Wrexham.com’s knowledge of G4S was limited to the ‘cock ups’ involving this summers London Olympics, plus some vague recollection of them being connected with Group 4, again not a positive memory. There have been debates on our forum about G4S locally involving the branding of security cars (our story here) which prompted a meeting with the council to discuss the relationship between Wrexham Council and G4S.
Following this we were invited out for a Friday evening to see what G4S does for the council, and therefore their employees and people of Wrexham. With such an offer we decided to shelve our partying plans and headed down to the base in Wrexham…
G4S are contracted by Wrexham Council to provide a security and assistance service – known in the council as the ‘incident response service’ – and run two cars in and around town operating that service. We donned fluorescent security jackets – branded with G4S on the front and ‘Security’ on the back – plus given guidance on how to wear a stab vest if the situation arose. This was our first indication that perhaps the incident response service operations were a little more ‘hands on’ than we expected.
The incident response service team in Wrexham operate an overnight shift with two cars on ‘patrol’. This ever changing patrol route is based off a list of council owned buildings, while not comprehensive it is prioritized to those with recent issues or ‘hot spots’ – or ones that may not have been visited recently.
Further to a defined patrol list there is a fluid response element to the activity, so if they get a call they can alter their plans immediately and attend. What they attend and why was one thing we were keen to find out, as this outsourcing of security often leads to accusations along the lines of ‘G4S are a private police force’.
While we were waiting to start the evening shift we heard examples of situations we may encounter that were based on previous calls. These ranged from providing support to council care workers with flat tyres – literally waiting with an individual until the RAC turn up – or accompanying joiners or workmen to out of hours jobs, for assurance and help.
The vehicles used by the Council via G4S have raised questions on Wrexham.com forums, as they are branded as pseudo-police cars. The cars have high-vis markings with lights on top and a badge that by G4S and Wrexham Council’s own admission is ‘deliberately designed’ to look more official (with the blessing of North Wales Police). We were told “The council and the police are happy, it reassures people as it looks official, plus the council are our clients”. Previous vehicles used have been unbranded Vauxhall Corsas and Citron C1′s – so the Honda CRV 4×4 all terrain vehicle we were in for the evening has an increased stature itself.
Our guide for the evening is Paul Jones, who has been working in security for ten years after leaving the armed forces, and has been working for G4S on this contract for the last few years. He told us that having the cars branded the way they are can help, as previously residents have called the police after seeing what would appear to be unofficial cars driving around schools but overall he said the markings were positive to him doing his job as they can be a ‘good deterrent’.
We asked about the lights on top, which only do white sidelights and orange hazard style lights. Paul recalls using them only once to help alert drivers to a collision on Hugmore Lane while he aided police in diverting traffic. Paul also added he thinks his colleague has only used them once as well, when there were horses loose on a road. The sidelights or alley lights on the roof are very powerful, and allow the driver to see into areas without having to leave the vehicle.
The car’s equipment was surprisingly basic, communication was via mobile phone (although that is due to be upgraded), a couple of powerful torches plus grabbers for needles and a ‘sharps box’ to put any in – although Paul did tell us it was a couple of years since he’s had to use it. There were no restraints, batons or anything else we would associate with the police.
Asking if people slow down on roads thinking that the car is a police car Paul told us that did happen, but observed that ‘if it means people perhaps obey the speed limit perhaps thats a good thing’, but he did recount that the police themselves dont mistake the cars as he was issued with 3pts after using his mobile phone. “It was an unknown number which usually means a call out, so it could have been a carecall or the like” he said, so he answered it as his handsfree was not working.
Asking about the protocol if something ‘kicks off’ we were told the incident response service are not there to act as assistance to police, “If we get abuse or the like we just ensure the doors are locked in the car and ring 101. We don’t get involved, we stay in the car”. This link with the police surprised us, their contact is via 101 as any normal member of the public could use – and some have voiced problems with recently! They do have a good relationship with Wrexham’s CCTV operators it seems, with information flowing to aide reaction to incidents, helping cover the incident response service activities plus tipping them off if they see anything possibly untoward.
