The writer – due to join G4S’s security team for the Olympics – reveals fears that training for the job is far from sufficient
I feel a prickle of sweat as I stare at the computer monitor.
I have 20 seconds to look at an x-ray image of a bag and search for the components of a home-made bomb.
I need to locate explosives, battery, trigger, switch, wiring and timer. I scan through as fast as I can and click on the button at the bottom of the screen to confirm that I’ve found it. This isn’t real life, not yet anyway.
I’m taking an initial exam to join the x-ray team at G4S and become part of the largest security company in the world. I was lucky to pass – it was far harder than I thought, and most people failed. But not for long.
Less than a month later those who couldn’t spot the bomb were called back for retakes: curiously everyone got through.
It was one of the stranger episodes I have had since I applied for a job on the security team for the London Olympics earlier this year.
After filling out a form online I went along full of apprehension to the G4S Training Centre on Pitchford Street in the shadow of the Olympic village. There was a long wait and Old Rokeby School, where the interviews were, was full.
The interview was easy. I threw out some lines about wanting to be part of the Olympic experience, did an eye test, and a smell test to differentiate between water and citrus. And then I was asked for my measurements for the uniform.
Having passed the interview and my x-ray aptitude test, I went to the next stage; four days’ training to get my SIA (Security Industry Authority) Door Supervisor Licence. This is a requirement for anyone wanting to work as a security guard at the Games, though there have been occasions when I wondered why.
Along with around 35 others I turned up to a bleak classroom in a tower block on the Romford Road. It was reminiscent of school; worn grey carpet, grubby white paint, thin partition walls.
My classmates were a mix of people: mainly men, lots of recent immigrants, people straight from the job centre, students, people looking for shift work to supplement their income.
We were taught by teachers from a company contracted by G4S to train new recruits in a variety of skills; customer service, the use of force, how to spot a terrorist.
Most of the classes were mundane PowerPoint presentations and we were often shouted at for nodding off, particularly after lunch. The main instructor was once in the British army.
Since then he had spent almost 20 years working in the nightclub industry and had become a martial arts expert. We were told the SIA Licence was brought in to reduce the use of violence in the private security industry.
But when all else fails, the instructor said, there’s no harm giving someone a good thump.
And he explained how best to do it without getting in trouble with the law. “You can hit them first. This is known as a preemptive strike. If you were to strike someone, use an open hand. This has the same power as a punch but it doesn’t leave a mark.”
The instructor had more advice. He suggested we should be very careful talking to the police.
“You’re not convicted on what you did but on what you say. Be very careful about making statements. I have two solicitors. One of them I’ve used for 20 years, he gets everyone off. Some of my dodgy friends. You need someone like that to hold you by the hand.”
That’s all very well for bouncers working at nightclubs, but hardly the skills I thought I’d need working at a family orientated event like the Olympics.
The SIA exams were easy, but to work on the x-ray machines I had to complete the next round of training and vetting by both G4S and the Olympic organisers, Locog.
Our trainer was a likeable man who was attempting to motivate us.
“This is a unique course that has been tailor-made,” he chirped. “This is like airport security but less stringent.”
Cut to inspirational video of sporting hero moments accompanied by Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. “What you guys are doing is important and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise … be prepared to do your job, don’t go out clubbing the night before.”
He talked to us about “how to spot a terrorist” and warned he would not be “a middle Eastern guy wearing a robe”.
A terrorist is much more likely to look like any one of us, we should instead be looking out for “suspicious behaviour”.
We also practiced bag searches. We were told an estimated 350 people would be coming through each x-ray team at the busiest times, whilst airports deal with 180 people per hour.
It was obvious body searches were going to be a problem. Locog have a same sex policy on searching and so far there are very few women recruits.
But a bigger problem remains the x-ray machines, which are made by a company called Rapiscan. They translate the contents of a bag into various colours: orange for organic materials such as clothes and explosives; dark blue for inorganic such as metal; green for mixed materials.
There’s a room full of x-ray machines for us to practice on, but during the first few training days we aren’t allowed on them. Instead we have PowerPoint presentations, and we are tested on simulators.
My class spent hours being tested by a computer program that shows us fake x-ray projections. We had to decide which button to press; hold, for prohibited items such as firearms and complete IEDs; search, for suspicious items such as knives, explosives, or liquids; or clear. Only bags that the x-ray operator flags up need searching so if anything dangerous gets into the Olympic Park it will be our fault.
It quickly becomes clear that this test is properly hard, so people start teaming up, and there’s a general hum of chat in the room during the exam. Only two people, in a class of 40, pass first time. Those who failed were allowed to retake the exact same modules, endlessly repeating them until they scraped through.
The tests were exact repeats so it is easier to recognise the bags when you see them for the second time.
Everyone seemed to be cheating and the instructors weren’t doing anything to stop it. By the end of the day the vast majority passed. The few who haven’t are told they’ll be reassigned to other roles.
The next day we have a different instructor who congratulates us on passing the x-ray exam but quickly makes us all feel a bit guilty: “Everyone is here on their own ability. If you’ve cheated to get here, you’re playing with peoples lives.”
We were allowed to practice on the real machines on the last day of training.
“Today is your opportunity to use the x-ray machines. And this could be your only chance before you’re on duty,” the instructor told us.
More than 130 students had gathered in a large bomb-proof tent enclosing a courtyard at Old Rokeby School. It was total chaos.
Each machine has a team of seven – the pacer, who directs the visitor; the loader, who fills the trays; the screener, carefully watching the x-ray images; the bag searcher; the body searcher; the team leader; and the worst role, “tray bitch” – gathering up the trays at the end of the conveyor belt.
The screener has the most important and complex role. This is one of the jobs I am supposed to be doing at the Games and I am being given only 20 minutes’ practice. That’s it.
I have between four to six seconds to quickly assess each bag and determine if there are any potential threat objects.
It is easy to miss something and I did. Afterwards we opened up the suspect bag. Inside there was a homemade bomb – or in this case, a VHS cassette stuffed with fake red plastic explosives and a detonator.
If I was on duty my mistake would have put thousands of people in serious danger. Lots of my classmates have been getting increasingly nervous. “It’s quite a lot of pressure isn’t it?” says one.
We all feel we have an important job to do, but yet none of us feel very confident.
G4S still haven’t contacted me to let me know when I’ll be working.
I have my uniform and my accreditation pass but not dates. If I am given work I’ll be paid the minimum wage (£6.08p) for the hours I’ve spent training and £8.50p an hour for 12-hour shifts.
This will be exhausting and mundane work, so I’m not surprised how many people are simply not turning up. We seem to be expected to keep our lives on hold over the last few months waiting for the possibility of a part-time job.
And I’m still not really sure I know how to spot a makeshift bomb …
In the Feb. 3 opinion article “Exam forces students to cram irrelevant facts,” was the writer, professor Julian Dierkes of Canada, looking at the same national university exam that I took?
The Japanese portion involved two long reading comprehension sections in addition to some recognition of kanji characters. The English portion, too, included four long reading comprehension selections, which accounted for most of the score.
Visit link: Don’t make light of ‘center exam’