Connecting the security dots on campus

Building security systems integration is a tough goal for institutions to reach—but some in higher ed are making it work

The roster of people flowing in and out of campus buildings changes frequently. New students come in, others graduate. Adjunct faculty and visiting scholars join the campus for a limited time; corporate partners and parents stop over for a day.

Giving everyone access to the appropriate buildings is a challenge that’s compounded when a mix of security cameras, surveillance systems and other security devices have been installed independently.

However, feeds from various devices can be integrated and delivered to safety personnel, who can view and connect security-related events. Additionally, security actions—such as turning on a video camera when unauthorized building access is being attempted—can be automated with security information management software.

Although many institutions haven’t unified building security, experts say that aim can be accomplished, over time, with the right blend of planning and technology.

A challenging goal

Most colleges and universities have a mix of door access and camera/surveillance devices, and that poses a significant hurdle to achieving an integrated picture of security events, industry experts say.

At Virginia Tech, door access devices range from physical keys to sophisticated security systems on buildings that house highly classified research. “We have 125 buildings on our Blacksburg campus. Some were built in the early 1800s and the most recent building was opened earlier this year,” says Brenda van Gelder, Virginia Tech’s executive director of converged technologies for security, safety and resilience.

Systems to unify

Thanks to open-communication standards, it is possible to pull in data from multiple devices to have a much broader view of building management.

Here are some areas in addition to video, camera and door access systems that could be connected within a facility:

  • HVAC monitoring and control
  • Motion sensors
  • Temperature sensors
  • Lighting control
  • Fire detection and smoke controls
  • Public address and voice announcements

There are electronic card access systems on the doors of 72 buildings, with installations beginning in 1994. The institution also has had a variety of camera surveillance systems installed over the past 10 to 15 years, with an increasing number installed since the institution’s 2007 mass shooting tragedy.

Today, Virginia Tech has a coordinated, campuswide approach to purchasing and implementing security devices so that data can be collected and made available to campus security. The institution also leverages other technologies, including overlaying incident data reports with a geographic information system (GIS) to identify recurring incidents by type, such as theft.

Another common disconnect in higher education has been a lack of communication between departments about the purchase of security devices, say industry experts. Surprisingly, many building access control fixtures and systems were purchased by student services, says Christopher Kieta, director of business development at Siemens Industry.

Student-services departments led the drive to equip students with debit cards for cashless spending at vending machines, cafeterias, bookstores and other services delivered in-house or by third-party companies. The providers of those cards then enabled them for building access.

“That was a watershed moment for electronic systems in higher education,” says Kieta. “Almost every major university has a one-card system today, and most of them came out of student services without the involvement of security professionals.”

Institutions must adapt when new technology in one sector outpaces their security plan. Keeping pace should involve updating safety policies with input from all campus departments involved in security.

Mission possible

Events and data can be captured from card readers, alarms, intrusion detection devices and recording devices, and rolled up into a security management system that displays all activity on one dashboard. Additionally, an institution can incorporate data on students and faculty from its administrative system.

Officials at Becker College in Worcester, Mass., have integrated card access with its video system on select buildings. When a student or faculty ID card is swiped for entry, the name and photo of the person associated with the card pops up on a screen monitored by security.

Security can see if the person attempting entry does not match the card. Additionally, the card access system will deny entry to a card holder who does not have authority to enter that building. The data associated with the card moves from the personnel records in the college’s administrative system to the card access software from S2 Security Corporation, which is also integrated with Becker’s ExacqVision video system.

“If security sees someone trying to enter a place where they don’t have access, an officer would go have a talk with them,” says CIO Patty Patria.

Up-to-date credentialing also provides an added layer of security at Virginia Tech, van Gelder says. For example, if an employee was caught on video stealing lab equipment one evening, the university could fire that person the next day. Human resources would alert security that the person will be let go at 10 a.m., and security would cut off the person’s access to databases and buildings at that time so the employee cannot cause further damage.

Institutions can go a step further by automating security alerts and other actions. For example, surveillance cameras and lights can automatically turn on when someone tries to enter a research building with highly flammable materials.