Our shift commenced just after 6pm with the initial destination being Erlas House. Erlas is the new name for the former Bryn Estyn care home, and our trip coincided with extra national focus on the site due to re-investigation’s of activities there during the 1970′s. This national focus extended to news crews plus rumours of protesters and the like having visited the site in the last 48 hours (these rumours proved to be unfounded and the evening passed without incident at Erlas). The incident response service role this evening was to patrol the external grounds on foot and carry out extensive checks of the site in the response vehicle.
We were struck by how scary a role this can be; alone in the dark, peering around corners, driving to remote areas – every time not knowing what you might see or find. This is a key element of the job however, and Paul gave us an insight into both his background and credentials for the job as he told us he had served on deployments to Northern Ireland – which might go some way to explaining why he was very much unfazed by venturing into the unknown. Any feelings of isolation are quickly offset however, as the location of each incident response service patrol is virtually tracked, with security officers signing in at various points.
Paul recounted a time when he had helped ‘detain’ two people up in Brymbo for over an hour before police arrived – eventually the pair were arrested for stealing a few thousand pounds worth of metal. We asked about how you ‘detain’ someone as that sounded as though it was straying towards the much criticised ‘private policing’ however it turns out it was strategic use of two vehicles blocking off an entrance and exit to an old warehouse rather than anything more sinister. One interesting titbit was the local knowledge of the area in question compared to police who we are told struggled to find the entrance to the site.
Around 6:30pm we headed towards Rhosnesni School, with a drive through the grounds and around the outside of the school checking doors and windows. Paul noticed a door slightly ajar, so popped out and went inside trying to find someone. A few calls of “hello?” soon found two people working late who had left the door open. Quite mundane, but its possible given the scenario that the door could have been left open throughout the evening and overnight if that check was not made.
Travelling onwards to Borras Park we were told of phone chains that exist around Wrexham where people working late or alone notify each other as and when they leave – with the last in the chain being Paul or whoever is on duty. If this call is not made then the incident response service will respond to see if everything is as it should be.
Several alarm systems are linked in to G4S, with one example being empty council houses, where properties can be fitted with portable alarm systems. For operational reasons we won’t go into the details however the silent alarms are linked to G4S and therefore the incident response service and the systems are described as being so subtle that “you go in and you won’t know its there, but we will know you are in there!”. We discussed callouts to council houses, which can typically involve accompanying a joiner who is fitting a new lock or repairing a door.
We then routed around Wats Dyke, Prices Lane and other areas while discussing the job further. We were told how the service can aide caretakers and other keyholders so rather than them attending alarm call outs alone the incident response service can go to assist them. Occasionally this may happen on an evening where the keyholder is unable to drive for whatever reason, and in that instance the incident response service can provide a pick up and drop off.
Continuing on to Plas Coch School and then out towards the hospital, it became apparent how an attentive disposition was key to success as the patrol was non stop. We noticed that it’s not just the places visited that gets the inquisitive eye from Paul but areas inbetween as we travel. Asking if he had spotted anything notable he recounted how his colleague was convinced he saw a UFO (which appeared in the local press!) and that he himself had seen a random naked man running through Caia Park once. More seriously he had come across bin fires, gang fights and “twenty people drinking in the street in Brymbo” during his time in the job. As per procedure he said he doesn’t get involved, but calls 101 and CCTV to make them aware.
Paul later recounted how he had seen a man walking through Hightown once being followed by two people, and after he had turned around the man was on the floor ‘gurgling blood’. Paul said he called the emergency services and the police turned up ‘very very quickly’, with CCTV also informed. Later people were arrested for a serious attack and successfully prosecuted, a very real example of the benefit another pair of eyes and ears can provide to the local area.
Heading down through Moss Valley we took a short trip around the golf club’s car park, nothing too indepth but we did see some kids who have taken note of the car and headed away from the area. Likewise when driving down to Gwersyllt a group of kids with what appeared to be cans of lager in carrier bags decided to turn around and head elsewhere on sighting the vehicle – probably thinking it was the police.
