The Secret Service Could Learn From Alarm and Security Professionals

The recent White House breach demonstrates a lack of basic security layering best practices.

Undeniably, the Secret Service is the most respected and elite federal law enforcement agency in the world, since it has the mission-critical role of protecting the president and vice president of the United States, others within the federal government, and national and foreign leaders as well. However, the most recent fiasco at the White House, where a man claiming to be an Iraq War veteran successfully climbed over the fence and then ran directly inside the White House unimpeded, simply defies the criticality regarding foreseeability of this threat. It should have been immediately intercepted and neutralized using advanced electronic security, physical security and law enforcement tactics.

To the extent humanly possible, I am quite sure that a profusion of alarms were instantly triggered by the intruder in the incipient stages of this security breach. But if the security systems are not operating properly, muted and/or if response is delayed and/or not seriously paid attention to by the persons charged with these mission-critical duties, the results could have been quite different and catastrophic. Thank god the intruder was only carrying a knife in his pocket (from what has been reported so far) and not biological and/or explosive weapons.
It is important to underscore once again that the Secret Service has been performing its duties since 1865 and has an exemplary track record of protecting our presidents since it was established. However, the public will never hear and/or learn about all of the success stories for obvious security reasons. But the threats to our government and population in today’s world; from lone wolfs to very sophisticated terrorist organizations, is much higher than it has ever been. I do not believe it is unreasonable to state that there is no room for mistakes, especially when it comes to protecting the most powerful person in the world. In sum, we may have only once chance to get it right.

Fundamentally, all alarm and security professionals need to be proactive in detecting, delaying, deterring, denying and, if required, destroying the adversary(s); as long as this last resort is commensurate with the threat, and deadly force is legally authorized. That being said, the threat in this instance could have incorporated not one, but a team of trained terrorists running toward the “unlocked” White House doors. Then what? Shouldn’t the White House doors have automatically locked, assuming magnetic locks were in place, as soon as alarms signaled a breach of the fence and/or a breach on the property itself?

Speaking of alarms, are false alarms plaguing the White House fence and/or it ground security detection systems? Are the security systems designed to pinpoint and identify the location of the intruder(s) as well as technically balance and discriminate against environmental conditions that could create a syndrome leaving Secret Service agents with too many false alarms when no threat is actually present whereby they just simply reset the system, or much worse, mute the alarm systems indefinitely? With this in mind, who was the genius that provided for this option to even exist on arguably the most high-risk premises in the world? Finally, who has been charged with the duty to service, maintain and if required, replace outdated security system technologies which are no longer reliably operating at the White House?

Against the foregoing backdrop, how long does it take for Secret Service agents to be able to immediately respond to someone sprinting across the grounds of the White House? Are they situated in all of the best locations on the property with so little time to respond? Why didn’t the guard at the outside of the front door of the White House fire his weapon? Instead, it appeared to be only a verbal judo warning to the intruder with his gun drawn. Not surprisingly, the intruder was not deterred at all and simply ran past the guard into the White House from what I have seen.

Finally, why didn’t the guard stationed outside the White House have one of the United States Secret Service’s specially trained attack dogs at his side, so that he could immediately command it to intercept the intruder? This is assuming a decision was made not to use deadly force since it did not appear that the intruder had a weapon or bomb on him. With only about 20 seconds to make this critical decision it’s hard to believe even the Secret Service had sufficient time to make this assessment.

Needless to say, aggressive and sweeping changes need to be implemented now. To start, if it only takes about 20 seconds to reach the entryway into the White House by foot once the single perimeter fence at the White House is climbed over, it should have been recognized long ago that there is just not enough security layering in place. Of course, my best guess is that there are a profusion of snipers, night-vision equipment, thermal heat detection, anti-aircraft weapons, attack dogs, armed Secret Service agents and much, much more that is all classified. But during this event, there were just too many failures that only ended up with an arrest after the perpetrator got deep inside the White House.

Maybe one of the factors was due to the fact that the president had left the premises by helicopter not too long before the breach occurred, and the majority of security resources were focused on same, but I just cannot reconcile how easy it was for this to happen. That said, the perimeter needs to be target hardened and security quantified to meet each of foreseeable threats and risks. By way of example, a unique fencing perimeter security product that has been available for quite some time provides a guarded profile and visual screening capabilities. The most distinguishing feature of this high-security fencing is the very tight construction of its anti-scale and anti-cutting welded wire mesh.

Simply put, it’s very difficult to get hand/footholds on this fence and the cutting implements required to sever its welded, heavy steel wire just can’t fit into the minimal spaces of the mesh design itself. Of course, for the White House, the expectation is that any new fencing would be customized with an ultra-high, one-of-its-kind, military-grade design that would far exceed any and all of the commercial security standards that are available to the public and high-risk security installations worldwide.

Furthermore, the fences impasse rail gives this fencing the ability to run wiring and cabling for intrusion detection systems and monitoring equipment within same. In addition, a secondary fence could be employed so that the barrier between the street, closed off for obvious security reasons, would provide yet another tactical delay strategy in the event that the first barrier was penetrated. What about making the second fence electrified?

There are just too many unanswered questions and that is the way they need to remain. This is so the Secret Service can evaluate each and every one of the alarm and security protections in place for our commander in chief and his family; and then completely revamp what they do, do not do, and what, if anything, else needs to be done.

For alarm and security professionals like me who have never stepped foot in the White House, each one of your subscribers and/or clients relies on you for your expertise. From your security survey to your needs analysis to your ultimate recommendations, make sure you never leave any “pebble” unturned. Be proactive and make sure to test your methodology before implementing same; since oftentimes your customers rely on you for protection of their assets and, most importantly their personal protection as well.

At the end of the day, and with over 40 years of specialized experience in the alarm and security industry, I can think of many other alarm and security methodologies that should have been employed to help dramatically and positively change the outcome of this perimeter breach at the White House. But for security reasons I will keep them strictly confidential, unless the Secr
et Service calls me for advice. They could learn from alarm and security professionals outside of their inner circle, especially in light of what shockingly happened in this instance.

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About the Author


Jeffrey D. Zwirn, CPP, CFPS, CFE, FACFEI, CHS-IV, SET, CCI, FASI&T, MBAT, writes Security Sales & Integration’s “Security Science” column. He is also president of IDS Research and Development, an alarm and security consultation, expert witness and training authority providing nationwide services on all issues related to alarm and security matters. He can be reached at 800-353-0733.

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