Canadian Security Magazine

Security Director of the Year: Future focused

Jennifer Brown   


Don MacAlister has spent 33 years in the security industry designing programs to protect public spaces — from corrections, to universities and hospitals with the largest amount of time spent in the health-care field. But it’s the future of the industry he finds himself spending a lot more time thinking about.

In fact he’s very pragmatic about the new challenges coming to people like himself who are responsible for health-care security across a broad network in the lower mainland of British Columbia. With a declining crime rate and aging population, he says security professionals need to be planning today for what their jobs will look like in the future.

“Crime is a young man’s game,” says MacAlister as he stands at Women and Children’s Health Centre in Vancouver. It is one of the province’s largest facilities and the place where he has mentored many health-care security professionals over the years. He came here to BC Children’s Hospital in 1989 to develop a comprehensive fire safety and security program at the Oak Street site.

“The challenge is to keep planning and thinking ahead of what this environment will look like in 20 years.”

MacAlister says the challenge for the burgeoning security industry is this: How do we continue to grow the industry when the crime rates are plummeting across the western world?


According to a recent FBI report, violent crime dropped in 2009 — for the third consecutive year — even though historically crime goes up during a recession. Property crimes dropped for the seventh straight year. Canadian trends mirror this data, says MacAlister.

“The fact is, we’re an aging population, and I think the challenge for us is to look ahead and design systems to meet that increased demand for health services and design systems in unique ways,” he says.

“We’re going to have to deliver health care differently in the future. More people are receiving care in their homes. We have home care workers who go to people’s homes. We know how to design a program to make physicians or nurses safe, but how do you make an environment safe for a health-care worker who goes into a client’s home and delivers health care?”

MacAlister was born in Bridge of Weir, Scotland, just west of Glasgow and immigrated to Canada’s West Coast with his parents and younger brother when he was nine years old. His brother is a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University. MacAlister got his start in the security industry at the age of 21 working in a maximum security prison. He then moved on to the University of B.C. MacAlister has spent two decades in health care,  and 18 months ago became the Executive Director of Lower Mainland Integrated Protection Services for the Fraser Health, Vancouver Coastal Health, Providence Health Care and Provincial Health Services Authority.

“I have always thought it easier to design a secure prison than a secure hospital,” says MacAlister. “People look at me like I’m crazy when I say that but it’s all about being able to control movement. In a prison you can control movement to a complete degree; you don’t have that ease with hospitals. It’s one of the things that attracted me to health care — it’s difficult, it’s complex.”

He leads a range of security, protection and parking programs for the four major health organizations in the Lower Mainland/Fraser Valley area of British Columbia, including fire safety for two organizations and emergency management/business continuity for one.
MacAlister has transitioned the program from a single health authority model to a program serving four major health organizations with a scope of 5,000 beds in 25 hospitals, 750,000 ER visits annually, 65,000 staff and serving a population of three million people. The budget he oversees is almost $50 million, including more than $21 million in parking revenues and $15 million in security contracts.
“This is new for us — we haven’t experienced delivering services horizontally as opposed to vertically. It’s really about making sure we use the precious health-care dollars most effectively,” he says. “If I lose a dollar in revenue, that’s a dollar that isn’t going to patient care. We’re really here to support the delivery of care.”

One of the big challenges in the health-care security industry is that often the main focus is saving money. At the same time, people like MacAlister must create a safe and accessible environment. Sometimes those things can be in opposition to one another, he says.
“In health care you battle for funding against health care needs. When you want to expand or replace a security system or increase human security resources somewhere you better have a strong business case — you may be competing against a CT scanner or other vital medical equipment,” he says.

The challenge put to people like MacAlister is to find ways to save money from their departments while still delivering a safe and secure environment for staff, patients and the public.

“Our mission was to save 10 per cent. We inherited a $50 million amalgamated budget and we’re going to save $5.4 million annually (much of it from parking) and we’re on track to save that this year in fiscal year 2010/2011,” he says. “We’re doing more with less and anytime you’re stretched like that it’s risk-based decision making.”

The reality too is the clientele with the greatest needs are often the ones protection services find the most challenging.

“In one day we’ll have 20 documented aggressive acts across the lower mainland which our security folks will be involved in safely managing — 95 per cent of aggressors are our patients, many with substance abuse or mental health issues, and they need to be treated safely and we need to make sure our caregivers are safe,” he says.