While checking schools around Gwersyllt we ask about responses from people they encounter, Paul tells us “The effin and jeffin’ usually stops if we say we are going to call the police”. We are told how trouble spots are seasonal, with summer being the peak of problems. As we checked Bryn Alyn school (which was all quiet but we did spot a random microwave outside!) he pointed out the nearby estate where when using previously unbranded cars people had rung the police to report suspicious activity – prompting a needless call out. Developing this point further we learnt that if there is a known faulty fire alarm the attendance of the incident response service can prevent needless callouts to the fire service.
The feedback loop from G4S to Wrexham Council appears proactive, with a shift ending submission of incident reports which are fed back to a primary council contact, who then takes action as and where appropriate. Some examples of actions arising from submissions involved headteachers being informed of windows or doors left open, or council departments told if lights were being left on. The latter is something we very much approve of…!
Around half eight we arrive at Darland School with a drive around the grounds where possible, and a security check on foot for the parts that are inaccessible. On this foot patrol we came across some kids playing ‘manhunt’ (!) in the grounds, who were asked to move on politely – and did! Paul spotted a window open in the school so followed his procedure to try and find a keyholder who could come and shut it. Several attempts on various numbers later Paul managed to get through to a keyholder who said they would pop down and sort it out. An offer was made to stay onsite during this time however as it was still fairly early the keyholder was happy for us to move on – so we buckled up and headed to the next place on the patrol list.
We asked Paul about G4S and the Olympics, but he said “I can’t really relate to it. The only impact around here was the limiting of our holidays so they could pull in full resources for London”. We get the impression the Wrexham G4S team is relatively small and tight knit, with a larger base in Warrington being the closest ‘large’ G4S office. Paul had recently been invited to a G4S awards ceremony attended by himself and colleagues. Paul said “It was nice to meet more from G4S!”. Although Wrexham Council are the client to a company, it strikes us that there is more contact and interaction with them on a day to day operational basis than the corporate monolith that is G4S.
By now we had ended up in Gresford, where a light was on in Rofft Primary School, again Paul popped out of his car and checked the building. The teacher who was there late doing some marking said thanks for the check in.
The patrol then heads out towards Wrexham Industrial Estate, where specific council owned buildings get a drive past, however other private buildings also get the benefit of Paul’s eye as he goes by. CCTV had previously mentioned that travellers had set up camp on the industrial estate so the encampment gets a drive past – and all is quiet.
Heading back into town we go through Caia Park, which involves a trip to Gwenfro School. Paul does his now-common drive past where possible then jump out to check the rest. This time things are different – he can hear an alarm going off. Ten minutes after we arrived Paul’s colleague Wayne turns up to assist, and the caretaker is called out to gain access and help investigate. The school is entered and with military precision each classroom, store cupboard, toilet and any nook or cranny where someone could hide is searched. All windows are checked to ensure they are secure, plus doors are inspected. Paul tells us that it’s common that alarms either sound due to faults or something falling from walls – even insects can trigger them. Once confident the alarm was accidental for whatever reason Paul and the caretaker attempt a reset, however there is an issue with the alarm. Several calls later with the alarm company support the alarm is reset – all in all around 40 minutes on site. In this situation rather than a caretaker, and probably the police, being called out by a concerned (or annoyed) resident who heard an alarm sounding the incident response service patrol was able to react and help. Likewise it was striking to us to see the caretaker in his slippers assisted by Paul in his hi-vis jacket and official looking car, rather than just the caretaker on his own.
Totally unrelated to the evening we did note that Gwenfro School was roasting that evening – with all radiators appearing to be on full bore. We thought we were sweating buckets due to the hi-vis jackets but with the radiators too hot to touch it confirmed that it was not us!
Once Gwenfro School was sorted and incident form filled, we headed out through Caia Park checking areas such as the Queensway Sports Centre and Hafod Y Wern. On the way through we were subjected to some abuse from a group of kids, with swearing and similar comments. We are pretty sure they thought we were a police car rather than a specific anti-G4S or anti-council rant. One area that is checked is a CCTV camera in Spring Lodge as it has been apparently ‘attacked’ before. At this point Paul gets a call reporting some suspicious activity involving two cars around Erlas House which his colleague Wayne is looking into – later we find out that a car registration has been passed to CCTV but nothing further occurred.
