Monthly Archives: October 2019

While California Fires Rage, the Rich Hire Private Firefighters

While California Fires Rage, the Rich Hire Private Firefighters

A small but growing number of wealthy people are hiring their own teams.

New York Times – Ethan Varian

LOS ANGELES — You can now add firefighting to the list of the ways that the wealthy are different from the rest of the world.

The rich aren’t fighting their own fires, for the most part. But they are hiring private firms to supplement the firefighters provided by state and local governments.

These teams, depending on who you ask, are either part of the dystopian systemic inequality in fire-ravaged California or are offering an extra, necessary service beyond what public agencies can provide.

Don Holter is an owner of Mt. Adams Wildfire, a private contractor in the Sierra Nevada foothills near Sacramento. Most of his business comes from contracts with federal agencies, but his company is one of only five private firms in California that he knows of that work directly for homeowners.

Most don’t advertise the service widely, he said, instead relying on word of mouth. “It’s not who you are, it’s who you know,” Mr. Holter said.

Mt. Adams Wildfire offers short-term “on call” wildfire protection for families and neighborhood associations in Northern California and Eastern Washington. Last year, the company was on call for close to 90 days, Mr. Holter said. The service can cost up to $3,000 a day.

The majority of private fire crews work for insurance companies like Chubb, USAA and Safeco, which often provide fire mitigation services to their policyholders in high-risk fire areas without extra charge.

But most insurance-contracted crews don’t actually fight the flames. They focus on making homes more fireproof by installing sprinkler systems, fire breaks and fire-blocking gels.

Firefighters with Mt. Adams Wildfire will battle wildfires threatening homes, Mr. Holter said, on the phone from a job in South Lake Tahoe.

As climate change makes wildfires more dangerous, and often understaffed fire crews are exhausted by the increasing frequency of blazes, Mr. Holter said he expects more companies like his will pop up.

“It’s coming,” he said. “It’s a good old boys’ system, but it’s going to change.”

Private firefighting isn’t new. In the United States, government agencies including the National Forest Service have contracted with private crews to fight and prevent wildfires since at least the 1980s.

What has changed is that contractors are beginning to hire out their services to homeowners directly, as well. It follows that some security firms see a new business opportunity.

Chris Dunn is the founder of Covered 6, a private security firm outside Los Angeles that contracts with homeowners in nearby Malibu and Hidden Hills. He said he is planning to cross-train his security guards to fight fires and hopes to offer a subscription-based fire protection service by next summer.

In addition to training his own staff, Mr. Dunn wants to create a federally accredited firefighting course for independent contractors, who could be on call when homes are at greatest risk.

“It would be like a temporary worker during Christmastime,” Mr. Dunn said. “Retail has them, why wouldn’t fire season have them?”

Disregarding Evacuation Orders

Ever-increasing wildfires are costing Californians hundreds of billions of dollars. Taxes in the state are already high, and insurance rates for homeowners in high-risk fire areas have soared.

On top of that, utility customers will soon be on the hook for over $10 billion in extra charges to help companies cover wildfire damages.

One of those companies, Pacific Gas & Electric, already charges some of the highest electricity rates in the country. The company has been harshly criticized for pre-emptive blackouts this month that have left millions without power for days.

It is also currently in bankruptcy proceedings to address liabilities resulting from recent fires started, in part, by its aging equipment, including the inferno that engulfed the town of Paradise, killing 85 people last year.

Residents in the wealthy enclave of Hidden Hills, who already pay for Mr. Dunn’s security company, plan to spend even more to protect their gated community. The city has earmarked $5 million to bury hundreds of feet of overhead power lines and plans to eventually move all electricity cables underground.

Last year’s devastating Woolsey Fire, one of the largest on record in Los Angeles County, was a big factor. The nearly 2,000 residents of Hidden Hills, where celebrities such as Drake, Jessica Simpson, Howie Mandel and members of the Kardashian family have homes, had to evacuate during the blaze on Nov. 8.

At first, flames appeared to safely pass by, so firefighters left the area to fight the fire in nearby Malibu, where at least 400 homes were destroyed. But by the next afternoon, strong winds had pushed flames across a wildlife preserve back toward Hidden Hills.

“We didn’t have any fire trucks left,” said Lilian Darling Holt, a resident of 40 years and a member of the Hidden Hills community emergency response team. “We basically had to fend for ourselves.”

Armed with pool pumps and fire hoses, residents and Covered 6 security guards held the fire at bay long enough for Cal Fire air tankers to arrive that evening and drop pink fire retardant around the edge of the city.

