo-imaging, facial recognition and biometric hardware and software. Demand for security services is increasing quickly and this is expected to continue in coming years as more customers discover the value of emerging security technologies and the expertise of the Security Officers who deploy them.
The New COVID Norm
2020 has spawned a vocabulary of its own with new commonplace terms such as “Iso”, “Lockdown”, “Social Distancing”, “Contact Tracing”, “Patient Zero”, “Zooming” and of course “The New Normal”. Many a commentator has speculated that these recent additions to our culture are here to stay. The pandemic has affected how we get our news and stay connected. In Australia, the average time spent on social media has grown by 30% during 2020, according to a recent Social Media Census by L&A Research. 75% of workers believe that post-COVID-19, their employers are more likely to support work-from-home than they did before the pandemic. In 2020, the number of work-from-home days doubled for managers and almost tripled for employees in sales and clerical/administration work, according to Sydney University research. The impact is felt in retail as well. Australia Post’s 2020 eCommerce Update reports that online shopping continues to boom across the country – not just in metro Australia but across the regions too.
What’s in Store for 2021 and Beyond?
The Victorian Hotel Quarantine Program yielded up some very painful but ultimately valuable lessons for the Victorian Government and all parties involved. The experience in that hastily-assembled program underscores what ASIAL has been telling the Victorian Government for some time with respect to that state’s regulation of the security industry. The excessive use of subcontractors, the dangers of fake ABNs, use of people on student visas in security roles, a lack of supervision of pay and conditions for security officers are some examples of where reform is needed. In contrast, the overall success of the New South Wales Hotel Quarantine Program has led to the Government calling on private security to increase its contribution to a much-expanded program that will cater for returnees from overseas and foreign students. A Government-backed education and re-training scheme is on the drawing board to re-skill people made unemployed during COVID to start work as Security Officers. Such a program would add valuable capability into the State’s security arrangements as well as much-needed capacity.
In factories and office blocks, stations, airports, hospitals and schools, in city streets and many more locations, security equipment and security officers are going to play a rapidly-increasing role. Security is already by far the largest cohort of the frontline security team in Australia, greatly outnumbering all the police forces and indeed the Australian Defence Force. Private security is a key presence in policing, Defence Force Security and in the urban environment.
It is becoming increasingly obvious that Australia – indeed the world – is likely to experience growing demand for security services. Our attention is focused more and more on online dangers, home security, the security of work premises, urban safety and for that matter, the threat to the nation from hostile actors such as terrorists or cyber attack. There is not going to be less security technology engaged in law enforcement and security arrangements but much more. Therefore, it is reasonable to predict that the Australian Security Industry will require more qualified officers entering the system, who are expert in the installation and/or use of sophisticated security technology.
2020 may be a year for the history books, but the story doesn’t end here. For the Australian Security Industry, the best is yet to come.