In Security Training, All Programs are Not Created Equal


Security officers are the nation’s true first responders. Well before anyone else, they are on the scene. Their actions can determine whether a situation diffuses or escalates. Yet despite playing an important role in safeguarding the public, their professional training sometimes lags behind other industries, and state requirements can range from very good to woefully inadequate.

Fern Abbott, director and chief instructor at AFI Security Training Institute, spoke to attendees at last month’s ASIS Annual Conference about training trends for the security industry. Below, she offers advice on what to look for before sending your security officers out to train, and why stricter standards are necessary in a post 9/11 world:

Q. Last month’s ASIS Conference took place in Orlando, site of the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, and during the 15th anniversary of 9/11. What was the overall takeaway for participants?

A. Terrorists are going to do whatever they can to destroy us, so we must remain on high alert.

Q. During your seminar in Orlando, you talked about the so-called “soft skills” that are essential to any good training program. Can you elaborate on what these are and why they’re important?

A. As a service industry we’re in the people business; how officers look and communicate influence public perception, so it’s important to have high personal standards in your appearance, behavior and attitudes. You must act professionally to be treated professionally. That means trading street dress for more professional attire, or removing jewelry that can serve as a distraction, or a safety issue. And it means a better understanding of punctuality, as well as taking that extra step. I tell officers to arrive 10 or 15 minutes before the start of their shift so that they’re prepared to be at their posts on a timely basis, to smile and greet everyone who walks through the door or who passes by, and never to say, “It’s not my job.”

Q. These seem obvious. Why should this be taught?

A. When an officer understands the reasoning behind a policy, you get greater willingness to comply. Don’t just tell them what to do; explain why the procedure is important, and how it will make him or her more effective.

Q. What types of hard skills does AFI Security Training Institute teach?

A. If hard skills are a quantifiable and teachable part of the skill-set that’s required for a job, these could include report writing, dealing with the media, why we don’t take shortcuts while on tour or patrol, recognizing suspicious activity or suspicious behavior (learning to profile the behavior, not profiling by race, age, or mode of dress), making sure your facility is secure, and behavior that constitute sexual harassment.

Q. What are some best practices surrounding the use of force? Can you give us an example of when force should be used, and when it shouldn’t?

A. In New Jersey, unlawful force is basically someone touching you either without your consent or without a good legal reason to do so. That means if you have a legitimate reason, you could touch someone without his consent.

But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Q. Can you give us an example?

A. Let’s say your receptionist calls: there’s a man in the lobby who’s somewhat intimidating and she’s nervous. She’s asked him to leave and he’s refused.

You have two options: you can take him by the arm and escort him out, which could lead to a physical confrontation or lawsuit; or you could call the police, and then explain why his refusal to leave may result in lost time from work, court costs and other fines. If you’re lucky, he’ll walk out before you finish, and he’s gone with no physical confrontation and no one getting hurt.

We’re a litigious society, so you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you’re vulnerable.

Q. You’ve been in the security industry over thirty years, serving as an instructor for twelve. What are some of the changes you’ve seen?

A. The type of student coming in for training has changed. People really do want to learn, not because they have to, but because they want to do a good job. And the population is more diverse. Some are retired from other fields; others enjoy the flexible schedules that working in security can offer, especially if they’re pursuing an education; and then there are those who see it as a stepping stone to a career in law enforcement. For the latter group, they leave with a better understanding of both industries, and how we work in partnership.

Q. Are more security services companies turning to certification for their officers?

A. Overall, there’s been an increase in the number of companies seeking training and certification programs for their employees. Contract agencies see certification as yet another assurance that their guards are well trained and compliant with any local laws. For proprietary companies, it’s a mix: some do their own training, some rely on outside programs and some combine the two. Having a professional and knowledgeable security team reduces risk, so certification is equally important to employers seeking protection against lawsuits.

Q. About 90 bills were introduced in state legislatures in 2015 dealing with the licensing and training of security officers. None passed. If a byproduct of certification is a more professional and effective officer, why the pushback?

A. The reasons vary. For some, there’s the concern of over-regulation; for others, it comes down to cost. Here in New Jersey, AFI Security Training Institute fought hard but lost a battle this year that would have required certification for all security officers, not just contract officers. The legislation that passed maintained the requirement for certification of contract officers, but exempted in-house, unarmed proprietary guards from the requirement.

Q. How do states stack up when it comes to training requirements?

A. Some do a better job than others, and it usually depends on two factors: the amount of training hours each state requires, and whether topics are mandated. In New Jersey, it’s 24 hours up front; New York requires 8 initial hours prior to application, and another 16 after you apply for certification. Both states require that certain topics be taught within that time frame, but you’re always able to add additional time if you want. A few states require 40 training hours, while others ask for as little as 8.

And where the training is performed can also impact its effectiveness. If you allow online training, for example, you need to develop safeguards to ensure that the person taking the test is the one that will receive the certification.

Q. With such requirement swings, how can a security services company spot a quality program? What should they look for?

A. Companies should ask the following to ensure their officers are getting proper training: Are topics required by the state in which the employee will work? If not, does the instructor teach such basics as report writing, ethics, use of force, theft and fire prevention? If topics are mandated, have the lessons been provided to the instructor, or are the lessons formulated by the instructor? Does the trainer expand on the curriculum if it was provided by the state? If a topic is not required, will the instructor provide industry-specific information? For example, one of my event-security clients asked if I taught crowd control. It wasn’t a topic required by the state, but indispensable for this particular company. We’re working on adding it to the curriculum.

Q. Is it possible to create a uniformed, one-size-fits-all training program?

A. Certainly the basics, like soft skills, ethics, report writing, etc., should be included in every program, but for other topics such as the use of force or handling aggressive behavior, it will vary depending on location. In large urban areas, a more (verbally) aggressive stance is acceptable; that response may be less appropriate in other regions of the country.

Q. Does the federal government need to step in to ensure higher standards?

A. I believe every security officer should undergo some kind of certification process that includes training as well as a criminal convictions check, which is achieved through fingerprints. This differs from a criminal history check which can only tell whether an applicant has been arrested, but not convicted. The rise of “ban the box” initiatives aimed at persuading employers to remove from their hiring applications the check box that asks if applicants have a criminal record makes passage of any universal standard problematic.

What’s most important to remember is that certification in many states requires that fingerprints are taken. If there’s a felony conviction an officer won’t get certified. When they send their employees for certification, contract and proprietary companies get a better trained, professional officer with reduced risk to their bottom line.

Fern is also the 2016 recipient of the Vince Ruffalo Legislative Advocate of the Year Award. Named after the late security executive, and given by ASIS Security Services Council, the award recognizes the efforts to raise industry standards through the legislative process.

You can learn more about the AFI Security Training Institute by visiting