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Unsung Security Heroes: Touching story of Ronnie Alexander, frozen to death on duty

Security workers work long hours in stressful and dangerous sites, encounter violence, miss out on family events and holidays, work alone in remote locations under challenging conditions, and are not paid enough to endure all this.

Moreover, they are invisible when it comes to appreciation.

Security workers are indeed the unsung heroes of our society, the silent protectors who are working relentlessly in the backbone of the country.

They are often the first people to respond to incidents, trained to deal with a wide range of situations. “I have given first aid more often than I can count,” a security officer says when asked about the job.

They are the first line of defence against crime, and they play a vital role in preventing crime.

But security workers do not enjoy the same privileges as the law enforcement officers. Even though they do not have the additional power invested in them by the public to support them, they still have to respond to the same kinds of incidents, including theft, vandalism, and violence.

However, they are often forgotten and underappreciated by the public.

Security jobs are generally seen as low-skilled and low-paying jobs, which is not the case as security officers must be trained in a variety of skills, including self-defence, first-aid and customer service.

And since they are mostly invisible, primarily stationed in remote areas or behind security cameras, they may be perceived as not doing anything important.

But their job is indispensable to our way of life. The majority are dedicated to their work, and they play an essential role in keeping our communities safe. They deserve to be recognized for their hard work and dedication.

As another security officer says, “It’s a thankless job.” The lack of appreciation for security officers is frustrating for them.

Unfortunately, there are many security officers who do not return home at the end of their shift, and when that tragedy happens, only a few people remember and honour them.

This series aims to remember, honour and appreciate those security professionals who lost their lives, received injuries, and put themselves at risk while protecting people, businesses and properties.

Their work is essential to the safety of our communities, and this series aims to give a voice to the silent efforts of all security professionals.

The tragic death

When asked how it feels to be a security officer, one replied: “My co-workers were awesome, we all got along great and had each other’s backs, but more importantly, upper management had our backs,” pointing out the importance of the way the officers are treated by their employers and superiors.

Unfortunately, the treatment does not have a standard across the industry. Most often than not, how they will be treated is a matter left to the mercy of the company they work for. Thus, ironically, security officers do not have enough security with regards to their jobs.

Such was the case with Ronnie Alexander who tragically froze to death at the age of 74 in a remote site at a Scottish onshore wind farm near New Cumnock, Ayrshire after being stranded in snow during severe weather in January 2018.

Ronnie Alexander

Ronnie and another officer were the only staff on site that day, 21 January, at the wind farm which was under construction when heavy snow hit the area.

The Met Office had issued a yellow “be aware” warning for heavy snow and alarm was raised at around 8.30pm after Ronnie failed to return home from a 12-hour shift.

The investigation revealed that all heat and lighting were lost at the site following a power cut caused by the storm. It is thought he left his post in an effort to reach a second cabin just over half-a-mile away, in the hope it still had power so he could survive the night.

Ronnie still had signs of life when he was found “face down and hypothermic in deep snow” and nearly a mile away from his security cabin by Police Scotland’s Mountain Rescue Team at around 1am on 22 January.

He was airlifted to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary but medics only estimated a 5% chance of survival.

Despite the efforts of intensive care staff, he died later that morning with the cause of death confirmed as hypothermia.

His daughter, 48-year-old Laura Alexander, said: “The only saving grace is that the rescuers found our dad and the hospital kept him alive long enough so he wasn’t alone at the very end and we got to say goodbye.

“We now just hope all industries, not just wind farms, who rely on remote workers take a hard look at themselves, their support procedures and back-up plans to make sure people are safe.

“No other family should have to endure this trauma because it’s not just the loss that hurts – the aftermath brings its own agony.”

She was right: The company, whose property he was protecting, failed to keep him safe.

The deadly failings

Northstone Ltd was the construction company who ran the remote site and Corporate Service Management (CSM) provided security officers to the site.

Ayshire Wind Farm

The subsequent investigation conducted by the Health and Safety Executive revealed that there were two generators to provide heating and electricity, both of which had broken a number of times and hadn’t been replaced. There was no backup generator.

With no landline service and limited mobile coverage an internet phone system was used, which required a password and power from the generator.

The password was not provided to CSM and the security officers had no access. Although CSM knew about the lack of signal, they expected their staff to use personal mobiles in an emergency.

