“Realistic” Surveillance Detection Training

“Realistic” is a common word that often makes its way into the description of many security training courses. The presumption here is that the course in question will teach you about real-life problems and solutions, and will include exercises that mirror the reality of field operations.

Surveillance Detection, being a relatively new field in the private sector arena, often suffers from two types of what I call ‘false realism’ in its training.

The first problem is that many people have allowed themselves to be convinced that when it comes to training, realism means that it has to be harsh, fast-paced and action-packed. I’m not denying that there are environments and situations that do tend to be like that, but this is far from the case for most environments and situations, and is therefore not an objective representation of most people’s reality. ‘Hard in training, easy in battle’ is fair enough, but that’s just another way of admitting that the “realism” in this training is not exactly, or necessarily, the reality in the field.

If SD course scenarios include elaborate situations where the principal goes in and out of offices, cafes, stores and hotels; while SD trainees try to detect hostile surveillance role-players all around, ask yourself if this is close to any type of reality you’ve ever experienced, or are expecting to find yourself in. I know for a fact that there are principals and protective details for whom this is indeed realistic, but I know even more principals and protective details for whom it isn’t, and way way more facility and event security staff who aren’t even tasked with executive protection in the first place. It’s not a question of right or wrong, realistic or unrealistic; but of relevance to your specific operations. Many courses can equip you with an invigorating sense of fast-paced, high-level tactical ability, but then leave you on your own to figure out how to deal with the boring and mundane pace of many real-world operations. How do you handle the bland and annoying discomfort of having less than perfect information for hours on end? How do you remain vigilant, and balance hyper awareness and concentration with soul devouring boredom? These are not trivial questions, and they represent a reality that is relevant to many security and SD professionals, but that’s rarely covered in trainings.

I’m not faulting anyone for trying to make SD training more interesting and fun, or for wanting to attend courses that are interesting and fun. I’m also not faulting anyone for designing exercises where trainees actually get to detect what hostile surveillance looks like, even though it’s quite rare to do so in real life. Detecting subtle and rare actions is one of the most important parts of SD training. I’m saying that a course which claims to be realistic, but that doesn’t also prepare you for dealing with at least 90% of the time during field operations is not exactly realistic.

The second ‘false realism’ problem is the lack of variety and specialization in SD training. You can sometimes pick up on this when you read the description of a course, and see that it’s advertised as being designed for law enforcement, EP, and high-end security personnel (usually in the “Who should attend” section). Don’t get me wrong, it would be great if everyone’s SD needs could be covered in one type of course, but unfortunately the relative and subjective “real life” operations of such diverse fields can’t all be covered in such a uniform manner.

Every security or protective entity deals with its own subjective circumstances (client, environment, threats, risks, etc.). You can always claim something is realistic if it represents something that happened once (or is happening somewhere), but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be relevant to everyone’s specific needs. There’s nothing unrealistic about wilderness combat training, for example. Quite a few people are at this very moment benefiting from their realistic combat training. But the question you have to ask yourself is whether this undeniable reality is relevant to what you’re doing or are expecting to do during private sector protective operations. We all want training to be realistic, but it’s time to look beyond the idea of potential reality, and start addressing practical relevance.

In order to sort out what’s more relevant to your needs, start by asking yourself what type of client, organization or venue you’re looking to protect. It’s important to make some initial distinctions if you want to understand, detect and mitigate threats that are relevant to your own situation, rather than learn about ones that aren’t. Next, you’ll need to figure out which security concerns you’re looking to mitigate. This is where things can get a bit trickier, and where you might want some help from a security consultant. Once you’ve figured out what you need, you’ll be better positioned to look for training courses that will fit those needs. Remember to take into account the possibility that consultants and trainers can open your eyes to threats and solutions you didn’t know about. But it’s also important not to lose track of the cause-and-effect nature of security needs and security training. Many people get this backwards – finding what training they think looks good, and then struggling to fit their security operations to the fun, action-packed training they received.

Properties (campuses, facilities, estates) are quite different from principals (individual people, possibly with family members). The assets in question are different, as are the risk profiles and their mitigation strategies. Most people wouldn’t necessarily want to lump campus security and executive protection into one security training course. Well, in that case, why lump them into the same training course when it comes to surveillance detection?

Let me come clean about something here. I’m not trying to set myself up as an exemplar, and would be rightly knocked down if I did. In the eleven years I’ve been instructing terrorist activity prevention, and the seven years I’ve been instructing surveillance detection, I have made pretty much all of the above mentioned mistakes. The point I’m trying to make here isn’t that everything has to be perfect, it’s that we have to learn from mistakes, and keep improving and developing the field of private sector SD training. One type of training (or even two) does not necessarily fit all.

Having successfully changed the way we instruct SD in the last few years, here’s what I suggest other organizations also start implementing.

SD training needs to split into three categories:

  1. SD for executive protection professionals.
  2. SD for facility, estate and campus security personnel.
  3. SD for special event security personnel.

These are not in any way new categories in the field of security, but these categories are very real and distinct, and it’s time these distinctions became more apparent in SD training.

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