Though the Woolsey Fire ultimately burned more than 96,000 acres across Los Angeles County and Ventura County, in the end, only one structure in Hidden Hills, a barn, was lost.

The story was picked up differently in the media, however, after TMZ reported that Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West had hired private firefighters to save their mansion.

Quickly, the internet was flooded with arguments about the celebrity power couple’s personal fire crew, with critics saying that the privatization of wildfire services undermines what should be a public good. Later that month, Ms. Kardashian West appeared on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” seemingly to defend the action.

“They saved our home and saved our neighborhood,” Ms. Kardashian West said on the show. “I had them make sure they controlled every house on the edge. So it wasn’t just my home that I said take care of. I said, ‘Take care of everything.’”

But according to interviews with Hidden Hills residents and city officials, the reality was more complicated. When flames threatened, such a firefighting team was nowhere to be found.

It wasn’t until at least a day later that a crew arrived at the Kardashian-West home and began spraying its own retardant, said Mr. Dunn of Covered 6. “I know because I logged them in the gate,” he added.

Steve Freedland, who was the Hidden Hills mayor at the time and now is a member of the City Council, said: “The story about Kim and Kanye sending private fighters to save Hidden Hills — that was completely untrue. That really played no part.” (Representatives for Ms. Kardashian West declined to comment for this article.)

Mr. Freedland, who served in an emergency command center at Hidden Hills City Hall as the fire raged, said that about 30 residents and city security guards ignored mandatory evacuation orders and stayed behind to protect the homes in the fire’s path.

“Those are the people that I’d like to see get credit,” Mr. Freedland said. “Not some fictional fire crew.”

Too Many Fires to Fight Them All

Private fire teams that show up to protect homes sometimes neglect to coordinate with emergency agencies and can hinder evacuation efforts, according to The Los Angeles Times.

“From the standpoint of first responders, they are not viewed as assets to be deployed,” Carroll Wills, the communications director for the California Professional Firefighters, a labor union, told the newspaper. “They’re viewed as a responsibility.”

Many in California, most notably the writer Mike Davis, the author of “City of Quartz,” and the essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn,” have questioned the logic of protecting homes in extremely fire-prone regions in the first place.

Mr. Davis and others have argued that, at least when it is public agencies fighting the fires, it is an unfair use of resources and that as wildfire season in California worsens, the state should reconsider the amount of new housing that can be built in high-risk areas. (In recent years, some homeowners in fire-prone regions have begun to be dropped by their insurers.)

A new report by Los Angeles County found that emergency services were seriously unprepared to respond to last year’s Woolsey Fire, and that in a fire that size, residents cannot always expect public agencies to protect them.

When the blaze broke out, many fire crews in the state were already busy fighting the Camp Fire in Northern California and another fire in Ventura County. (Some in Malibu also reported that firefighters failed to arrive during the blaze.)

With that memory still fresh, Hidden Hills residents considered hiring a private firefighting service.

Instead, they bought their own fire engine. The pickup-size truck, which comes equipped with a water tank and hoses, is designed to fight blazes in rural areas. Local volunteers are training to use the vehicle to put out brush fires and hot spots.

“I want to make sure the next time people stay behind, we’re better equipped and not putting anyone’s safety at risk,” Mr. Freedland said. “Having a truck that has water and a pumper on board is a game changer.”

  • October 26, 2019

Contracted vs. In-House Guarding: No Universal Right Answer Your security officers: should you in-house or outsource?

Contracted vs. In-House Guarding: No Universal Right Answer Your security officers: should you in-house or outsource?

December 2, 2019

Ed Finkel

Corporations, universities and other institutions have faced the question of whether to outsource or not to outsource for decades when it comes to physical security and more recently on the cybersecurity side. There has never been one right answer for everyone, and sometimes the answer to the question is, essentially, “Yes.”

Boeing once used a proprietary guarding force, moved to a mix of in-house and contracted guarding about 20 years ago, and today the enterprise has a 100-percent contracted security environment, with a force of about 1,200 from Allied Universal. But David Komendat, Vice President and Chief Security Officer at Boeing, says it isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula.

“Each enterprise has a different protection strategy and philosophy on what works for them,” he says. “Enterprises have unique security cultures. We reached the conclusion that contract enterprises are better able to recruit, evaluate and train professional security officers, and do it at a scale that’s hard for a private enterprise to replicate when a large force is required. Guarding enterprises have dedicated infrastructure in place to manage those processes much more efficiently than private enterprises.”