In the last two years he has managed to standardize processes across the four organizations in areas of higher risk including newborn security, prisoners as patients and targeted violence.

This year the organization will begin to realize the more than $5 million annually in cost savings/revenue enhancements through consolidated efficiencies such as centralized photo ID and operations centre functions and developing standardized CCVE and access control platforms across the four organizations.

“There were challenges; it’s definitely been exciting — we have a great team and we’ve done a lot of great work in a short time,” says MacAlister. “It’s been a quick and successful transition and those challenges have taken all of our resources and the skills of our leadership team to overcome.”

There are also geographic challenges. Even though his operation is centred in the lower mainland, there are still significant geographic challenges in terms of distances — some clients can only be reached by ferry or plane.

Some of the biggest hurdles MacAlister has experienced in the amalgamation process have been around managing technology.
“If you look at IT platforms, more of us run our security systems on our IT back bone so you need some seamless connectivity to run access control and CCTV across the lower mainland. We have four different IT platforms we have to deal with, four HR systems and four financial entities and each of the four organizations has its own culture. We realized that if we’re going to be successful we have to understand that culture locally. While we provide centralized oversight we have to have local connectivity,” he says.

Bringing the four organizations together also provided an opportunity to review old systems and standardize. For the access control platform the team realized two thirds of the organization was using Lenel and one third was on an Andover platform.

“Andover has been good for us for a long time but it is an aging infrastructure so when we looked at how we would deal with access control we knew we would have to migrate from one to another. So we are looking at potentially migrating to Lenel as Andover is just one third of our platform and maybe we could migrate that over the next two-to-four years,” he says.

When it comes to vendors, MacAlister manages three large service providers including ADT/Intercon, Paladin and Securiguard in the Vancouver area.

“We’ve inherited three separate contracts — Intercon (integrator) for Fraser Health, Paladin for Vancouver Coastal Health and Providence Health and Securiguard for Provincial Health services. Those contracts all have a fixed end date and we intend to co-ordinate and go to market somewhere near 2013 to see if there’s a case to have a single vendor for all of Metro Vancouver’s health-care system,” he says.

After more than 30 years in the industry MacAlister says health care remains his passion.

“I always say health care is different, and I know everybody says their industry is different, but I think health care security leaders speak with a passion that is missing from others. But our purpose is easy to sell to leaders and staff. We know if we create and maintain a safe and accessible environment people will receive better care. It’s embedded in your heart and folks either have it or they don’t — it’s a caring and nurturing nature and once you’re here it’s a bug that  doesn’t let you go.”

When it comes to succession planning, MacAlister says future leaders will require a different skill set than he came to the profession 30 years ago. It will continue to be financially focused and require strategic thinking.

In the future, he says health-care security professionals will have to possess a strong business acumen.

“Historically in security we’ve had retired police officers, military or some combination of that. I think we need to focus on the business stream — we can teach the security mechanics, but you really need business acumen these days,” he says, noting that getting executive buy-in will remain key for security professionals.

MacAlister has learned along the way and adapted his approach to the business model. He reports directly to the chief financial officer and vice-presidents of corporate services integration with Fraser Health. In the process of streamlining, MacAlister had to develop a business case identifying cost savings and efficiencies that could result from the consolidation. By reducing duplication and sharing technical expertise they are looking to demonstrate cost savings.

“It’s absolutely critical that you get executive support but you have to build that support over time. You also have to have strong professionals at every level of your department — those folks need to be credible and understand their role and function effectively whether at an event or in the boardroom,” MacAlister says. “Our executives believe what we do for a living is important and that our profession contributes to the overall care of the hospital.”

As a former colleague of MacAlister’s says, “Security was kept in the dungeon and called upon when there was a problem. Over the last 20 years Don has brought it up to the C-suite of the health authorities and it has been recognized as an integral part of the health-care department,” says Jeff Young, senior director of business development with Garda Canada. MacAlister hired him in 1990 as an in-house security supervisor.

Young nominated MacAlister for Security Director of the Year, sponsored by Anixter Canada, along with Dave Brown, regional manager with the Integrated Protection Services team.

“He’s been a great mentor for myself and so many others,” says Young.

“He is a leader in our business,” says Brown. “He is the first guy to get to work and last to leave and he tries to keep security at the forefront in the lower mainland. He’s done a good job of professionalizing our business.”

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