Phil Ball is a longtime police officer and the founder and lead instructor of the Situational Awareness Institute (SAI), a security training company. In this interview, Mr. Ball covers the many facets of security preparation that irrigation districts should carry out, including crisis communication training, the installation of security cameras and panic buttons, the preparation of emergency plans, and the establishment of relationships with local fire and law enforcement agencies.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background.
Phil Ball: I started police work about 27 years ago. Over my career, I have policed in four different states and have worked as a SWAT officer, a school resource officer, an intelligence officer, and an embassy security-personnel trainer for the U.S. Department of State. Today, in addition to being a full-time police officer, I run SAI, which teaches active killer prevention, personal self-defense, crisis communications, incident command, servant leadership, and other safety-related topics to agents of law enforcement, government agencies, and private corporations.
I consider myself a lifelong learner, and I have made a point of gathering information and knowledge that can keep myself and others safe. I became a member of the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS) years ago because I saw it as the greatest resource of private security information, policies, and practices. Finally, I founded SAI to meet the demand in the private sector for security knowledge. It has been successful in preventing violence, saving lives, and lowering liability for my clients.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about your recent experience with protests and what it teaches about crisis communications?
Phil Ball: We handled a protest in my jurisdiction that ended peacefully, with no arrests and no property damage. It ended with the protestors and us holding a joint prayer in an amphitheater. Many people have expressed interest in how that came about.
My sergeant urges us to have a good relationship with our community leaders before a critical event occurs. Many wait until after an incident to try to build rapport with the members of the community who are affected. When you do that, it looks rushed and insincere. It is important to develop rapport before an incident occurs. Then, when there is an incident, community leaders will contact you—not to protest, but to meet with you—and will then forward your message to the community.
We also teach a crisis communication and verbal deescalation class that covers how to use words, phrases, and techniques to calm a situation down and ensure that people get help rather than end up going to jail. Police officers should not look at people as enemies but as people who need their help. Many people with mental illnesses need help but are instead taken to jail.
Today, the public is more educated, informed, and skeptical. Before the recent protest, my sergeant told me, “Trust is something we earn in drops and lose in buckets. Let’s not spill this bucket today.” Another of my colleagues pointed out that the legitimacy of the police in the long run is derived from the fact that they have a track record of helping others. That means that a video of a police officer saving the life of a child, feeding a homeless person, or comforting someone who’s lost a loved one can provide others with hope, while a negative interaction that spreads on social media can damage the legitimacy of the police across the nation.
If you do have a problem brewing in your area, be the facilitator of an event. The protestors in this instance contacted us because we had such a good relationship and told us they were going to protest. We helped them get their message out by escorting them through town and helping coordinate the use of the amphitheater to address people. There were about 400 protesters in total. As the trusted facilitator, we set up ground rules. Part of that was agreeing on a specific route. We agreed that a message would be more legitimate if no one broke the law. There were no violations of the law, no arrests, and no property damage.
Irrigation Leader: How does that apply to irrigation districts?
Phil Ball: You need to have a strong social media presence that enhances your transparency. When an agency fails to step up to the microphone after a critical incident or it takes them too long to produce a factual statement about what has happened, they leave the microphone available for whoever wants to seize it. Today, social media allows any person to deliver a message to the world, whether or not it is factual. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates what we put in our bodies, but only we can regulate what we put in our minds.
With that in mind, every agency has a responsibility to make timely, factual statements about critical events to the media and via social media. Make sure your constituents are informed of factual information by you and not propaganda by somebody else. Hiring a tech-savvy person to administer your website is important as well. Social media is a rapidly moving target, with apps and language changing on a monthly, not a yearly, basis. Your social media person needs to understand search engine optimization and how to engage your audience. My web team teaches that you can increase your engagement with your audience by 300 percent if you send them a video rather than a link. Making that simple change can triple the number of people who see your messages.
Irrigation Leader: What can you tell us about communications skills?
Phil Ball: When your staff communicates with a customer, their attitude and mindset are all-important. Your reception person or the person who interacts with the public the most needs to be the most diplomatic person you have. There was a woman at the Quincy–Columbia Basin Irrigation District who had an almost Jedi-like way of handling people. I talked to her at length and generated a memo explaining her perspective. She explained that the people she dealt with weren’t just customers—they were residents, farmers, and eventually friends, since she had known them for so long. Customers would calm down because they knew they weren’t just talking to a person with a company logo—they were talking to somebody who was listening and cared. Many times, when we’re talking to somebody, we’re just waiting to interrupt. We’re not hearing what they’re saying. Crisis communications involve listening with the intent of helping someone.
Irrigation Leader: What kind of working relationship would you advise irrigation districts or other entities to have with local law enforcement and fire departments?
Phil Ball: Irrigation districts should establish those relationships immediately, before there’s an incident. I remind districts during my active-shooter training sessions that the first time police officers are in your building shouldn’t be when your life is on the line. You could have an event like a law enforcement appreciation day with coffee and doughnuts to give the officers a chance to meet you and tour your building. Make sure they have the proper contact numbers for your district. It can also be helpful to assign a contact person at the district to interact with the police.
You may want to have a security site assessment in which we come out to the facility, look at your configuration, review your operating procedures, and interview your employees. We offer a package in which I come out, take photos of the interior and exterior of your buildings, and then sit down over several days and use ASIS standards to provide recommendations for cost-effective ways in which your facilities can be improved. There’s a school of thought called crime prevention through environmental design that argues that building design can psychologically deter violence. Many criminal acts are opportunistic, taking advantage of something that looks easy to steal or break into. A building that has been tightened up may seem too difficult to break into. Prevention and deterrence are key.