Drexel University in Philadelphia has a mix of 46 full-time, sworn police officers; 16 university employees who work as dispatchers; and 135 unarmed security officers contracted from Allied Universal. Eileen Behr, Vice President of Public Safety and Police Chief, says that blend has been in place since before her time at Drexel.

“The ability to have Allied Universal assist us in managing that unarmed security staff is an asset,” she says. “Anytime we need additional officers or replacements, they have the ability to backfill for us. For instance, if there’s a large event like commencement or a large concert, we have access to those security officers trained by Allied.” 

Drexel likes to keep a core armed force on its own staff to be able to set its own standards and gain a measure of stability, Behr adds. “The fact that they are university employees brings a sense of loyalty and dedication,” she says. “There’s more retention and less turnover.”

Keith Oringer, founder and president of Security ProAdvisors, who brokers mergers and acquisitions among security enterprises, sees a variety of considerations at play in deciding between in-house and contract security services. These include effectiveness, convenience, flexibility, liability and the relative costs associated with recruiting, training, management, equipment, insurance and more.

Covered 6 Has Training Covered

Chris Dunn, Founder and CEO of Covered 6

As a veteran of law enforcement, the military and private guarding, Chris Dunn came to believe that security officer training had a very low barrier to entry. Given the increased emphasis on security in K-12 schools and other environments, as well as the inconsistency of states honoring one another’s standards, Dunn saw the need to develop national standards.

So he met with the U.S. Department of Labor, which was looking to expand apprenticeship opportunities in general, and he created a five-week training course based on a newly minted National Program Standard for security training. Dunn’s enterprise Covered 6 provides this training mostly to military veterans who can be funded through their VA  Benefits, although about 20 percent are non-military whose enterprises pay their tuition. He says that only Arizona and Nevada have approved the training, but he’s hopeful more states will follow suit. 

Covered 6 just began a new program in cybersecurity, Dunn says. “We all know the [training] deficit in that area of the security world,” he says. “Developing talent in any industry, especially security, has now crossed over, holistically. We need CSOs who understand both physical and cyber. The physical guys need to know, you’ve got to protect the server.”

Covered 6 teaches learning basic triage and emergency skills for emergent situations – on real people, not medical rubber dummies.

The Covered 6 concept could be helpful to small and midsized security enterprises, says Keith Oringer, Founder and President of Security ProAdvisors, who notes major guarding enterprises already have their own training academies. “Global corporations like Securitas, Allied Universal, G4S, GardaWorld and Prosegur – let’s say Sony was their customer, and they wanted active shooter [training] – they would do it right at the site,” he says. “It might be beneficial to some of the smaller enterprises that don’t have those resources.”

“There is never a cookie-cutter answer,” he says. “Every enterprise and government organization is unique and needs to carefully weigh the pros and cons of in-house versus outsourcing all elements of their security operations. Often, the right solution involves a mixed approach.”

Cybersecurity presents a new set of questions in terms of what to outsource vs. keep in house, Oringer says. “The convergence of physical and cybersecurity threats – for example, an employee carrying intellectual property on a laptop to an annual meeting – presents new opportunities and challenges for CSOs and their IT counterparts in terms of monitoring, protection and control technologies and resources, as well as outsourcing decisions,” he says.

Chris Dunn, CEO of Covered 6, which provides an intensive five-week training program for security officers (see sidebar), says most entities he works with that have included Space X, Virgin Orbit and Pepperdine University, end up with a hybrid guarding model. “They need a better-trained person,” he says. “They’re dealing with active shooter, technology integration and other complex issues.”

Outsourcing means less liability and greater flexibility, Dunn says, but clients of his often prefer to have more control over training. In-house guarding units bring quality control and a greater ability to build teams and invest in enterprise culture, he says. But outsourcing provides backup for events and unforeseen circumstances. “The hybrid model is definitely better,” Dunn says.

Threats and Solutions for 2020

Enterprises face an ever-shifting array of threats and solutions in both the physical and cybersecurity realms. Oringer sees cybersecurity’s impact on physical security, the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), the growth of the cannabis industry and outsourcing of security among municipalities to bolster their police forces as among the “megatrends.”

“Twenty years ago, nearly everyone worked under the same roof. Now, you have workers all over the place, connecting to your system. There’s more exposure,” he says. “Cloud computing and the Internet of Things has had a profound impact on the day-to-day operations of business and government, and presents interesting new security challenges to client organizations.”

