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March 2013
Guarding the Grid
By Jim Froneberger

     In the fall of 2001, Phrantceena Thate Halres was running a successful recruiting and staffing business in Raleigh. Typical of human resources firms, Halres offered a wide range of staffing services for administrative, accounting, professional, legal, and technical positions. Then came the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Halres didn’t know it right away, but that tragic event would permanently change the direction of her business.

     A graduate of Wingate University, Halres had been providing staffing services since 1986 to a number of agencies of state government, as well as to companies around the Research Triangle. Her firm, Aelmings Human Resources Corporation, also advised clients on how to implement programs to recruit and train a diverse workforce.

     But shortly after the 9/11 attacks, her telephone rang. It was one of her clients, Duke Energy. The new realities of a post-9/11 world meant increased security requirements at the nation’s nuclear power plants, and Duke needed help staffing those brand new security needs. The result was the formation of Total Protection Services Carolinas, LLC (TPS), a minority and woman-owned staffing firm dedicated to providing safety and security services to the nuclear power industry.

 

Safety and Security Services

     After the call from Duke Energy, Halres started providing services to Duke in 2002. But with Duke Energy as her primary client, she soon realized a move would be necessary. Commutes to meetings at Duke’s Charlotte headquarters and to nuclear plant sites in South Carolina were proving to be logistical challenges from a Raleigh base. So in 2008, she moved the business to Charlotte. After stints in Ballantyne and Dilworth, TPS has now settled into a new home on Fairview Road near SouthPark.

     In addition to Duke, other major clients now include Southern Company and Shaw Power Group. In all, TPS staffs around a dozen facilities and focuses on Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas.

     The company provides what they call high-threat/close proximity safety and security services, primarily for nuclear power plants. The company is now expanding into other related markets such as coal-based energy generation plants, new plant construction sites (such as Duke’s new Lee Nuclear Station in Cherokee County, S.C.), and their latest focus, government nuclear lab facilities.

     While the services provided are still primarily staffing-based services, Halres says it’s a very different business than providing accountants or administrative assistants. Most of their security specialists come from the U.S. military, law enforcement agencies and government security services. Many have special operations backgrounds.

     “It’s certainly a very different world than what I had been dealing with, but our staffing skill sets still transferred,” admits Halres. “It was just different because nuclear security is so regulated. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) governs a lot of it, and there are specific fit-for-duty requirements, BMI index requirements, and many other things.”

     In this male-dominated profession, TPS is working hard to recruit more women into the security field. But since women tend to have smaller hands and weigh less, some of the weapons present issue with both size and recoil. Nevertheless, TPS has been successful in working a limited number of women into their workforce.

     Each client defines the skill sets needed for each position based on the NRC regulations and their own internal requirements. For example, there are several layers of security at a nuclear plant, ranging from the outside perimeter to deeper within the more highly restricted “protected areas” inside the plant itself. Each layer has different requirements and different skill sets.

     “Usually at the perimeter points you have the officers who greet visitors, so they need to be friendly and efficient, but firm,” explains Halres. “It is behavior-based security. It requires being alert while still getting people in and out in a timely manner. That skill set is a little less intensive, but it’s very mentally engaging.”

     As you move further into each facility though, the required skill sets change dramatically and the security techniques use both seen and unseen protection strategies.

     “The deeper, more sensitive, highly-protected areas of the facility are where you will find our more highly qualified personnel,” she continues. “We have a lot of ex-military, special operations types with very specialized skill sets—even some 007 type of stuff. We also have to ensure that these officers can demonstrate proficiency with whatever weapons of choice our clients choose to employ.”

     TPS can staff their own security force at a client site or they can provide hiring services for a client’s in-house force. But often, TPS will augment an existing in-house force, as they do for Duke Energy. When they supplement this in-house security, the TPS force becomes a qualified feeder pool of trained security professionals. This allows the client to “try before they buy.”

     In a typical environment, the TPS force may represent about 20 percent of the total security at the plant. TPS hires and trains each officer to the client’s requirements, usually right there at the client site. That way, the client doesn’t have to advertise for the position and doesn’t have to devote valuable management time to provide the specialized training that TPS offers.

     Then, as attrition occurs within the client’s proprietary in-house force due to retirements, transfers or military call-ups, the client can select already-trained professionals from the TPS force. TPS then hires and trains replacements and the cycle starts all over again. The client always has a pool of properly trained professionals to pull from.

