Is technology the answer to ATM bombings?

January 2009 Products & Solutions

I refer to the Elvey hand-out inserted in the October issue of Hi-Tech Security Solutions which states quite clearly that “technology is the answer to ATM bombings and cash-in-transit heists”. A rather bold statement. Technology has and always will be only an aid to the security function and not an end in itself. Without competent operators and maintenance technicians (there is a dearth of both these types in South Africa) and well trained response personal (human intervention) guided by comprehensive operating procedures, even the best technology will be futile.

I have no problem with the technical aspects described in the article (Elvey Security Technologies has some excellent technical solutions), but the premise is based on the fact that the video images will not only be received at a control point but will also be seen and correctly analysed by an operator, who will then alert some form of reaction force to be deployed to neutralise the threat.

It has been well documented that an operator watching a number of monitors for more than 20 to 30 minutes at a time will generally not see any changes in the images occurring. Therefore, the operator’s attention needs to be drawn to the monitor on which an incident is happening – that is, event driven such as movement detection or some form of alarm activation. Using this approach, a typical sequence of events could be as follows:

i) Attention of the operator drawn to the incident monitor – takes time – however short. Also operator costs.

ii) Analysis – is it just someone drawing money, some other innocent explanation for the alarm or is there a risk of an attack – more time.

iii) If it looks like an attack then the operator has to assess the situation – is it one or two individuals or a heavily armed gang – more time. Careful positioning of the CCTV cameras would need to be applied in order that a comprehensive view of the ATM area can be seen – a gang is not going to congregate around the ATM. Installation cost implications.

iv) The operator would then communicate with the response force controller who would then decide on whether to send a lightly armed response force (generally one vehicle) or call for reinforcements from the South African Police. It is unlikely that these reinforcements will be on permanent standby and will need to be assembled. All this takes additional time.

v) Having assessed that it is a heavily armed gang then the assembled response force would need to be issued with the appropriate weapons, get in or on the vehicles (assuming they are available) and drive to the incident – more time.

vi) Having arrived at the incident the response force commander would need to assess the situation and deploy his force accordingly. Not an easy job as the criminals will be prepared and will open fire on the vehicles as they arrive.

In this scenario, if the ATM robbery takes 20 minutes to complete and items (i) to (v) take 25 minutes after the initial alarm is raised then the ‘bad guys’ would have already left and you are left with an interesting 'movie' of the event. If they do arrive in time they need to outnumber and outgun the robbers – which is rarely the case.

Just as CCTV does not deter bank robbers, as the chances of them being apprehended are small, so CCTV coverage of ATMs will not deter bombers. CCTV systems deployed at ATMs for this purpose (even if is only at high risk ones) is neither cost-effective nor practical – due to video transmission issues and control room and response force limitations. Local CCTV coverage to counter card fraud has its place.

In terms of ATM bombings the banks need to review their methods of either completely destroying the cash or at least rendering it totally unusable by staining it – as at present some of the cash is still usable after the bombing. A problem in destroying the cash is how to recover its full value from the SA Reserve Bank. If attacks on ATMs result in no useable cash being recovered then the criminals will find another type of target. Physically hardening high risk ATMs after normal business hours or locating ATMs in more secure environments are other options to be considered, among others. However, whatever method of physically protecting ATMs is used there will be a major cost implication for the banks.

Bombing of ATMs is just another facet of the brutal society South Africans have to live with and until the government addresses the violent crime problem by providing the South African Police Service with suitable resources (for example, intelligence gathering – pre-knowledge of an ATM attack will allow the police to mount a counter operation) and enough well trained motivated manpower (that is, visible policing and also the ability to infiltrate crime syndicates and tackle gangs head on) together with a competent judicial system (not like the recent example of a violent career criminal who was jailed for 38 years, released after serving only five years and murdered again within a month of his release) then South African citizens will continue to face violence in their everyday lives. Technology alone will not solve the problem.

Brian Barnes

Security consultant

Hodari Security Technologies

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