Mark Rowe

It’s called the front line for a reason

by Mark Rowe

Mark Rowe writes:

I had expected Chris Nott’s memoir Call Sign Chopper: The Sequel to be most gripping about his work as a security contractor on the troubled island of Haiti, like his first book. While the Haiti chapters were indeed memorable, I found myself yet more interested in what he had to relate about his later work as an SIA-badged event security and doorman in his local Bristol. One night he had the duty of doing on-street patrolling, to ask city centre nightclub leavers to keep the noise down. A pair of young men took offence, and Chris could tell it was about to escalate:

I registered his right eye tightening into a squint, the right side of his face tensing up, the right side of his top lip pulling back exposing his teeth, his right shoulder lifting as his right hand clenched into a fist. My experience and training told me that his brain was sending a message to his right hand to form a fist to punch me. This happened in less than a second. He was focused on my face and that was no doubt where he would aim his first blow. My hands were at waist height. My reactions were quicker than his.

This episode ended with the two men with a punch in the guts and making off, and Chris screaming after them. Chris knew he had gone too far. He then noted the public space CCTV cameras (an interesting point for criminologists; CCTV doesn’t deter crime!) and ‘stood there expecting the police to arrive’: “I had learnt my lesson; I needed to ease out of the more robust type of security work.”

In the next chapter, Chris takes us to the annual Glastonbury pop festival in Somerset. While he works as a night time eviction officer, a few weeks after the Bristol incident, again he loses it, and Chris deposits ‘a particularly obnoxious drugged up/drunk 20-something male’ out of the portable cabin that processed wrong-doers, like a police custody suite:

He landed on his back with an audible ‘ouff’. I stood in the doorway. The rowdy queue waiting for our attention went quiet. The two female police officers who were in overall charge started giggling.

Again, it ended without incident for Chris. Police spoke to the assaulted young man, who didn’t want to make a complaint. He was sorry. And so was Chris: “I had failed to control myself. I had become a liability to myself and to anyone else that I was to work with.”

Chris’ honesty is commendable. To give context, he was about as experienced in general and at Glastonbury in particular as was possible. While a young Avon and Somerset policeman he had enjoyed an overtime shift at the 1974 festival when it was named Pilton. Endearingly he recalled how after the day shift –

a group of us decided to stay on and enjoy the ambience. We locked our uniform shirts, boots and helmets in our police car in the police compound and ventured onto the site, barefoot and bare chested.

He had worked as a police officer at Glastonbury until he retired from the police in 1995, and for a security company when he was able afterwards, when not overseas on contract security work. What makes Chris’ story so important is that it happened to someone who had worked competently for a working lifetime. He knew that the processing cabin was covered by closed-circuit video cameras, ‘relayed to the security control centre’. An excuse might be that the stroppy man incident came at 3am, as unsocial a time as there can be; except that, as Chris admitted, earlier he and the fellow eviction officer (another former policeman) had to ‘get physical’. Significantly, Chris added: ‘In fact one of the security supervisors came into the eviction cabin and addressed me, saying “Can you go a bit easier? You’re upsetting them and making our job more difficult”. I apologised and gave myself a talking to.” Chris, then, knew what he was meant to do, the same as his colleagues around him; he could not help himself in the moment.

It’s worth, therefore, quoting what came next at some length. That shift ended without further incident, and then came sleep before the last night shift of the event:

I would just be a physical presence. It was also agreed with the security staff that the presenting officer would remain with us until the evictee was dealt with. The shift went by without a serious incident. I held back and only assisted with the difficult ones.
After sleeping, packing up and driving home, [the fellow eviction officer] counselled me that I had a very narrow escape and that I really must get out of hard contact security. I told him that I was sorry to have put him in such an invidious position and that I had some thinking to do.