The patrol route, which is different every evening, then goes through Kingsmills and up into Hightown. We visit St. Giles school where a foot patrol is required due to the nature of the site. Once the buildings have been checked we head to St. Christophers where Paul loops back on himself after thinking he saw an odd light, again he jumps out to check doors and windows of the building in question.
Heading out through Bersham the full array of council owned buildings really dawns on us, however taking a break from just council work he checks the Yale College campus buildings nearby. We then head down into town and go into the deserted Groves school. Driving around the back we hear how homeless people have been found living in the building, and how windows were smashed shortly after more permanent security were removed from the site.
One area of concern has been the old council buildings on Grosvenor Road. We have seen them progress from being used, to being boarded up with wood to now resembling Wrexham’s version of Fort Knox with solid steel shutters all over the building.
We are told the buildings became a hot spot for homeless people, with camps being set up inside and fires being lit. Residents in the flats that overlook the rear of the building reported seeing people dropping in via skylights via the flat roof at the back.
The building is now fully secure, with the interior fully alarmed with the remote stand alone monitoring systems. Externally there is evidence of drinking to the rear and in areas that are out of sight from either the flats or the road.
Moving further into town we cover the Waterworld carparks, Crown Buildings (which had some lights left on!) and carparks. Paul checks the vents behind the swimming pool, a previously popular spot with homeless people due to the evening warmth provided by the heating ducts. Nearby a group of kids spy the car and walk away from the area – again we are sure they think we are the police.
We are now late into Friday evening and finishing up on the patrol – which gets repeated throughout the night – driving in through the library car park up to the front of the Guildhall we are told of another incident response service job – to stand guard if the mayoral chains are used late at night! A loop around Yale’s campus results on us being outside the bus station ready for closing up.
Paul tells of previous issues with what should be a simple job, he’s seen a pregnant woman being attacked in the bus station, gangs of youths around plus the ‘usual’ drunk falling asleep inside after missing their bus. On the latter we enquire how they deal with them, he tells us “obviously we cannot touch them, however we can shout loudly to see if they wake up”. If that does not work police are then called. Everyone on the ‘frontline’ of the incident response service such as Paul are SIA trained – and we noted that all had their badges on display as they should have, so training to deal with members of the public ideally in a non confrontational manner is there.
As the barriers come down in the bus station and our evening we ask Paul if the problems around Wrexham have changed over the years he’s worked on this patrol, he tells us “No, there are hotspots which you can predict, but mainly it remains alcohol related at night”.
Our Thoughts: With anything of this nature we imagine people are on their ‘best behaviour’ and expect almost a ‘line’ to be taken. After initial caution, as you would expect with ‘two media blokes’ being popped in your car for the night, Paul was very open and candid throughout with no question unanswered. Likewise with the current sensitivities over Erlas House and the possible entirely unpredictable evening ahead the Assets & Economic Development Department in the council were very good to allow such unchaperoned access.
The evening was mundane, yet thorough. The indications are there that the pace can change very quickly from just a single call to quite extreme situations.
The preventative nature of the work was evident to us, as was an insight to the supportive aspect of the work. Without wanting to reel out the line about it being about people not just buildings – it is actually true.
We also feel the added benefit of having two extra sets of eyes roaming around Wrexham and the surrounding area cannot be understated. The staff, and its worth extending this to the council employees involved, are living and working in the same environments as the public as they are locals – and without sounding too parochial – this makes a difference.
As for the ‘private police force’ question that has been raised – we do still have mixed feelings. The work carried out by the incident response service does not have the powers of police, but goes further than just security theatre as there is a real benefit. We experienced at first hand being mistaken for police but in the context was that a positive thing? Overall we would say yes. There were several times throughout the evening where we encountered something where police could have been called by a concerned resident or the like – thus saving a call out.
Of course we would prefer a bobby on the beat, however if the choice was nothing or the current incident response service setup we obviously prefer the latter.
In Part 2 of this feature we will explore the historic setup of this service and the costs – or benefit – to the council with outsourcing using G4S and related companies.