Opinion | Take it from a former FBI agent: Security is all about the fundamentals

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Security camera
Security camera (Image by Peggy und Marco Lachmann-Anke from Pixabay)

By Robert Graves

As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, people are beginning to return to patterns of life and cherished activities that have been on pause for over a year. In the Jewish community, synagogues and their members are looking forward to coming together in person to observe the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As a security professional serving the Jewish community, I am often asked, “What do we need to do to ensure we are safe during High Holidays in this post-pandemic environment?” This question takes me back to a lesson that was driven home for me when I was an FBI special agent: It’s all about the fundamentals.


Situational awareness

Security professionals typically refer to paying attention to our surroundings as “situational awareness.” Although this term sounds exotic, it is in fact something all of us do every day. When we drive defensively to avoid an accident, or step into a doorway to let our neighbor with the scary-looking dog pass on the sidewalk, we are engaged with our environment, detecting potential hazards and taking steps to be safer. This is the essence of situational awareness.


Situational awareness for our institutions begins with being familiar with the facilities we are using. Whether it is a space we have used every day without disruption, a familiar space we have not been in much over the past year or a new space we are using for the first time, we should ensure we know it inside and out. We should know the entrances and exits. We should know the locations of emergency equipment (such as fire extinguishers and first aid kits). If we have cameras, we should know what we can and cannot see with them.

We should also pay attention to the world around us. We should take time to note what the normal rhythm of life is for the facility and the surrounding neighborhood. This includes knowing our neighbors and making sure they know us. These relationships, along with those with our local law enforcement agencies, help to keep us alert to our environment and potential hazards or threats.

Report suspicious activities

When our situational awareness tells us that something is out of place or wrong, we should report it to someone who can resolve that concern. Whether it is the presence of something unusual, such as an unexpected delivery or unexplained package, or the absence of things we would expect, such as routine deliveries or stalwart staff members who are always present, we should take note. If the suspicious activity involves an imminent threat or risk of violence or injury, we should call 911. Less urgent incidents should be reported to our leadership and to local law enforcement through their non-emergency telephone number. Suspicious activities that may seem unimportant at first glance may actually be tests or probes of our preparedness. Therefore, it is important to report anything out of the ordinary to the appropriate person.

Know the plan

Every organization should have a safety, security and emergency plan, and every member should know their role in the plan. The maxim, “fortune favors the prepared,” is never more apt than when we are talking about our safety, security and preparation for emergencies. The better job we have done in considering, in advance, all the hazards or threats we can reasonably anticipate, the less likely we are to panic in the heat of the moment. Instead, we will be prepared to act quickly, deliberately and decisively, and we are all more likely to make it through the emergency safely.

At a minimum, we should have plans for handling medical emergencies, particularly ones that require us to evacuate the facility, or to shelter in place. Our plans should also include our policies and procedures for access control and visitor management during both routine activities and special events. With these plans and protocols in place, we have a strong foundation for responding to a variety of emergencies we may face.

We all have a role in the safety of our community. Knowing our part in the emergency plan is a key component. Just as we note the emergency exits and procedures when we board an airplane or take our seat in a theater, we should note those when we take our seat in shul. Better yet, we should take advantage of opportunities to receive training on and practice our organization’s safety, security and emergency plans.

Coming out of the COVID pandemic, a lot has changed in our lives and our communities. What hasn’t changed is what is required to keep them safe and secure. As we look forward to this year’s High Holidays and plan our observances, security will hinge on the same thing it did before the pandemic — attention to the fundamentals. And just like the musician who wants to get to Carnegie Hall, the most important thing is to practice, practice, practice.

Robert Graves is The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s and Secure Community Network’s regional security adviser-national capital region. Graves retired from the FBI in 2017 after a 22-year career.

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