by Dr. Gibson G. Vedamani

pic00292The recent attack in the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi has sent shivers down our spines. Moreover, they have shaken up the entire shopping centre management community across the world. They have sent a warning signal to every mall management to keep tighter controls to ensure safety.

No sooner did the attacks happen in the Eastern African region, than immediate steps are taken to beef up security in malls and public places on a war footing in many parts of the world. Notwithstanding events of this kind, India has always been a target of terror. But yet the steps that are taken to safeguard and insulate our malls from such attacksare clearly inadequate by any standardsof safety.

In the last few years, after the 26/11 attacks in 2008, our malls are guarded and for the first time a few steps towards ensuring security were taken by all organizations that manage malls.  We see the electronic security gates in every mall.

The security staff screen and search every visitor in the mall. Some basic measures are put in place to safeguard our malls. But the entire security system is quite weak in many a mall in India. It’s not enough if electronic screening of visitors is done but it needs to be done with all proper security measures in place.

Though in many malls a security team may be pressed into operation, there is yet no measure followed on how many should be the minimum number of security staff employed either in relation to the space of the shopping mall or in relation to the number of customers who visit the mall. A minimum number of adequately trained security staff in malls is essential to carry out the implementation of personal safety measures in malls.

The National Security Force does a good job of ensuring security at our airports. They are trained well to have a hawk’s eye on the entire environment and carry out all the specified safety processes properly. The quality of the team and their training levels with certification to every member from the various relevant departments like fire department and police (not just to the mall management) should be specified and made mandatory.  Daily security walks and mandatory parades for every security team ensured by the mall management could address safety issues if any on a daily basis.

Wheneverspecial security beef up is required,say consequent on VIP visits, we can see the mall security team engaging security dogs. The security screening of vehicles and parking areas may need the service of sniffers all the time. There are special breeds of dogs and there are special training needs for them to be efficient. All these have to be specified and made compulsory for every mall management to follow in India. Further the bag screening is also done only in a very few malls sincerely. Efforts have to be taken to ensure that every bag and every item shoppers might bring into the mall is screened for safety.

Every mall must follow a common policy on what items could be carried into the mall for reasons of safety.  The whole list of safety equipment to be carried in a mall should be made mandatory and certified for the trained and demonstrated operating capabilities of the security team in charge of the mall in a single security window by an authority like the state police force.

The security team of the mall ought to work in tandem with the local police. The local police also needs to be in touch with the security agencies and the chiefs of every security team in order to ensure that the safety measures are in place. Local police, security agencies that malls work with and the mall security personnelmay work together to take a security audit of every mall and come up with the implementation of stringent measures to ensure safety.

The total safety of visitors to a mall is directly proportional to the degree of seriousness the mall management may evince to ensure safety to all. Currently specified mandatory compliances are only routine safety certifications from a few departmentsto ensure basic safety. These are squarely inadequate in terms ofthe safety standards to follow in order to guarantee total security. One can ensure the serious guarding of our malls only when the safety responsibilities are co-owned by the mall management and the state police authority,whoshould not hesitate to deploy police presence in malls, whenever needed.

After all, safety is a matter of life and death, not to be taken for granted, any way!

Dr. Gibson G. Vedamani is the former founding CEO of Retailers’ Association of India based in Bombay.