Private security companies had to be on guard when the coronavirus struck. COVID-19 brought day-to-day changes in pandemic safety requirements and new demands to address the risk of burglary, theft, or vandalism. What’s more, in an unprecedented situation retail stores needed good advice from their security services companies about not only physical security but also customer service.

Much of the discussion around pandemic security has focused on working from home and the threat of cybersecurity, for which AGB Investigative Services has a well-earned reputation. But the most immediate threat of the coronavirus was not online but in the community. Our company saw a 25% spike in post-COVID-19 business with retail stores like big box and grocery chains driving the demand for security needs. Both national chains and local businesses needed to quickly fill a range of temporary physical security needs, which ranged from maintaining social distancing to guard and patrol services. Fortunately, we had resources in place to hire and train security officers from within the Chicago community, where retail security was in greatest demand.

Community Plays Role in Pandemic Security Growth

Security services companies are said to be recession-proof, but we learned security is also pandemic proof. As demand rose, we were able to hire people in the community who had been laid off or furloughed as non-essential workers. The operations coordinator and assistant director in each region conducted videoconference interviews with each applicant on their mobile devices or laptops. There were many qualified applicants for armed or unarmed security roles, and we moved our 20-hour certification courses from the classroom to online training. Supervisors trained each new hire at the job site and had them sign off on standard operating procedures for the role. Our hiring process improved.

As states and cities issued shutdown orders, we reassured clients that physical security was an essential service: Guards were considered essential workers and could be counted on to keep both shoppers and workers safe. Then we worked through our clients’ pandemic safety issues such as changes in store hours or provisions for senior citizens. Stores had to close while putting pandemic safety requirements in place–and would need to close off areas for deep cleaning if workers were diagnosed with COVID-19. Pandemic security demands the resilience and flexibility to deal with hours that were changing daily.

At the same time, we needed to protect our officers, keep them healthy, give them patrol work when retail stores closed and ease their minds as Chicago became a pandemic hotspot. We provisioned personal protective equipment (PPE) and distributed face shields, masks and hand sanitizers to all guards. We kept a close watch on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on pandemic safety, updating our supervisory staff on the Microsoft Teams videoconference app. Officers were also trained at their assigned workplace. Site supervisors confirmed that post orders were being executed, reinforcing the importance of wearing PPE. Most of all, we wanted officers to know our policies encouraged them to quarantine themselves if they felt they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

Retail Security Starts With Customer Service

We’ve always trained officers to represent the client and be a customer service representative first. As stores limited their capacity to maintain social distancing, our guards easily shifted from retail loss prevention inside to managing long lines outside. Most shoppers need only a reminder about the state requirement or store policy on wearing masks. If a customer ignores pandemic safety rules, our officers engage store managers, who must decide whether to intervene.

In retail security, there are many ways to keep order without being confrontational. Customers might get upset if they aren’t allowed to bring 10 bottles of Lysol to the checkout counter. It’s best to simply state the store limit on cleaning supplies. As many of our officers are from the community, they can better understand the concern of the customer and have a heartfelt conversation about why certain rules, such as store limits on purchases, are being enforced. They point out that other shoppers are concerned about their parents and grandparents. As people grew more aware of COVID-19 deaths in Chicago, they knew the reality–entire communities were at risk.

Persuasion Wins Over Aggression

Our protocol in a potentially difficult situation is to step aside and call police to respond. Clients do not want anyone hurt in a confrontation. They’re more interested in protecting lives than merchandise. As a business, we lack the legal protections of the local police. We train officers in verbal judo—using the force of their words to de-escalate a situation by using respect and self-control. Responsible security companies must take a reserved approach to the use of force. In an atmosphere of police use of force, it’s essential to give everyone their dignity.

Darryl S. Griffin is director of operations for AGB Investigative Services and an instructor at the AGB Institute, an Illinois Board of Higher Education-approved training facility.