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VIEWPOINT: Guards v technology: Which is best? 23 October 2013

Vacant premises are at the mercy of the weather, utilities failures and crime, but what is the best protection option?

Anew report by VPS assesses the strengths and limitations of options available to secure and protect vacant properties. Guards versus Technology: Which is Best? features some useful UK data that demonstrates the scale of the vulnerabilities to which empty premises are prone. VPS, the UK’s largest vacant property specialist, draws on its experience and expertise in the report, which comprises a number of real life case studies from a variety of commercial buildings, from heritage sites to film studios.

Like any premises, vacant properties require protection from weather damage, utilities failures, vandalism and squatters. However, they are more vulnerable to these risks than occupied sites: they are not only easier targets, but the effects of water damage, for example, will frequently go undetected for longer periods, during which time the impact can become far greater and more costly to rectify.

Wet, wet, wet

Last year was the second wettest on record. Floods and ‘supercell’ storms occurred from April through to July and again in September, November and December. Insurers Aon Benfield gave an estimate of the total insurance losses through flooding for the year of £1.33 billion.

In June 2012, for example, over a month’s worth of rain fell on one day on areas of the North, with Lancashire, Cumbria and Pennine areas badly hit. The Environment Agency had 10 flood warnings and 47 alerts in place for England, and another supercell storm struck Tyneside without warning at the height of the evening rush hour. Flooded shopping malls were evacuated, Newcastle Central station was closed. In September, the Environment Agency reported 570 businesses and homes were flooded. Throughout the year thousands of commercial and residential properties suffered similar damage.

And in case the rain doesn’t pose enough risk, 20% of property insurance claims are due to water leakages and burst pipes. Leaks from a small burst or fractured pipe can release thousands of gallons of water if left unnoticed. The average insurance claim is an estimated £25,000 but costs can reach £100,000 or more for water damage to commercial properties.

In addition to succumbing to the elements, utility faults and malicious acts also add significantly to the risks of property care. As firefighters start a series of mini-strikes, it’s worth being aware that 60 fires a day occur in or beside vacant or derelict buildings. In 2011-12 there were 21,700 fires in empty or derelict properties. However the main cause of accidental fires in all buildings other than homes was faulty appliances and leads. This represented 24% of all such fires. The fire statistics also reveal that half the commercial premises did not have an automated fire alarm system installed.

Man-made incidents must also be added into this vacant property risk assessment, such as crime, break-ins, fires, graffiti and fly-tipping.
There were 209,000 recorded acts of vandalism against business premises in 2012. The majority of these were experienced by premises in the wholesale and retail sector, according to the government’s Crimes Against Businesses survey.

In 2012 more than 1,000 metal thefts occurred each week from commercial properties in the UK, accounting for one in six of all thefts across all sectors. Unoccupied commercial premises are likely to bear the brunt of the estimated total £1 billion costs to repair the damage and replace stolen items from these crimes.

Since squatting in residential buildings became illegal in 2012, it is estimated that commercial property occupations have doubled.

Tackling the issue

Manned guards provide a visual, on-site deterrent to vandals or thieves, and also a round-the-clock review of any weather or utility problems. Responses and alerts are likely to be accurate and fast. However, 24/7 guarding is expensive. In addition, guards are only human: they can keep an eye on just one area at a time and require sleep.

Technological alternatives, such as alarms, CCTV camera systems and water flow sensors, such as the VPS Veriflow, can also provide 24/7 monitoring, but – with many sensors acting as pairs of eyes – they can do it more cost-effectively than manned guards and are not prone to human errors.
They can also be specially adapted to protect vacant properties, with, for example, wireless facilities and battery power to avoid the need for external power supplies. The most modern technologies can reduce false alarms using state-of-the-art video captures, transmitted almost immediately to remote monitoring centres.

However, on the downside, response times to dealing with an incident may take a lot longer than an on-site guard – and a camera is less of a deterrent than a human face.

Finding the right solution will depend on a risk assessment. Sites have different needs according to how vulnerable they are as a result of their location, size and structure. Some will favour a manned presence, others can be appropriately protected by technology, and others still from a blend of both. A professional risk assessment is the core of getting it right.

For further information:

Simon Alderson is development director of VPS and chairman of the British Security Industry Association’s Vacant Property Protection Group

Manned Guards versus Technology: Which is Best? is available for free from



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