And Chris’ memoir ended with him indeed not doing security any more, but medical response instead. Between the two incidents, Chris said, he ‘was close to burnout with confrontational work’. Private security, and the police and 999 services, are far from the only occupations to suffer from the accumulation of incidents. Cases might only become public when they end tragically, for example with suicide (and it’s true anywhere; hear William Verity’s ‘Death in the line of duty‘ radio documentary about an Australian policeman). In the military it’s got noticed after war, and above all two world wars. In his memoir Five Up, the RAF fighter pilot Laddie Lucas mentioned a fighter squadron commander on the besieged island of Malta who the air force took off operations:

His nervous system was already strung tight after two continuously hard operational years during which he had had no rest …. He had had much more than his fill. I suspect he well knew it. The signs were there for all to see. He was leading faster and faster in the air. Too fast, in fact. He never took a day off. He was becoming more edgy all round, and he had started fidgeting about with details which didn’t matter …

He was ‘exhausted’, in a word, and was ‘transferred to headquarters’. It can happen in even the most apparently rewarding and glamorous creative occupations. Duncan Hamilton at the beginning of his book about the football manager Brian Clough, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me, wrote of how his fellow football reporters became sickened by having to write the same things about matches that became much of a muchness. Likewise at the end of his memoir about his formative years, the singer-songwriter Joe Jackson wrote insightfully of how a dozen years or more of success and world tours stopped being fun: “I was exhausted, sick of the music industry, my head too full of chart positions and marketing plans and radio formats and video rotation to be able to remember why I was doing this in the first place.” By 1992 it had become a struggle, and became yet worse. He plunged into depression:

I couldn’t write anything. But this went way beyond writer’s block. After a while I realised, to my horror, that I couldn’t even listen to music. It had all started to sound like noise.
It’s hard to adequately convey in words what a frightening experience this is for a musician.

He had become lost. He worked his way out of the depression, and has recorded and performed music more (and published in 1999 this fine memoir, A Cure for Gravity). Jackson is (like Chris Nott) acute enough to write about not only the abstract of music, culture and commerce; he doesn’t overlook the need to have to make a living. If he had to, Jackson says, he could play piano somewhere.

Here, then, is the difference between someone with an SIA badge, typically earning minimum wage as a security guard or working a door, and the chart-topping pop star. Chris Nott actually as he wrote in his sequel has earned enough on his dangerous work – such as on maritime security contract work around the Gulf of Aden and east Africa when Somali pirates were active in the late 2000s and early 2010s – to have given himself and his family some financial security. But if you’ve not had that background and you have in late middle age weeks of sciatica so that you can’t walk 20 yards without collapsing and you can’t work very well, if you don’t work and you aren’t earning, where’s the next rent coming from?

That’s a different kind of pressure from the corporate pressure on the chief security officer (CSO) or the cyber breaches that are causing burnout to chief information security officers (CISOs). CISOs are talking about burnout more than CSOs: the long and unsocial hours, the having to report to superiors who are themselves under pressure, from their superiors, who even if they are not two-faced and self-interested, are snarling because the pressure is twisting their personality. Also, the CSO has on their plate the security of employees; if someone is kidnapped in Colombia, or abducted and killed in Mexico, it’s not the head of IT who has to tell the employee’s parents or partner (nor indeed the CISO). Still, if you are a CSO of a financial services firm, with bonuses when the economy is doing well you are earning well into in the mid-six figures; not for nothing is a corporate salary called ‘compensation’.

Chris was experienced and adaptable enough to keep working (because he wanted to) and earning after he became unable to do front line security work. His story may not add much to the explanation of why SIA badged people leave the industry. We can at least say that it would be wrong to assume that security officers leave for better money in warehousing or because of some other shortcoming in the industry – not offering prospects, or support.

Nor can we assume that the front line officer has no pressure; that SIA badge work is something you can fall back on, if the higher-paid, higher-pressure work becomes too much, or simply dries up. Because from that assumption can flow the further wrong assumption that if front line security work is something that requires no thought, that you can only get through it by numbing yourself, you, the front line worker, have no inner life that can become troubled; that you are a human plank of wood.

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