Q: There have been a number of violent attacks recently – one on public space at Bourke St Mall in Melbourne and another in Quebec City on a mosque. Is there any guaranteed way to deter or fend off these sorts of attacks? Isn’t electronic security responsive and therefore powerless against such events? 

A: The events you mention are quite different. Considering each separately, physical barriers, including raised pathways, paved and stepped earth mounds, remain the best defence against vehicle attacks but they cannot protect all aggregations of people in a city, whether this be at a set of busy traffic lights, a suburban strip mall or a playground. Bollards or concrete barriers would have saved lives on Bourke St and we should expect to see more of them in our cities and at our events. Truckstopper barriers can tear a pantechnicon apart and would have protected the promenade in Nice but they are comparatively expensive and they are static. 

It’s certainly possible that in a smart city environment, retractable bollards could be located at key points of vulnerability and then activated using AI or IVA-governed automation or operator intervention from a central control room and managed using CCTV and duplex audio. Every major city in Australia has the 24-hour surveillance capacity to monitor such events in real time and respond in such a way. The Bourke St Mall attack took time to develop and if the infrastructure was in place, automated bollards could have been raised. Such infrastructure is expensive, however. 

In Quebec, the mosque had installed CCTV after earlier instances of harassment but there was no access control, which would have delayed entry and might have allowed time for worshippers to flee. This said, at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, there was access control and an armed police officer was on duty inside the building but a staffer was threatened with an automatic weapon unless she entered the access code (there was no panic code that activated an internal alarm) and the duty officer was subsequently taken by surprise. 

Generally speaking, electronic security is reactive if installed in isolation but when installed in support of physical barriers, such as automatic rising bollards or dual-purpose spaces with heavy doors that lock internally and double as panic rooms, electronic security can enable instant site-wide alerts and rapid emergency response, as well as crash evacuation to safe spaces. It can also be used to lock down parts of a site in the event of an active shooter – major integrated security solutions at universities certainly incorporate such capabilities and we can expect them to be expanded with analytics and safety apps. 

Procedures need to be woven with technology to engender the right response, as was the case at the Louvre, where police told a person they could not enter the museum with a bag and were then attacked with a machete pulled from the bag. What that person might have done to defenceless tourists if not challenged at the door is disturbing to consider. As the event unfolded, further procedures saw tourists hurried to heavily-built rooms which were locked while police secured the museum. Such procedures need to be comprehensive, known to all and must start at the gate. Simple procedures have repeatedly been shown to make a real difference. Security staff who challenged suicide bombers at Stade de Paris with simple bag checks saved many lives. 

Perhaps the best response to physical attacks against fellow travellers on spaceship Earth is simultaneous, mutual toleration in line with Article 30 of the UDHR, as well as the global realisation that no rational argument can ever be supported by acts of violence. But from the point of view of security managers, keeping vehicles away from aggregations of people, and factoring in attacks with automatic weapons, are now major considerations. ♦