 

Building a Quality Workforce

     “Perhaps the thing that troubles me the most about this business is the workforce I know to be out there protecting many of our nuclear plants in this country,” says Halres. “We took over the security at one plant where a large security company had been doing it for a number of years. They had not performed well and when we took it over we found out that half the workforce didn’t have high school diplomas. How can you protect a nuclear plant if you can’t read and write? We need to upgrade the skills of this profession.”

     To address this skills shortage, TPS has launched a new security training academy initiative. While TPS has been training to client requirements at each client site on a 24/7 basis to accommodate various work shifts, this new initiative will focus on creating a pool of qualified security workers within a given region.

     The first academy is now in the initial planning stages and will be located in southern Mississippi near Gulfport. TPS hopes to develop the academy in conjunction with a lignite coal power plant being built by Southern Company. The project has the support of the Department of Energy, the Obama Administration and Southern Company.

     Instead of just providing custom training for clients, the academy will become a resource for the entire community, providing the Gulf Coast with a well-trained workforce ready to be hired by the region’s broader energy industry. The academy will not only benefit Southern Company’s new lignite coal plant, it will also benefit the Gulf region’s numerous chemical plants, as well as Entergy, the second largest nuclear power generator in the nation.

     And with Gulfport’s proximity to offshore Gulf of Mexico oil platforms, one would imagine that industry could also benefit from a workforce of trained security professionals.

     The facility TPS hopes to build will be, to some extent, modeled after the U.S.-funded King Abdullah Special Operations Training Center (KASOTC) in Jordan. That facility was designed to help train Iraqi and other regional security forces to protect their own key facilities in that dangerous part of the world.

     While the Mississippi center will not need to go to the extremes that the Jordan facility does, it has been used as an example of what the academy might look like.

     “We have acquired a lot of knowledge and skills in our company within the nuclear security space,” states Halres. “There is such a big need for training and skills development. These jobs are here now, and only going to increase in the future. The big gap is the workforce. So the question is how to prepare the workforce to get those good jobs.”

     The academy will focus on the “soft” skills needed to provide protection to critical national infrastructure, instead of the tactical and weapons skills many of the applicants already have from their experience in the armed forces or law enforcement. This will be behavior-based situational-based training where the students have to think, and instructors will teach it with experience gained in special operations and similar fields.

     “After 9/11, you really have to think,” explains Halres. “Security professionals must be very alert and aware of their surroundings and they must learn certain behaviors that help them make the right decisions. Some of the military folks that come in from Afghanistan are literally trained to kill, so you have to dial those folks back a bit. They have to make a mental shift; we make it clear to them that they may sit in one place and stare at the same wall for an entire shift, except when they go on break. Then we ask them, ‘Is this job right for you?’”

     Halres says one of the community resources they also hope to leverage is the older senior workforce. These are the folks who retire from their security job, but who are not really ready to leave the workforce. They still want to work, so TPS will take them in to help train the new staff.

     “Turnover in our industry is about 46 percent overall and that’s pretty sad,” concedes Halres. “But our turnover at TPS is only about 2 percent. So as an industry, we need a fundamental change in how we recruit, hire and train.”

 

Giving Back to the Community

     TPS is planning to open a second academy location in Charlotte to help bolster the workforce that feeds their sizable Carolinas site base. But Halres has even bigger plans for that facility with a recently conceived initiative to be offered through the auspices of a non-profit organization she also leads, The Coach Tate Foundation.

     The Foundation was established in 2010, in memory of her father, Johnny “Coach” Tate of Burke County, N.C. The primary mission of the Foundation is to provide scholarships, leadership development and character building for student athletes in Burke and surrounding counties, but she also sees another way the Foundation can give back to the community.

     “I want to create a program here in Charlotte for families to teach some of the same situational awareness and behavioral skills that we will teach in our regular security training academy,” explains Halres.

     “I want people to feel they can be safe and protect their family, but not have to feel like they need to go out and buy guns and bullets. How do you react? What do you do when you see a gun?

     “You don’t run and scream. There are certain things that you do that are not outwardly expressed, but you are quiet and you maneuver and you conquer a situation.

     “We need a better way,” Halres acknowledges. “I’ve learned a lot in the nuclear industry about how to protect these facilities, so I would be remiss not to share that knowledge in a safe and limited way to help our greater community.”

 

Jim Froneberger is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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