Don’t Call Our Security Officers ‘Guards’

During my 20-plus years as a career law enforcement officer and police chief, I have become very protective of the word “officer.” It is not a power thing — it is a professional thing. Since moving on to my new found career of healthcare security, I have spent the past six years laboring over the terms “officer” vs. “guard.” In the northeast region, I have found that the mental picture of someone who claims to be a “security guard” is that of a person who is unkempt with cigarette in hand, feet up on the desk and grunting to all those who pass by him/her.

I know I sound a bit harsh, but it is the only way I can paint the picture, so please bare with me. I also know that it is not true for all “guards.” As I have told everyone in our facility, “Guards play football and basketball. Some even guard buildings and people.” This is my opinion and perception, which is why I was asked to write this article. The difference between the two words is that the professional security officer provides a whole host of different services to people.

Although there are many definitions, Webster defines these two groups in the following manner:

  • Guard: A person or a body of persons on sentinel duty
  • Officer: One who holds an office of trust, authority or command

As the chairperson for the International Association for Healthcare Safety and Security (IAHSS) Pine Tree Chapter, I have not only tried to help it sink in with my staff, but have also addressed it with other vice presidents, directors, supervisors and officers around the state and New England. I am known for “beating this horse to death.” So now, in my first national article, I am a victim of a major misquote. You say, “What is he so worked up about? It is only a word?” It may not mean a thing to some, but to me it means a great deal.

To show how serious we have been about this, our campus has gone to such lengths as to have any policy with the name security guard in it changed to say security officer. I keep a jar on my desk that I put “guard” change in. Anytime someone uses the word “guard” when they refer to the security staff, he/she has to pay me a quarter. No one is exempt from this practice.

To date I have collected money from the CEO, VPs, directors, police chiefs, doctors and just last night at Littlefield’s Fitness Center, I took a quarter from the owner. When you take money from people, they tend to remember and not make the same mistake twice.

I mean absolutely no disrespect to those who feel the term “guard” is warranted. If you guard stuff and feel that it is an appropriate use of the word, that is your choice. I am sure that there are professional guards. The difference is to whom they are referred to.

If someone attends culinary school and advances to become a professional chef, why would you call him a cook? If someone decides to obtain her doctorate in theology instead of professorship, does she not deserve the professional title of doctor? When someone decides he wants to become a registered nurse, do not think for one second that if you call him a nurse’s aid, you won’t get the bigger of the two needles.

Likewise, if you have taken the time to become educated and trained in code response, WMD, BLS, MOAB, verbal de-escalation, blood born pathogens, self defense, OC and handcuffs, report writing, computers, domestic and workplace violence issues — to name a few — you should be referred to in a professional light.

My hope is that by keeping this on the front burner, officers will feel they are in a profession and not just a job. It is a small difference to some, but to my staff and institution, it has become a big item.

As a director, it is my job to help all of my staff obtain the tools to become professional security officers. I cannot do this if in the back of their minds, they feel they are “just guards.” We shoot ourselves in the foot by not taking care of these small but very important items and ideals. The only way to bring up the professional standard is to train hard, become better educated, look professional, provide a great service to all who enter our facilities and lastly, call them what they really are … SECURITY OFFICERS.

Campus Safety magazine, you owe me a quarter!

Kevin T. O’Leary is the director of security of MaineGeneral Medical Center, which has several campuses in Augusta and Waterville, Maine. He can be reached at

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