3/3/2001 - Keeping Watch

Keeping Watch

Finding and keeping good security officers prove difficult for condominiums.

by Donna Laporte, The Toronto Star
March 3, 2001 

A fire alarm goes off in the middle of the night. Minutes tick by but there's no announcement from the security staff. Worried residents filter down the stairs to the lobby. 

Flummoxed, the security officer just sits there. He doesn't know what to do, because he hasn't read the operations manual. Fortunately, it's a false alarm.

In another building, a guard awaits his replacement, who is late. The shift over, he leaves, with the building's keys on the desk, unattended. Elsewhere, in the wee hours, a sole officer is found asleep in a stairwell. He's probably worn out from his day job.

These incidents, related by several Toronto security and property management companies, indicate how tough it is to draw employees suited to condominium security. The strong economy of the past few years has thinned the ranks of potential employees.

"It's hard to find people to work in this type of environment," says Jonathan Lamb, president of Toronto's Nexus Protective Services Ltd.

Nexus focuses on security for downtown condominiums, as well as for commercial 
clients. "We can go through 100 resumes and probably find only five people that 
may be suitable for that position. Then, out of that five, hopefully you'll be able to get one of them."

He says he has to act quickly. "If he's good, he'll be gone by tomorrow." And, once you find him – or her – you've got to keep him, he says.

"Not being in a recession, if you find a good person, he's probably worth a lot more money than you're paying him." He says wages have actually gone down. In 1990-91, during the recession, starting wages ranged from $9 to $11 per hour. They're now roughly $8 to $10 per hour.

However, since the early 90s, rents have sky rocketed, along with gas and TTC rates. Many security officers, therefore, have two jobs or are working their way through school. Absenteeism and fatigue are recurring problems. Turnover is high, except in high-end condominiums, which pay better and tend to draw the "mature" male. Concierges make between $10 and $16 per hour.

Lamb, whose early background was with the British Ministry of Defence, says he has had test specially design to screen employees. All contract security officers (as opposed to in-house security officers hired individually by the condominium corporation) must be licensed by the Ontario Provincial Police. They must also be bonded.

Nexus provides on-site training and uses sophisticated software to fill shifts. If someone books off, the program will automatically pick the best person to fill that shift, one who is cross-trained for the building.

That is essential, Lamb says, because of the risk of liability. He knows of security companies that place ads requiring applicants to bring along only two pieces of identification, two passport photographs and $30.

"We've taken over companies that have sent employees to a condominium 15 
minutes prior to the start of their shift, and basically they've been handed keys and passcards, no training, nothing."

Having worked for several contract security firms and later as an in-house security supervisor, Lamb says he has dealt with a suicidal tenant (who would call him, not 911), domestic violence, medical emergencies and much more.

"You're like counsellors," he says, "so you need to think on your feet, and know how to defuse a potentially dangerous situation."

For instance, is there a doctor living in the building who performs abortions? You need that information on file, because bomb threats are possible. Angry ex-partners no longer allowed access to a suite can be intercepted if security officers have pictures or copies of court orders on file.

Not only do officers need good public relations skills, they increasingly need to operate sophisticated computer equipment for building access and garage entry as well as being familiar with the building's heating, cooling and alarm systems. Some officers also have first-aid and CPR training as well.

It's a tall order.

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