I wrote this in-depth article about using duress devices because unlike card readers and other security equipment, duress devices require special attention to people, process and technology design for each individual device. There are significant liabilities for at-risk individuals as well as for their employers when all three factors do not receive sufficient attention. –Ray Bernard
Be notified when new tools are posted for download on this page.
Duress devices are often known by other names that depict their specific usage including panic buttons, hold-up buttons, cash-clips, watches, pendants and bracelets. Similar devices exist for safety accident and medical emergency notifications, but those topics are outside the scope of this article.
Access control and alarm systems also have keypad duress features that allow an individual to enter a code indicating that the person is under the direction of an intruder or that an attacker is present. Each keypad where the duress code feature is enabled must be given full duress design consideration.
Dangers and Liabilities
Recent walkthrough inspections of some facilities found duress devices that had not been tested since originally installed, and also some that were damaged, missing, or simply considered non-operational. High risk facilities such as airports and banks usually test their alert devices at least once per day.
All duress devices should be tested regularly at appropriate intervals—especially wireless duress devices, which are battery-powered and should be tested frequently to ensure that they are operating properly including at the maximum distances from the wireless receiver.
Many retail and other organizations do have policies and procedures about testing duress devices, but there are still plenty of organizations that do not regularly test their duress devices.
However, device testing alone is not enough to fully address the risks involved in duress situations—which include both personal and organizational liabilities. The people and process elements must also be tested at appropriate intervals, as a people or process failure can have the same or worse consequences as a duress technology failure.
In our facility walkthroughs only very high-risk facilities had provided sufficient instruction and training to personnel who were provided with duress technology.
In other facilities, few or no personnel with duress devices could describe exactly what was supposed to happen when they activated the device—and some individuals had completely wrong expectations. These personnel had not been trained in how they should respond to the types of threats that they may encounter, including what to do and not to do after activating the duress signal.
Liability situations include:
- A device that doesn’t work
- Someone who doesn’t know how to use a working device
- Someone who doesn’t know what to do after sending a duress signal
- Someone who counts on rescue activity that will not occur
- Public duress button instructions that if followed, place the at-risk individual in greater risk (more below on this issue)
- Responses to the duress call (human or technological) that further enrage a hostile attacker or otherwise put the at-risk individual in greater danger
- Someone who applies training from a previous organization or facility that is not appropriate for the current organization or location
- Response teams who are put at risk because they don’t have appropriate training
- Responders who have no situational awareness capability for the duress event
There are several concerns with regard to procedures and training including minimizing the risk to at-risk employees (both the initial at-risk individual and duress call responders); enabling employees to de-escalate if possible and to avoid escalating the situation; and liability to the company.
More information on effective training follows at the end of this article.
A security supervisor’s perspective on liability for actions taken in a duress call response can be found in this article about employer liability at ifpo.org.
The company’s Chief Legal Officer or General Counsel should be consulted with regard to the legal risks involved.
There is also the risk of not having a duress device where there should be one. Most duress devices are installed when an access control or alarm monitoring system is installed. Many years can go by without reevaluating the risk picture to determine if additional duress coverage is warranted.
Public vs. Private Duress Devices
Private duress alarm devices are not visible to the public, and the action to activate the duress signal is known only to the person trained and authorized to use the device.
Public duress alarm devices are intentionally highly visible, with clear markings and instructions on how to activate the duress signal. Parking structures are one type of area where public duress devices may be needed.
It is important that public duress device instructions, when followed, will not place the at-risk individual at greater risk. For example, an instruction to “Push Button and Wait for Response” should account for an approaching threat and also state “but Only if Safe to Remain in this Location”—or provide whatever instructions are suitable for the situation. The duress system design process must consider the possible risk situations and account for them as appropriate in the design.
Monitored video surveillance and two-way communication can be critical elements of a public duress system.
Duress System Design
As used here, the term “duress system design” refers to both technology design and the plan for how the technology is to be used (the people and process elements).
Such a plan is the basis for the written guidance and procedures that should be developed, and the training that incorporates drills and exercises to teach how and when to apply the guidance and procedures.
Implementing a sound design (people, process and technology) ideally would result in:
- Personnel who can de-escalate a situation while silently calling for help
- If appropriate, a way to safely let the at-risk individual know that the call for help was received and is being acted upon
- A means for responders to obtain situational awareness
- Technology that is proven to be fully functional and is regularly tested
- Personnel who are trained (instruction plus drills) and know when and how to use the duress technology
- Personnel who are much more likely to remain calm and take appropriate actions in a duress situation
It is very important to develop design-basis scenarios that describe the situations under which the duress device should be activated and what the at-risk individual should do afterwards. Different situations can require different responses.
For example, an escalating argument between two long-term employees wouldn’t be treated the same way as an intoxicated and belligerent individual with a gun.
Documenting the Design
Without documented design-basis scenarios, how can you be sure that you are doing the right thing?
- How can duress devices be evaluated for fitness to purpose?
- How can suitable training be developed?
- How can the legal department tell if all the risks (to individuals and the company) are being considered?
- How can management determine if the planned-for duress measures are acceptable to themselves and ownership?
- When risks increase—were the existing measures intended to account for that?
Be sure to evaluate the risks periodically and update the documentation if the risk. technology, training or procedure information changes.
Locations to Consider
Places where duress technology may be needed include:
- Cash registers and cashier windows
- Customer service and information desks and counters
- Executive office suites and their reception desks
- Human Resources department interview rooms
- Places where confrontations with or among visitors or the general public may occur
- Parking lot entry/exit booths (whether or not cash is being taken)
- Receptionist’s desks or windows in entrance and lobby areas
- Rooms where cash or other valuables are received, processed, or stored including safe and vault areas
- Security stations and checkpoints
- Shipping & receiving areas
- Storage rooms where guests or employees could be held for confinement
Types of Duress Devices
There are many types of “panic button” and duress device designs, some of which are identified in the standards section above. There are also situations for which telephones and mobile apps can be effective and appropriate.
Telephones, 911 and E911 Systems
Modern office telephone systems in multi-story buildings follow the Enhanced 911 (E911) standard, which includes location information for each individual telephone in the system. See the standards section below for more information on E911 phone systems.
Telephones may be used in a number of ways for public and private duress notification. Related signage, procedures and training should be developed in collaboration with a certified security professional.
In addition to fixed duress devices, mobile phone technologies can provide an additional means of duress signaling with location tracking, such as those provided by Guardly, which has an indoor positioning system for mobile emergency callers (Guardly IPS) plus mobile safety apps that in effect turn cell phones into smart personal emergency phones, and which can use outdoor GPS positioning.
Insurance companies and their policyholders have a vested interest in standards and building codes designed to help protect people and property, and consequently reduce insurance claims. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) are two associations that develop standards. (The beginnings of the NFPA and UL can be found on the NFPA History page.)