Foiling the light-fingered
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

Business crime reduction is one of the sectors where two-way radios have a big role to play. Sam Fenwick explores the trends, such as the role of BIDs and the use of new technology

Shopwatch and Pubwatch two-way radio schemes have long been a permanent fixture in many town and city centres. Through relaying descriptions and intelligence of local petty criminals (often from a CCTV centre or police officer) over the air, they allow their members to exclude shop-lifters and trouble-makers from their stores.

While at first glance these schemes may seem to be relatively straight-forward from a two-way radio dealer’s perspective, the business crime reduction sector has been seeing a fair bit of change, prompted by the rise of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in many town centres.

According to the government, a BID “is a defined area in which a levy is charged on all business rate payers in addition to the business rates bill. This levy is used to develop projects which will benefit businesses in the local area”, such as extra safety/security, cleansing and environmental measures. Since April 2013, BIDs have been allowed to operate across local authority boundaries.

David Horton, managing director of M.R.S. Communications, which has hundreds of towns and cities using its StoreNet two-way radio systems, says the emergence of BIDs hasn’t increased the amount of business available to two-way radio dealers. Instead it has changed the dynamics of negotiations and customer management, as BIDs are typically more structured organisations than the two-way radio Shop and Pubwatch schemes that often now fall under their administration.

However, it varies from BID to BID – in some cases “the traditional Shopwatch will be exactly the same in terms of resource and individual billing, etc”. Horton adds a dealer’s role is easier if a BID has a crime reduction manager, so the dealer is dealing with one person. If that’s not the case, the BID will outsource the manger’s task to the dealer.

“We’re starting to see a lot of BID companies come through rather than just the councils,” says Ash Robinson, account manager at DCRS, “and a lot of the big councils are starting to take on Shopwatch schemes in their town.”

Horton explains that BIDs tend to procure based on their business plan, which includes their requirements, “and we usually have to quote based on that. We obviously provide advice to them, but they are generally pretty certain what they want.”

That said, Horton notes that because many BIDs are relatively new, some may have little experience of the BCP (business crime partnership) market, which means they are reliant on two-way radio dealers to provide this knowledge and explain digital radio’s benefits.

Like many other sectors, this transition is very much a gradual one and still in progress. DCRS’s Robinson says he has been looking after a BID that upgraded its radios to digital in 2015, but DCRS has only recently received an order to do the same for its Pubwatch system.

Horton says a BID’s requirements in terms of radio infrastructure depend on the area it covers, with small ones potentially just requiring base stations, with some of the larger BIDs needing multi-site trunked radio systems.

Jeremy Taylor, sales director at Andromeda, adds there is a trend towards joining BIDs in nearby town centres and their business crime prevention radio schemes together, so that they can warn each other about criminals operating in their area. “The people [in a town] don’t care if an undesirable individual has left it and gone somewhere else; great job done. But all you’re doing is pushing that problem out. If you create a wider system whereby the town can transmit the details of that person to its neighbours, they can then start to look out for them as well.” He gives one example of a council in the Midlands, where three town centres and their BIDs merged their radio schemes so they are all controlled from a single CCTV control room.

He adds that two-way radio dealers shouldn’t “assume anything, [they should] fully understand the BID’s requirements [for the short term, medium term and long term] because that’s better for everyone concerned”.

Robinson also highlights the importance of working with BIDs to understand their requirements. “What are they trying to achieve? Is it a simple push-to-talk system that they need just so the users can talk to each other, or do they need something a bit more complex where they opt for the screen radios, so they can [see who is calling]? He also notes two-way radios’ emergency alarm and lone-worker functions and the value of using a dispatching system coupled with voice recording functionality, to see where people are calling from and improve the evidential value of CCTV footage recorded during an incident.

Taylor says PTT over Cellular (PoC) might not be the most cost-effective solution for “someone who just wants a base station and a dozen hand-portables, because there is an ongoing cost, there is an access fee that has to be paid, but for the larger, multi-centre or big city centre systems and things like that where you’ve got coverage challenges, or you have to put multiple base stations in to provide that, then [PoC] is far more cost-effective for the BID.”

All together now…

While the work of a business crime reduction partnership or BID naturally takes place locally, there has been a change at the national level. The National Association of Business Crime Partnerships (NABCP) relaunched itself under new management on 18 May, after closing its doors last year. It is chaired by Lisa Perretta (who featured in Kate O’Flaherty’s ‘Two-way radio for retailers’ piece in Land Mobile last September). NABCP, according to David Wilson, one of its directors and business crime reduction partnership manager for Mansfield’s BID, now truly represents the whole of the country, thanks to participation for the first time from Retailers against Crime in Scotland and the Northeast Regional Crime Partnership.

Wilson explains that as there are more than 200 BCPs across the UK and “some are good, some are bad, and some we really need to work with to improve”, NABCP is currently working on some national standards that will help ensure BCPs provide a return on investment for their members and that they are using the data they generate and receive from the police in a way that complies with data protection legislation. Once these standards are complete, NABCP will then assess each BCP to identify areas for improvement.

