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Real Words or Buzzwords?: Situational Awareness – Part 3

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This is the 23rd article in the award-winning “Real Words or Buzzwords?” series about how real words become empty words and stifle technology progress, also published on

By Ray Bernard, PSP, CHS-III

Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have changed the technology landscape, and in doing so have expanded the number of users for security applications.

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  • Emerging security technology is arriving both through the expansion of existing security applications, and the introduction of new types of applications. These new application capabilities provide, for the first time, the hope that situational awareness can be achieved at strategic, operational and tactical levels. This is important for responding to emergency and crisis situations, as well as security situations.

    Roles and Responsibilities

    I’m a proponent of risk-scenario-based security design and planning, which to my thinking includes roles and responsibilities for those monitoring and responding to risk situations. Consideration of risk scenarios should include the situational awareness required for responders and impacted individuals to perform their roles and fulfill their responsibilities in safeguarding people and property when threats are active and the risk situation changes. Situation response may be limited to “help myself and those around me get safe,” but even then, that often requires situational awareness of factors outside of one’s immediate observation.

    In the 20th century, physical security was siloed off from other organizational functions, and so a lot of security industry software and systems – including those that inform situational awareness – took a narrow view of their scopes and intended users, to match the narrow scope of security. Today, in the 21st century, a growing number of organizations expect security to be aligned with other business functions. Thus, the situational awareness aspects of security industry products are expanding beyond physical security’s traditional scope.

    Mobile Devices Expand Situational Awareness Capabilities

    Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets have also changed the technology landscape, and in doing so have expanded the number of users for security applications. Consequently, to serve this new users group, traditional security applications have expanded their functionality and new applications have arrived to support them. One such application is ambit™,  which expands the scope of security situational awareness for individual personnel (such as employees or students).

    Another example of application is Octopus®, which integrates with and collects data from multiple physical security, cyber security, safety, data, and sensory systems, prioritizes incidents from the gathered data, and enables making more informed security decisions faster. The software is divided into two main interfaces:

    • Security management system for the organization’s command & control center
    • Mobile application for: security forces, patrols, employees, operational staff, and users

    Such applications address the fact that there are two new situational awareness factors involved in responding to risk situations:

    • Security command & control centers now know the exact locations of at-risk personnel and can communicate with them instantly – individually, in groups or altogether.
    • Personnel on-site or in the field can be kept aware of risk situations, to avoid them or to help assist others who are impacted by them.

    Personnel responding to situations on-site or in the field can be kept updated in real time, with photographic information as well as descriptive data. Situational awareness is no longer limited to command & control center personnel, and status updates are no longer limited to radio or telephone conversations. The extent of situational awareness is vastly expanded. This is an important resilience factor for many organizations.

    Addressing Administrative Risks

    For decades, identity and access management (IAM) for physical security has difficult been to manage, in direct proportion to the size of the managed personnel population. It has also lagged behind the IAM capabilities in the IT world. That’s changing now, due to advancements in software applications that are providing new capabilities.

    Historically, at least in physical security, IAM was not included in situational awareness thinking. However, many security incidents occur due to physical access vulnerabilities. Thus, real-time access management should include addressing vulnerabilities as they occur. Personnel responsible for access management would rather respond to a vulnerability occurrence (such as a door propped open or nowadays an access policy violation) rather than a resulting security incident.

    For example, two applications deal directly with policy violations: AlertEnterprise®  and OnGuard® Policies. Both can issue alerts or alarms when an access policy is violated, such as by an access privilege assignment to an individual not authorized by policy, or where access assignments violate an access management principle, such as separation of duties. Correctly setting policies means that access control privileges (access levels or clearances) must conform to the established policies, for the sake of corporate governance as well as regulatory compliance.

    Situational Awareness Planning

    We must expand our situational awareness thinking beyond its former constraints. That is the only way we will be able to plan for and achieve enough situational awareness at the strategic, operational and tactical levels that today’s technologies can provide. The next and final article on this topic introduces the Hospital Incident Command System, and uses it to provide a detailed explanation of how situational awareness should be considered in incident response planning and incident resolution.

    Ray Bernard, PSP CHS-III, is the principal consultant for Ray Bernard Consulting Services (RBCS), a firm that provides security consulting services for public and private facilities ( He is the author of the Elsevier book Security Technology Convergence Insights available on Amazon. Mr. Bernard is a Subject Matter Expert Faculty of the Security Executive Council (SEC) and an active member of the ASIS International member councils for Physical Security and IT Security.