AI has been important in taking a proactive approach to security, instead of observe and report, enterprises can collect, analyze and take action based on data, Oringer says. “We’re predicting when things could happen and potentially prevent things from happening,” he says, adding that’s an area where contracted enterprises can help. “Some in-house security operations might not have the resources to spend big time on AI.”

Collaboration between physical and cybersecurity has resulted partly due to adversaries’ growing ability to remotely threaten and attack anytime and anywhere, Oringer says, adding that active shooter and workplace violence remain significant physical threats. He sees an opportunity for guarding enterprises to strengthen their roles as trusted advisers by offering a mix of security consulting, innovative software and system integration capabilities.

“Smart CSOs need to work hard to implement an enterprise-wide security culture; often this starts with a C-suite and board of directors who understand the threats and risks, not only financially but also to reputation,” he says. “Client enterprises are interested in leveraging training, technology and tools to break down the silos between physical and cybersecurity, which can also be helpful in determining what elements of security should remain in-house, versus outsourced.”

When it comes to protecting information, Boeing has an internal Information Protection Board in place that helps guide the enterprise’s long-term strategy, Komendat says. “We spend a lot of time, energy and investment to stay abreast of the current threat environment and implement the best solutions we can, to deal with adversaries that come after our information,” he says. “There is a constant drumbeat of investment and collaboration.”

Boeing remains well aware that it not only needs to develop new technology but it also needs to protect its proprietary information to maintain a competitive advantage, Komendat says. “The U.S. government does a good job of identifying nation-states that aggressively come after technologies – and Boeing and other enterprises pay close attention to those warnings,” he says. “But you also have to be concerned about those within your network who are authorized to have access, and make sure you’ve got the right tools in place to make sure no one is taking information and using it inappropriately.”

As the second-largest defense contractor in the U.S. and the largest aerospace enterprise in the world, Boeing’s Information Technology & Data Analytics organization and Komendat’s Security and Fire Protection team work together closely safeguarding the company’s information and networks.  “We collaborate very closely,” he says, even though “the organizations are in different, functional verticals. But there’s a common understanding. The things we develop, the technologies we work on, are really differentiators as we go out and compete in the world. Protecting that information is paramount.”

Komendat adds, “Collectively, our job is to support each other and make sure that whether it’s U.S. government information, or Boeing proprietary information, that it’s protected appropriately and at the highest levels. Obviously on both the unclassified and classified networks, the threat environment is dynamic, and our responses need to be [dynamic], as well.”

As an enterprise that has employees across the globe, Boeing faces a variety of physical security challenges, and needs capabilities to not only deter bad actors but also ensure the safety of those working in its facilities, Komendat says.

“Unfortunately, there are many unexpected situations that take place with regularity across the world, and we can’t be naïve and think that similar situations couldn’t impact us,” he says. “We have to be prepared and keep events from impacting our people and assets as much as possible.”

In addition to the traditional security methods, Boeing has been exploring the use of robots, drones, smart camera systems, new badging kiosks and technologies to improve security in the workplace. Komendat says that over the past couple of years, Boeing has found that while camera technology has matured greatly, some of the others are not quite ready for prime time at the scale necessary. “We are exploring some new ideas,” he says. “We need reliable technologies that will improve security in the workplace and be more efficient.”

Drexel University faces a variety of safety concerns associated with its location in an urban environment, Behr says. “We’re always looking to prevent people from going in and stealing unattended property,” she says. “We’re concerned about controlling access to buildings at night, and we’re always concerned about the safety of our students.”

Drexel responds to potential threats by keeping response plans up-to-date, conducting trainings with local law enforcement partners and upgrading equipment and technology, Behr says. As a university, Drexel doesn’t want all buildings locked during the day, so it has a mix of electronic locks, other access controls, cameras and patrols.

“We’ve added cameras, so we now have up to 640-plus inside and outside buildings, but we can’t monitor every camera 24 hours,” she says. “We’ve upgraded cameras over the past year and a half so we can be integrated with our partners in the city of Philadelphia. We are also changing our radio system to be compatible with city police.”

Drexel also cross-trains with city police, FBI and other law enforcement agencies, and hosted a tabletop exercise in May, Behr says. The university does constant public education, necessary in part because one-quarter of the undergraduate student population changes every year.

“We have partnered with our HR department to add public safety information into orientation for all new employees,” she says. “We’re working with the communications office to get information out. And our police department’s community relations team has two officers who constantly engage with student organizations, Greek life and other departments.”

  • October 6, 2019