Two-way radio: a tool in the fight against business crime
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Two-way radio schemes and their PTT over Cellular equivalents continue to play a vital role in underpinning the security and appeal of most town centres. Sam Fenwick takes a look

While the fierce competition between towns and villages and the keen civic pride that helps make such places attractive to visitors and residents made for rich satire in Hot Fuzz, the reality is that the shops, pubs and other businesses that call our town and city centres home have to work hard to ensure that shoplifting, petty crime and antisocial behaviour don’t eat into their bottom line and deter honest customers. Local Business Crime Reduction Partnerships (BCRPs) and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) often play a vital role in this regard, and one of the most powerful tools in their arsenal is of course the humble but mighty two-way radio.

David Horton, managing director of M.R.S. Communications, which has more than 150 towns and cities operating with its StoreNet brand, says the high street’s use of PTT devices isn’t in decline – quite the opposite, in fact. “We had our biggest growth last year in the high street. That could be for many factors [such as] the perception and realism [around the] lack of police resources, [which is making people realise] that they have to do a little bit more [than before].” Horton adds that the market is changing. “Our radio networks [used to be] almost specifically for anti-shoplifting, they’re more now for personal safety – protecting yourself before an individual comes into your premises.”

Horton also believes that the changing face of our town centres won’t alter this equation. He says that in addition to StoreNet, M.R.S. has its NiteNet brand, which has historically been for “pubs, clubs and licensed premises, and [as the] high street [becomes] more of a leisure facility, there [will still be] a need for antisocial behaviour protection, and so the [extent to which] radios [are used] probably won’t change, they’ll just go into a different market sector other than [retail]”.

He also notes that “the effectiveness of BCRPs and their value for money are being challenged by other organisations. Retailers are analysing how effective each individual BCRP is, and one of the things that is proving to be beneficial for our market is the emergence of NABCP (National Association of Business Crime Partnerships). That’s driving home the professionalism of BCRPs.”

David Wilson is the NABCP’s CEO and describes it as a national association presenting BCRPs across the whole of the UK. It reaches out to more than 20,000 retailers and was involved in the creation of national standards for BCRPs.

Wilson adds that the standards are being changed to reflect changes in data protection. “As GDPR and the Data Protection Act 2018 took effect over a year ago, we’ve looked at [best practice around the] storage of radio messages on a secure server and [we’ve] written policies” on the storage, retention and destruction of these messages. He adds that these are typically destroyed within six months “unless the police request that they be kept longer should [they concern] a criminal offence [that is being] investigated or [prosecuted]”. Wilson also says these policies were developed in conjunction with M.R.S. Communications, which is one of two radio resellers that are NABCP associate members (the other being Apex Radios). The revised standards are being reviewed and will be ratified by the standards board at its next meeting in October.

The last time I spoke to Wilson on this topic (for our June 2018 issue), he mentioned the concern in some quarters about BIDs treating their two-way scheme as an extra revenue stream.

He says this is now less of a worry at the national level due to the pressure from major retailers on BIDs (and BCRPs) to provide value for money (which is one of the factors behind the NABCP’s creation of national standards for BCRPs), and the publishing of BIDs & Business Crime: A Manifesto in October 2018, which was written on behalf of the business community by the National Business Crime Solution (NBCS) and authored by Martin Blackwell. It argues that if businesses are to support a BID, it must have a number of measures in place to address business crime, including a statement on the way that it is doing this. It also states that in locations where both a BID and BCRP are present, the relationship between them (including in terms of funding) should be clear.

Horton adds: “An awful lot of BIDs and BCRPs really struggle with the process of invoicing, so they often come to us and ask if we can manage [the whole process] and pay them back their membership fees. We [do this for] a couple of hundred organisations in the UK, because we have all the links with all the retailers and people like that.”

Dispelling the myth
M.R.S.’s Horton says that it’s vital that good end-user two-way radio training is on hand, carried out either by a two-way radio reseller or the BID/BCRP themselves, as many users “seem to see it as a bit of a black art”, despite being used to smartphones and similar devices in their daily lives.

He adds that M.R.S.’s account managers go into towns and spend a lot of time training individual users – “that encourages people to increase the use of the radio, because we train them on protocols, not just how to switch a radio on, [we teach them] what to do when someone is coming towards [their] shop [and] how to describe them in the appropriate manner…”

NABCP’s Wilson says that in his experience, a business crime reduction two-way radio scheme needs “someone who takes the lead, who talks a lot but [says] the right things without [overburdening the radio network], keeps people active, is friendly, keeps it entertaining and the interest going all the time”.

The cellular approach
Horton says M.R.S. has little issues in terms of spectrum availability and that it has “been putting some radio systems into London, which is historically difficult, but across the UK we mainly operate in England and Wales (we don’t have anything in Scotland), but we very rarely encounter problems with Ofcom. As far as coverage is concerned we don’t tend to have a problem as long as the customers realise that if there is specific coverage, the rental goes up to cover that cost, and that’s where PoC can come in.”