“We’ll bring them all up to the same standards, so if a retailer says, ‘I spend £350 on a radio for this town centre, what sort of service am I likely to get in return?’, the standard will tell them that.”

Wilson adds that the emphasis for BCPs remains very much on crime prevention rather than simply responding to offences once they have occurred. “The days should have gone when a guard waits for an unsuspecting person to commit an offence and then try to capture them, because that’s bad for customer relations, it means they might get injured. It’s much better to go to them and say, ‘Can I help you?’, and deter it. There’s also no police engagement, because they don’t have to take statements and take someone to court.”

Returning to two-way radio, Wilson’s primary concern is with how they are used rather than the underlying technology. “A new radio can do text messaging as you would on a mobile phone. My main drive is that you need to be data-compliant and the messages you’re sending need to be secure and well managed. It’s how you use it, not what bit of kit you’ve got.” Similarly, the ability to take and send images means more data protection issues, as these are protected as personal data, while voice recordings are subject to GDPR, so a BCP must have a “storage policy, delete them when they’re not necessary and make sure the information is only passed to those it should be”.

He adds that some BIDs see radio schemes as a means of income generation, with one looking to generate £80,000 worth of income from its scheme, but this can run afoul of the BID’s members, who expect to see a return on investment from their fees and require BIDs to have security as a core objective. Wilson estimates that a digital two-way radio system for a town such as Mansfield (population 99,600) would cost around £70,000 if bought outright.

The Mansfield BID owns its own radio system, and “when [it] started out as a BCP, there were two fees – one for membership of the BCP that would be set on your rateable value; and the radio scheme, which was the same for everybody. When the [BID] came along, the membership part disappeared and it was all included in part of their BID levy, so now all they pay for in Mansfield is their radio; but that’s not the same for every town or city – they all differ.”

Giving crime the boot

While the use of wireless comms in this sector could be said to be relatively straight-forward, it is starting to experiment with PoC. Sedgemoor District Council, located in the South-West of England, has since May 2017 been using such a system across three of its town centres, which is controlled from its CCTV control room. The council extensively trialled PoC before opting to use it, and it now uses 155 AD100-GPS PoC hand-portable terminals, which have been supplied by Andromeda, operate over 2G and 3G, and were designed and manufactured in the UK.

“To our knowledge, it’s the biggest use of push-to-talk technology over 3G in the retail crime sector in the UK, if not Europe,” says Andromeda’s Taylor.

The system hit the headlines of a local news website, just two days after going live, when it aided in the arrest of a woman who had stolen £200 worth of make-up and perfume from a Boots in Burnham-on-Sea.

Barry Donbavand at Sedgemoor District Council explains that the council previously used a digital radio system, “but because we’re trying to cover a large geographical area, we found it difficult to get a system that would work very well [in] different areas.

“We opted for the Andromeda system because it worked over 2G, 3G, it took away the infrastructure costs, the geography of everything, and allowed us to deploy radios in fairly rural areas.”

“Wherever there’s a mobile phone signal you’ll get them to work, and even in some cases where your mobile phone may show no signal, these radios seem to work because they have a bigger aerial on them. They very rarely drop out, and we live in a rural location in Somerset. We’ve tried them everywhere and [our] wardens go out all over the county. They very rarely lose signal and probably within five or 10 seconds, it’ll pick up another signal anyway.”

He adds: “The switch-over was very easy, we just had a job lot of radios turn up; we then allocated them to various businesses, then we just went out and issued them. Because of the system that they use, it was really just a case of turning them on. The quality of the radios was significantly better than what we had on the older system, the clarity and the voice [quality] was brilliant.”

Donbavand says some of the handsets the council uses are GPS-enabled, which means that if dog or beach wardens and similar staff are in danger from members of the public, they can hit their handset’s emergency button and the control room will see an alert together with their exact location, making it easier for the operator to direct the police to them.

Taylor says that in this case, the system’s terminals work over a single public cellular network. “While they had the option to use multiple networks if they wanted to – a single sim card can support three networks – they extensively trialled before the system went live and the single network option worked perfectly well.”

He adds that the system is very resilient, due to the way in which cellular networks have overlapping coverage, which means if one base station (eNodeB) were to fail, a terminal would still be in range of several others.

In terms of the system’s overall availability, Donbavand says: “We probably have one or two incidents every year where we’ve lost connectivity because the server has gone down, or whatever. The last one we had, we were up and running again within two minutes, so there wasn’t a major issue from a business continuity point of view.”

Donbavand adds that the project was funded by the area’s local authority, which drew up a business plan and designed a model in which the individual businesses would be charged an annual fee with the goal of paying back the initial investment within three years. He adds the project is currently on track for this and once this goal has been achieved, the small amount of profit will be reinvested back into the system to expand and extend it.

One piece of advice that Donbavand has for a BID or crime reduction partnership considering a PoC system is to bear in mind that because the system uses cellular sims, unlike conventional two-way radios, which are free to use (once the system has been purchased), there are ongoing costs associated with their use, which must be factored into the business model for the scheme. However, he notes that the ongoing costs per terminal are “probably not as much as a normal mobile phone, to be fair; they’re quite competitive”.

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