Those same devices can be activated when someone tries to use an access card to enter a building that also requires a code on a pin pad after 5 p.m., says David Marr, senior vice president of Blackboard Transact. Alerts for designated security events can be sent automatically to campus and/or local law enforcement, enabling them to respond more quickly.

Making integration happen

Achieving an integrated view of security requires developing a long range, comprehensive plan, often followed by a steady replacement of outdated security equipment.

The first step is creating an inventory of all security devices that can capture or transmit information, says Kieta. This includes noting whether a camera is analog or digital—the latter technology can deliver live feeds over a network.

Another factor for integration is whether devices were designed with a common internet protocol so that data can be transmitted from the device to the security command console. Then institutions need to weigh priorities with budget constraints.

At Virginia Tech, parking garages and other new structures have the most up-to-date security systems. Networked cameras are integrated into the 911 call center so dispatchers can view a live video feed. “We are a big campus, so varying degrees of camera-system technologies are deployed as determined by individual departments in accordance with their resource priorities,” says van Gelder.

Newer cameras have been installed inside and outside of the most highly populated buildings at California State University, Fresno. The cameras are all centrally connected and monitored by campus police through a video management system from Pelco.

However, replacing traditional locks on 6,300 doors in 303 buildings is a much bigger task, says Cynthia Teniente-Matson, vice president for administration and chief financial officer at the university.

The buildings currently have a mix of hard keys, swipe cards and smart ID cards tied to student and faculty registration. Buildings with the newer swipe-card access devices give campus security additional information. For example, if an item is stolen from a building overnight, police can review the data and see who entered the building at a given time.

“We are evaluating our pain points and documenting our current state. Then we will examine the data and make recommendations to get to our future state and put price points on all the activities we want to integrate. It takes systems, money and staffing,” says Teniente-Matson.

Becker also has a mix of door-access devices, including physical keys and key fobs (small hardware devices with built-in authentication used to control and secure access). In addition, the college has just installed an integrated card access system. A new student center on the Leicester campus was the first building to get the updated card access system on external doors, conference rooms and an exercise facility.

“We want the center to have 24-hour access for students. Setting up card access and video cameras allows students to use the facilities any time of day,” says Patria. The door-access devices also give Becker insight into the usage of the facilities.

Next, officials tackled installation on two buildings on its Worcester campus. “Retrofitting access on existing buildings was a bit more complicated, but we successfully added card controls and video cameras to our main academic building and two high-end game design labs,” says Patria.

The cost to set up card access on an interior door ranges from $3,000 to $4,000 when you include the reader, electrical, network wiring and labor, says Patria. The cost for exterior doors varies based on the type of door. Glass doors, double doors and handicapped-accessible doors can all increase the price. For example, a single exterior door might cost $5,000, but double doors with glass and automated handicapped controls could cost between $10,000 and $12,000.

Staffing and policies

Technology is only one of the pieces necessary to create a unified security system. Equally important is the integration of people and processes. Security, facility and information technology departments need to coordinate efforts, experts say.

To ensure its security is in lockstep and as strong as possible, Virginia Tech created a Converged Technologies for Security, Safety, & Resilience unit in 2010.

“We consider central IT technology infrastructure, and we look for ways to partner with campus police and emergency management to leverage it for campus safety and security initiatives,” says van Gelder, executive director of the unit. “We don’t implement the solutions, but we bring the partners together and say, ‘There is a need and you are the players that need to be part of this discussion.’ We think about these topics full time.”

Institutions also need to establish policies for video monitoring, and for authorizing the release of video if needed for criminal investigations. New security devices might require different staff support, as well.

Becker officials assigned the responsibility for daily monitoring of its new card-access and camera systems to a staff person in the business office, for example. That person makes sure the systems are working properly and looks for any anomalies, such as failed attempts at access. Campus police are alerted about all security incidents.

“Going from no system to having systems requires new processes,” says Patria. “You need to make someone responsible for monitoring the system, and being able to troubleshoot problems.”

Katie Kilfoyle Remis is a freelance writer in upstate New York.


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