One of the most cost-effective ways to strengthen a building is to use 3M film on exterior glass. It will take several minutes for someone to kick, hit, or shoot their way through 3M film–reinforced glass. That gives people in the building time to escape or get help. The difficulty of breaking the 3M-treated glass may make an intruder or vandal give up and move on to another building.
An assessment by the fire department is also important. It can point out that you have gas but no carbon monoxide detector, for instance. Many fire departments have a formal assessment report that they can fill out and give to you.
Irrigation Leader: Would you also recommend providing police with a map of the layout of your facilities?
Phil Ball: Law enforcement and the fire department should definitely know the layout of your building. Today, digital files often make that kind of information easier to access.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about the security camera technology that is available to irrigation districts?
Phil Ball: The technology today is unbelievable. There are devices called Flock cameras that can read the tag of every vehicle coming in and going out of a city and can locate all the vehicles that fit a certain description—a black Nissan, for instance. For private agencies, there’s a company called Avigilon that leads the way in precognitive intelligence. The stadium in Seattle, for instance, has every seat covered by video surveillance. Of course, it would take dozens of security officers to monitor those cameras full time. However, Avigilon has software that watches all the people and alerts a security guard when someone is acting in a suspicious or agitated manner. A system like that can also be set up to watch your business and alert you when there’s a vehicle backing up to your dock at an unusual time. In the past, camera systems were used forensically after a crime happened to uncover who did it. Now, they’ve shifted to prevention: The system interprets the data it’s receiving and can tell you about a suspicious situation before a crime happens.
Irrigation Leader: What is the benefit of having a visible security camera monitor in your office?
Phil Ball: It’s a frontline deterrent. When people see the camera, they know that they can be held accountable for their behavior. Agencies with cameras have noticed a decrease in hostile interactions at the front desk.
Irrigation Leader: Would you tell us about panic buttons and how they should be installed?
Phil Ball: Today, physical panic buttons are frequently being replaced by panic button apps. Due to the fact that everybody has a mobile device, the apps allow employees to call for help or alert other employees to a danger no matter where they are. Some of these apps can automatically contact the police department and forward a copy of your floor plan. This feature is often included in civilian-use tasers—when they are fired, they automatically call 911 and provide police with your coordinates.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about the importance of emergency plans and your past work on developing them.
Phil Ball: I’ve got a repository of different policies and plans that we have helped different companies and agencies develop. I use that as a resource. One of the worst things you can do is not to have a plan. During a crisis situation, we go into fight-or-flight mode. You can’t develop a plan and implement it under those conditions. The best emergency plan I’ve seen is a color-coded flip chart in a binder. People can grab that binder and quickly flip to the page for a fire, natural disaster, or active shooter and see the recommended steps.
If you are developing a plan, ask your employees for input. They know the building and the operating procedures the best. When I do a site assessment, I generally interview each employee for several minutes and draw up an anonymized list of all the things that employees think an employer could do to improve safety
and operating conditions. You can decrease turnover if you improve the working conditions for employees and they feel safer when they work. You want to be able to produce a document, training, and a procedure to show that you were taking diligent efforts to try and keep your employees and clients safe. In addition to potentially saving lives, having a plan in place helps with liability and insurance.
Irrigation Leader: What sorts of drills should irrigation districts carry out?
Phil Ball: You can prepare for an incident by running a tabletop drill or a live drill. We have done active-shooter drills for some water districts, like the Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs. I played the bad guy, and we had loud sound effects to simulate gunfire. Everybody learned how to barricade and practiced their escape routes. At the end of the day, we came up with a list of ways that security could be improved. You don’t want a parachute that may or may not work. Treat your security plans and training the same way: You should know that they are operationally safe and effective. Through testing, you can find vulnerabilities.
Irrigation Leader: What other sorts of training should every office have its people do?
Phil Ball: In the active killer class, we go over the preattack indicators that people manifest when they’re considering coming in and harming their fellow employees. There’s a workplace violence component. Crisis communications are also effective in reducing workplace violence. We want to make sure that employees talk to the public in a way that will lower the chances that an agitated customer becomes a physically violent customer. We touch on mental health; we also cover verbal techniques, words, and gestures that are proven to deescalate situations.
We also have a physical self-defense class where we learn the physical and verbal preattack indicators. We also go over basic physical defensive tactics.
I also suggest having all your employees trained in basic CPR and automated external defibrillator (AED) operations.
Irrigation Leader: Is there any medical equipment districts should have on hand?
Phil Ball: One of the medical items I suggest every agency have is a cat tourniquet. They’re black tourniquets with Velcro that can slide on an arm or leg and quickly stop the bleeding from a wound. You can be trained in just a few minutes on how to apply one; they’re wonderful, inexpensive, life-saving devices. Today, with COVID‑19, everybody needs hand sanitizer and N‑95 masks or other masks. We owe it to our families and fellow employees to make sure that we don’t spread any diseases.
First-aid kits should be easily identifiable and located in a fixed, public location—not stored where they are hard to access. Those kits should include all the things we talked about, including a cat tourniquet and latex gloves.
Irrigation Leader: Is there any other field of security that we have not discussed yet?
Phil Ball: Something that’s becoming a big threat today is cyberthreats and ransomware. We have met with some large corporations in Atlanta that have been affected. It used to be that hackers would get information and demand a ransom to get it back. Companies got smart and learned they just needed to back up their data off site. However, when the companies say they have a backup and won’t pay the ransom, the hackers say, fine, I’ll sell all your client information and post embarrassing e-mails on the internet. Backups don’t help with that, and that could damage your company and represent a huge liability.