On this page:

  • Guards: recruiting, briefing, equipping and managing them
  • Private security companies
  • Armed guards


Guards are often needed at accommodation, offices and warehouses. Guards need careful briefing, equipping and strict management. Their instructions should be clear. Procedures should be in place for when a guard falls ill, or does not appear for duty, to ensure that buildings are never left unguarded. Annex 13 contains points to bear in mind when managing guards.

In some situations it can be appropriate to use private security companies. They may reduce the administrative and management burden and ensure continuity of cover. But there may be disadvantages or even dangers in using them. See Annex 13 of the ECHO Generic Security Guide for Humanitarian Organisations  (reproduced below) for a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of using private security companies.

In exceptional cases, armed guards may be necessary and appropriate, if there is no other way to protect life and property adequately. Annex 13 contains some points to bear in mind when considering the use of armed guards.


Annex 13 - Guards and Private Security Companies

Guards and Private Security Companies

Guards are necessary in many emergency relief situations. Humanitarian agencies have property that local criminals or armed groups, or simply hungry people, may wish to steal. There may also be risks to staff, who therefore need protecting.

A strong and happy team of guards can be a major help to the smooth running of a relief operation. Poorly managed guards can lead to theft, danger to staff, and extra burdens on managers. It is therefore worth investing time and effort to ensure that guards are managed well.



Recruiting good quality people is crucial to success. Do not take shortcuts: use the proper recruiting procedure. Insist on checking references before a new guard is allowed to start work. Make sure that the guards can speak the working language of the field team, so that all staff are able to communicate with them.

It is good practice to agree pay scales for guards (and indeed other staff categories) with other relief organisations in the area, to avoid creating tension between guards working for different employers.



All guards should have a full induction, involving briefing, equipping, and training where necessary:


Guards should be briefed clearly and thoroughly on their tasks. Do not assume that anything is obvious to them. Explain what the organisation does, and the values that it upholds. Describe the reputation that it wishes to have among local people.

Make clear the importance of the guards, not only in protecting people and property but also in enabling the relief operation to help many others. Encourage them to feel part of the team.

Detailed briefing points should include:

  • Most of the normal induction points that other staff would receive
  • Their routine duties
  • Hours and shifts
  • The importance of remaining at their post even if the guard due to take over from them does not appear
  • How to communicate with their manager, and with other staff
  • Action to take in the event of different types of incident
  • How to deal with visitors
  • The disciplinary system, and a warning that disciplinary action will be taken if a guard neglects his duties
  • Guards should not risk their lives trying to protect property. Their role is to detect intrusion and to raise the alarm


The appropriate equipment will vary according to the circumstances but may include the following:

  • Identity card
  • Torch/flashlight
  • Whistle
  • Aerosol fog horn or other loud alarm
  • Radio and spare battery
  • Battery charger
  • Watch
  • Coat
  • Stick (if justified by the threat; locally appropriate; and if your organisation’s policy allows it)
  • Shelter
  • Name badge
  • Visitors’ book

Recruiting a couple of dogs to accompany the guards can be a very effective deterrent to intruders, particularly in cultures where dogs are feared.


Assess and provide for any training needs that the guards have. Radio voice procedure is likely to be one need. Rehearse with them the actions they should take in the case of the most serious security incidents such as armed robbery.


Managing guards

An experienced nationally-recruited staff member is likely to be the most appropriate line manager of the guards. He or she should keep a close eye on their performance, and should make random unannounced visits to check that all is well.

In some situations it is almost standard practice for guards to sleep during the night. If this is the case, and if the security situation means that this would be dangerous, consider the following suggestions:

  • Work out why they are falling asleep: for example, do they have a second job? Are their shifts too long? Do they have a long journey to and from work? Are they eating enough?

  • Put two or more guards on duty overnight

  • Appoint an overseer and hold him accountable for ensuring all guards stay awake

  • Remove anything that could be used as a bed

  • Summarily dismiss any guard found asleep on duty

  • Shorten the length of shifts

  • Visit guards unannounced in the middle of the night, so that they resist the temptation to go to sleep for fear of being caught


Private security companies

Many humanitarian organisations engage a local security company to provide guards. This is likely to be more expensive than employing guards directly. If the company is good, it can have several advantages including:

  • Reduced administration: you do not need to recruit or manage guards

  • Greater reliability: the company ensures that the guards are well trained and equipped, and turn up on time
  • Replacement guards immediately available if one is sick or absent
  • In many cases a quick reaction force is available, to respond to emergency calls (check whether the quick reaction team is armed, and if so, what you should do when you call them – e.g. lie on the floor, stay away from windows, etc.)
  • Flexibility: easy to increase or decrease the number of guards, as the needs of the operation change
  • No need to make guards redundant at the end of the operation.

It is vital to check the reputation and efficiency of a private security company before making an agreement. Are their procedures suitable for an organisation like yours? Will they use force only when necessary? Who is liable for harm done when they do? What kind of arms do they use? Is the company, or is any of its owners, connected to individuals or groups that you do not wish to be associated with? Are they honest?

There can be disadvantages in using private security companies. They usually cost significantly more than employing your own guards, while paying their guards less than a humanitarian organisation would pay if employing them directly. Private security guards sometimes have no training for their role. Their presence can give the impression that a humanitarian organisation is cutting itself off from local people. In some cases the loyalty of their staff can be weak. Consider these and any other possible disadvantages before making your decision.


Armed guards

In a few extreme and exceptional cases, armed guards may be necessary and appropriate, if there is no other way to protect life and property adequately and if the humanitarian need justifies the continuation of the relief operation. Recent crises where most humanitarian organisations have used armed guards include Somalia and Chechnya.

If some humanitarian organisations use armed guards but others do not, those that do not can become greater targets while those that do can become associated with an implied threat of violence, and with a greater isolation from the local community. In a few situations, it may look ‘out of place’ not to have armed guards. If possible, all humanitarian organisations should reach the same decision on armed guards by consensus. They should consider how to minimise any negative local perceptions that might result.

In each case where armed guards are used, organisations should have a clear policy on their use. In particular, instructions for opening fire should be very clear to all concerned. Management of armed guards needs to be especially strict, with severe penalties for misuse of weapons.

Because of the risk of misuse of weapons, some humanitarian organisations prefer never to employ armed guards directly, but instead to engage a private security company to provide them. See the discussion on private security companies within this Annex.

In some cases no security company is available, in which case the local police, military or paramilitary authority may provide them. If so, the question may arise whether they should be paid. There are differing views on this: some say they may need to be paid, particularly if they receive no salary and their commitment needs to be assured. Others say that any payment to police, military or paramilitary guards compromises independence, and/or may become a protection racket. The best answer will depend on the situation and the judgement of an experienced manager.

It is vital that the organisation supplying armed guards is reputable and reliable, and perceived as so among the local population. Check whether the organisation is connected to individuals or groups that you do not wish to be associated with.

In all cases, a senior manager at HQ should take the decision whether to deploy armed guards, and should do so having consulted with any other humanitarian organisations working in the same area. Before making the decision, managers must be convinced that armed guards will reduce rather than increase the risks to the organisation.

Other issues to consider include:

  • Checking that the guards are capable of doing their job
  • Strict discipline, including a ban on the use of drugs or alcohol
  • What happens if and when the need for armed protection ends?
  • What happens if a guard injures or kills someone?

This is an extract, with minor adaptations, from the ECHO Generic Security Guide for Humanitarian Organisations, © Copyright the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid – ECHO. Available here as a free download online, in English, French, Spanish and Arabic.

Tags: Advocacy