Speaking of PoC, Horton says M.R.S.’s business model is centred around radio hire, “so we rent our radios out at a certain price per week. We’ve done calculations with PoC and we can more or less get to that [same] rental price, [which covers] fair usage airtime and the product itself.”

Scott Pepper, founder of the Counter Crime Partnership – which provides an exclusion zone and communication solution through the use of TE 590 rugged PoC smartphone handsets, a PoC service from Push to Talk International (PTTi), and the SentrySIS cloud-based anti-crime software system – has made a similar calculation. “Unlike conventional radios there are ongoing costs because [they’re] connected to the cellular network [and there’s also a] licence for PTTi and there’s the sim card; on top of that there’s [the cost of the device and we’ve] also bundled in the annual cost of SentrySIS. [The monthly combined cost] works out to be roughly in line with what most [BCRPs] and BIDs are paying at the moment, which is about £35-40 plus VAT per handset per month.”

He adds: “Our pilot scheme is in Clacton-on-Sea. The legacy radio system there had been owned outright for 11 years or so and they were charging [around] £45 a month [once all] annual costs [were included] and [they] weren’t really doing much for it, so when we’re going in to replace schemes like that, you’re saying, ‘you just pay the same as what you’re paying now, maybe even slightly less, but you’ve suddenly got all these added benefits’” – such as the ability to create, search and manage incident SentrySIS profiles, use the system to report crimes, for example by creating a digital evidence pack for the police, uploading CCTV footage and/or images, as well as submitting MG11 witness statements.

Pepper notes that the latter saves local police from “having to [go] out and take the statement from the shopkeeper”. The system also has an ‘IDs required section’, which allows users to see if others can identify unknown profiles and the ability to send text- and image- based notifications to one or multiple users.

Pepper describes SentrySIS as “a domestic version of the Police National Computer. One of the main issues that businesses are facing is [how to share] information compliantly. Some towns use WhatsApp groups, others [still pin pictures] to a noticeboard. SentrySIS collates all of that and takes away all of the compliance side as far as the business is concerned, although you still need to sign its terms and conditions to say that you’ll keep the information within the ecosystem of the database.”

Returning to the point raised earlier about the need to demonstrate value for money, Pepper says one advantage of using CCP’s system is the way in which incidents and crimes are recorded on the system – the statistics around these make this easier to demonstrate than with a traditional two-way radio system. He also notes that this kind of data can be used to “deploy security based on the times of day that the crimes
are committed”.

How popular is CCP’s approach? Pepper says “we’re working with different organisations who have kept their own name, but the ones under our name are Clacton-on-Sea, Walton-on-the-Naze, which [has started] a free trial, and the next big one is Ipswich”. He adds that the scheme has seen 90 per cent take-up following a free trial.

He says the scheme uses dedicated devices rather than requiring staff on the shop floor to use their own smartphones – “the likes of Boots/Superdrug are saying you’re not allowed to use your mobile phone on the shop floor”.

M.R.S.’s Horton says customers need to be prepared to pay for a little bit more for PoC devices, given their ability to work in locations that are not covered by the city or town centre’s two-way radio network, such as out-of-town retail parks.

Horton also says he is working to better understand the implications of information-sharing systems and apps in terms of their data consumption (when not on Wi-Fi) and whether this is compatible with the fair usage data allowance set by the PoC devices’ sim providers – if it isn’t then additional costs would be incurred.

It is worth noting that the value of PTT devices extends beyond helping BIDs and BCRPs deal with crime and antisocial behaviour. The NABCP’s Wilson says quite a few BIDs are using their devices for job-ticketing and the reporting of issues such as loose paving stones (see last month’s piece on mobile working).

Crime, camera, action!
Wilson says interest around the use of body-worn video cameras in this sector is gradually increasing, with much of their perceived value arising from their ability to deter antisocial or abusive behaviour against their wearers.

Horton says it is M.R.S.’s opinion that anyone who is using body-worn cameras needs to be aware of GDPR and the privacy [issues around] recording and storing videos and images of people. He adds that “we’re introducing body-worn cameras as quite a significant line for our rental fleet because there’s a huge demand for [them] and they complement the radios that [the end-users are] already carrying”. Horton says M.R.S. is “taking advice from an industry expert to see if we can incorporate body-worn camera training into our radio training packages [and this] would be potentially [in the form of] an accreditation
for users”.

CCP is also active on the body-worn camera front. “The next generation of equipment we’re going to be deploying is a combined [PoC smartphone] and body-worn camera,” says Pepper, “so you [could use a single device to] create the incident statement and upload the data, the images and/or [video] from that device to the database.” CCP is also exploring the use of hybrid DMR/LTE radios with two PTT buttons for retail security, so users could use the same device to communicate with existing in-store radios and the wider CCP community.

While they are not the intended audience of this article, I wonder what a shoplifter or thug might feel given that the business of stopping them in their tracks is becoming increasingly professional while also embracing all that the latest technology has to offer? If they have any sense, perhaps a considerable sense of unease is in order…


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