by Mark D Hardison, CPO
December 1, 2000
Reprint Protection News

"Central Monitoring Station calling Building Patrol… Patrol, I have a DURESS ALARM indication in the East Lobby… go to that area and report back."

Have you ever hear this kind of a call at your facility? Most of us have, but how often have we considered the consequences of making that call? Especially if this were a real duress situation. If the "bad guys" have access to a radio, or can overhear yours, this may have just become a hostage situation, or even worse. One of your best defensive measures in using a radio to relay sensitive information, is maintaining the confidentiality of the information transmitted. But you need to remember, others may well be listening in. An eye-opening experience for me (twenty years ago) was when a friend introduced me to scanners that did not require the use of crystals. These units synthesized the frequency, and may be capable of checking thousands of our channels. Even modern "trunked" radios are not immune; certain scanners can even follow the trunked calls. With his scanner, radio traffic from government, industry, hams, and volunteer groups was now readily available, even when it was obviously assumed to be private.

Will the use of radio codes help? It may, but your responding personnel must be instantly familiar with the codes. Even then, the "bad guy" may figure out the call from the location given. Your responders will need to know where they are going, and why, yet you need to be sure that the "bad guy" does not know that they are coming. Also, you may want to guard against innocent eavesdropping by your own employees; for instance, the friend in accounting that you just said "Hi!" to.

One of the most secure means of sending the information is over the telephone. While it is a simple matter to ask for a return call, it can help to have a coded phrase to help the responders know that this is an emergency. It is a real bonus if the coded phrase is misleading to bystanders. This coded phrase can also be used in checking a post that a duress alarm was received from.

In the military, we called this a "Duress Phrase." It was defined as "a word or phrase that can be introduced into everyday conversation, without arousing suspicion." The phrase would need to be simple, common; and yet easily recognized and understood by all the responders. If you institute the use of a phrase like this, you may want to have more that one word or phrase available: it is a good idea to change it periodically.

If a duress alarm is received, it then is a simple matter to ask the Patrol Officer to check the electric meter; or ask if the First Aid kit is open. Depending on your facility, there are many possibilities. The traffic hypothesized at the beginning could have gone like this…

"Central Monitoring Station to Building Patrol… Can you give me the current reading on the Alpha station electric meter?"

This helps to keep those who do not "need to know" from knowing. In addition to keeping the traffic secure from the "bad guys", it can also help to prevent your own personnel (non-responders, the person next to you in the break room, and so forth), from being disturbed by what may well be a false alarm.

In addition to checking the cameras of the area that the duress alarm was received from, you may also use the telephone and a duress phrase. Extreme caution must be used in this case. You must avoid giving alarm to the suspected bad guy, who may listen in over the speakerphone. Your question should give the person at the duress location a way to answer that does not arouse suspicion. For example, you could ask if the person has seen your boss go past. Any question that gives the person under duress a chance to use the duress phrase will work. "No, I haven't seen John Doe lately; wasn't he supposed to check the Alpha station electric meter?"

Consider the use of a Duress Phrase, to improve your communication security, and to protect your most important asset: your people.

Mark D Hardison is a CPO, currently employed as a Console Operator by a major financial services corporation, in Phoenix, Arizona. He has been in the security field for over twenty years, including time as Military Policeman, and as a federal Civil Service employee. He is a member of the IFPO.