On the day of the incident, which was a Sunday, Ronnie and his colleague were the only staff on site with Ronnie on duty in the gatehouse and his colleague 860 metres uphill at the main compound.

Other workers had arrived in the morning to try and clear the snow but the weather was too bad and they left around 11am, telling Ronnie’s colleague at the main compound that if he didn’t follow them down in the next 5-10 minutes, the road would be blocked.

At this time there was no snow on the 4×4 vehicle provided to the security officer.

At 1pm, the weather deteriorated and caused deep snow drifts on the road to the site from New Cumnock, and the road between the gatehouse where Ronnie was and the site compound where his colleague was stationed. His colleague tried to drive the 4×4 down to the gatehouse but it got stuck in the snow. He tried to walk but the snow was too deep.

Over the course of the next three hours, Ronnie’s colleague kept trying to move the vehicle and walk to the gatehouse but was unsuccessful.

At around 5pm, he went to the top of a small hill to get a signal on his mobile phone and called the control room to tell them that the generator had failed, leaving him without heating and lighting and the only vehicle had been snowed in.

He was told by his supervisor to try and drive to the gatehouse, collect Ronnie and leave. Contact between the officer and his supervisor was then lost.

Due to the weather, the nightshift was cancelled, but the two guards who were due to start work at 6pm tried to help their colleagues.

It took them almost an hour to walk the 4km from the car park to the gatehouse, which was in darkness with the generator out. They couldn’t see their colleagues or get further up the hill so returned to their car and emergency services were called.

It was understood that the security company CSM did not call the emergency services until after 9pm.

As The Health and Safety Executive’s investigation found, “the construction firm, when preparing its emergency weather plan, had failed to account for the times when nobody from the company would be present at the site.

“No provisions were made for a back-up generator to ensure the guards had sufficient heating and lighting, despite the main generator having failed previously.

“The guards had no way to call for help, as the plan was dependent on the guards being able to communicate with the control room off site.”

Apologies and fines: “All bittersweet”

Following the tragic death, Northstone Ltd released a statement saying: “Northstone accepts that on this occasion at Afton Windfarm we did not meet the high health and safety standards that we seek to achieve to protect our employees, customers, clients, subcontractors and communities.

“We deeply regret that this resulted in the death of Mr Ronald Alexander. Our thoughts and sincerest sympathies remain with his family and friends.

“We took immediate action on the Afton Windfarm project to prevent a re-occurrence.

“As part of our internal investigation and the subsequent findings of this investigation, we have reviewed and improved our risk control processes across the business.”

A spokesman for CSM, Ronnie’s employers, said: “We are deeply saddened by this incident and would like to take this opportunity to extend our heartfelt thoughts and condolences to Ronnie’s family.

“This incident has had a profound effect on our organisation, and sufficient measures have been taken to ensure something like this cannot happen again.”

Alistair Duncan, head of the health and safety investigation unit at the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, said: “Ronnie Alexander’s death might have been prevented if appropriate measures for workers to call for help in an emergency had been in place.

“By failing to ensure the safety of the workers on such a remote site, both Northstone (NI) Ltd and Corporate Service Management Ltd left them in unacceptable risk.

“This prosecution should remind other employers that failing to keep their employees safe can have fatal consequences and they will be held accountable for this failure.

“Our thoughts are with Mr Alexander’s family at this difficult time.”

On 17 November 2021, Northstone Ltd and CSM were fined a total of £868,800 after pleading guilty to failings under health and safety legislation. Northstone were fined £768,000 for their failings and CSM were fined £100,800.

Ronnie’s family had to wait years just to get the conviction and said they welcome the level of fine. “But ultimately it is all bittersweet because at the end of the day we are still without Ronnie and no punishment can change that,” they added.

Family of Ronnie Alexander

His widow Mary said: “Losing Ronnie was the hardest thing our family has experienced.

“He was loving, hard-working, kind spirited and he doted on his grandkids – that’s why he was still working in his 70s because he wanted to spoil his family.

“My husband died in January 2018 and November of that year would have been our 50th wedding anniversary.

“To have lived through so much together and have him taken because his boss failed on basic, common-sense procedures is just beyond us all.

“While we now know what happened that night it pains us to imagine what Ronnie felt – not just the physical struggle but enduring it alone.

“Because of this, we’ll never really have peace or closure.”

Remembering Ronnie will help the industry learn its lessons and not to fail any other officers again in future.

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