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Security: Show and Tell?

Certain security measures should be visible, but for others, it’s better when they’re less obvious or even hidden. Here’s some perspective on which the campus community should spot—and which they’d better not.
University Business, November 2012

In an era when higher education leaders are more mindful than ever of potential threats to the safety of those living, learning, and working on campus, security planning has reached new levels of complexity. Few would argue that at least some security measures should be highly visible to the campus community. Just as in society at large (think of the police cruiser parked in the median of a busy highway), the right level of visibility can prevent campus crime or violence. Obvious efforts to safeguard the campus can increase comfort levels and alleviate concerns on the part of students, faculty, staff, and visitors.

At the same time, since visibility may lead to vulnerability, not every security measure should be readily apparent. But which should be easy for anyone to identify, and which are best left in the background?

Showing the Flag

For some functions, high visibility is a given. Campus walk-throughs by security officers and the use of recognizable vehicles have long been staples.
“Physical security needs to be visible as a deterrent,” says Berkly Trumbo, national business manager for systems provider Siemens Industry. “This also gives the students confidence about the level of safety on their campus while not being overbearing with their presence.”

Among the most basic strategies is the use of campuswide surveillance systems.

“Studies have proven that a visible presence of multiple cameras will reduce crime,” shares Marcia C. Nickle, emergency manager in the office of campus and public safety at the University of Delaware. “We’ve had great success with our video camera system, which includes signs that are prominently displayed near each video camera for public knowledge.”

Some feel the liberal use of cameras should be routine. “More is better when you are speaking about CCTV [recording] systems,” says Steve Benavides, chief financial officer of OSSI-USA, a unit of OLTIS Security Systems International. “It reduces crime and incidence when perpetrators know that what they are doing is being recorded.”

Of course, the range of possible threats to people and property is almost limitless, and in the aftermath of recent campus shootings, much attention has been given to preventing similar incidents. But most security issues are far less dramatic. Many instead represent crimes of opportunity. And in such cases, visibility can be an asset.

“It’s often as simple as a backpack or purse snatching, or taking one of the bicycles that are so common on many campuses,” says Karen Evans, president of Sielox, a provider of integrated access control and other security systems. “High levels of visibility can help prevent these events.”

Evans adds that while some organizations may make use of “dummy” cameras that don’t actually record but only serve as a visual deterrent, colleges and universities should not be among them.

“Cameras should all be operational,” she says. “If you have a camera that’s not operational but an individual perceives that it is, you may have a lawsuit on your hands. You implied security was there but there really wasn’t any.”

Along with the use of cameras and the presence of uniformed security personnel, a variety of other measures can also be effective if readily apparent. Examples include panic alarms, building access controls, and strategic placement of call boxes.

Electronic alert systems, while not visible in and of themselves, can still be made visible through promotion, including an explanation on the campus website, email promotions, and campus signage. In fact, for such systems, a high degree of visibility is not only desirable, but expected.

“Students and faculty expect to be communicated with quickly and effectively,” notes Joseph Brennan, associate vice president for university communications at the University at Buffalo. “Technology has enabled rapid communication, and that has led to demand.”

Staying in the Background

Despite the advantages of openness, some security measures are best left in the background. According to Brennan, the question of visibility is multilayered. He notes that the existence of an alert system should be as widely known as possible, but that it also may be best to keep procedures for handling alerts in the background. For example, the process followed by those charged with handling campus emergencies should not be known to someone who potentially might seek to stymie them. Similarly, discussions among staff about options for responding to an in-progress emergency should be private.

“Details related to command-and-control elements and capabilities should remain somewhat protected,” Trumbo says. “It makes sense that a potential assailant not know the extent of the tools and systems the institution may have at its disposal.”

Much of the work put into emergency and security planning, in fact, should be available only to designated institutional leaders and security staff.

“In practical terms, there are clearly some sensitive materials that should be some eyes only or on a need-to-know basis,” says Scott McGrath, director of product and client services at Rave Mobile Safety. These would include disaster response plans containing especially sensitive materials, cooperative agreements with neighboring agencies, and most obviously, vulnerability assessments that would put the community at risk if publicized.

Glenn Rosenberg, vice president of higher education at AlliedBarton Security Services, says security systems designed to aid loss prevention and support investigation should be difficult to detect. He also notes that in some instances, the presence of uniformed security personnel alone can actually be detrimental to criminals.

“The physical presence of security officers or police may vary,” he says. “It might be based on perceived risk as in response to current threats, neighborhood violence, campus protests or construction.”

Even when openness is the general practice, some cases require special consideration. “While we believe we should err on the side of transparency, this requires us to coordinate a delicate balance between an open institution and privacy issues,” Nickle says of UD. “For example, we have laboratories on campus with significant security based on the kind of research conducted within their borders. We would not want to publicize these security measures lest we make ourselves vulnerable.”

Another example is the placement of duress alarms in selected offices.

“These alarms are concealed from public view and can be used as an alternative to calling 911 in the case of an emergency,” Nickle says. “For the same reason that these silent alarms work well in a banking environment, they also have significant utility on a university campus.”

Hidden cameras and detection devices may also be used to supplement those that are visible. “All campuses have buildings where a full camera does not fit in well,” Benavides says. “That is when a covert camera, like in a clock, and motion detectors can be useful. Mix some covert systems inside the buildings and blend some covert external cameras with regular cameras to cover the visual angles needed outside,” he advises.

Adjusting to Local Demands   

Decision points regarding visibility may vary with different kinds of institutions, according to Rosenberg. “For a large suburban or rural campus with open borders and limited threat from unauthorized individuals accessing the facilities, security visibility is usually less dense,” he says.

Here, there may be a need to balance personnel for patrol and response with technological solutions such as cameras, emergency phones, access control for buildings and parking lots, and intrusion detection and building systems monitors. “On these campuses, personnel tend to be used for patrol functions, and visibility varies based on time of day and risk profile,” he adds.

For urban colleges and universities, the situation may be somewhat more challenging. “The presence of personnel for access control, deterrence, and observation may change as the risks change,” Rosenberg explains.

He points to the example of a residence hall on an urban campus along city streets, where a college may station around-the-clock security personnel at the access point or security operations center, as well as access control systems for doors, turnstiles and cameras strategically placed to monitor entering and exiting, and life safety systems.

“Facilities such as libraries, athletics facilities, museums, and research facilities usually demand a higher presence,” Rosenberg says. “The same goes for central gathering points such as student unions, bookstores, and food courts.”

Making Decisions

In deciding what security systems should be visible to the campus community and visitors, a collaborative approach is recommended. “One would expect that leaders in campus and public safety will have a primary role in making these decisions,” Nickle says. “However, fostering a relationship that encourages all campus leaders to collaborate on these decisions produces a better end result.”

She points to departments such as the police, residence life, and facilities planning and construction as possible links in this process. Other departments such as disability support services and international studies might also be involved. “It’s best to use a multipronged approach by involving multiple personnel and including non-traditional resources,” she says.

Finding the right boundaries will inevitably involve some give and take, since opinions may vary substantially.

Benavides, for example, takes a security-first approach. “Most educational hierarchy thought patterns are on the side of the fence where liberties are infringed upon with cameras being everywhere,” he says. “They should be focused on a safe campus for all faculty and students, not worrying about civil liberties.”

Campus-based personnel may disagree. Thus, a healthy level of collaboration in security planning may be the most desirable practice.

Nickle adds that these decisions can also be made based on national best practices at other universities, as well as being in compliance with applicable national accreditation standards and policies. Current events can also be informative.

“Since the tragedy at Virginia Tech, we have learned significantly on how best to prepare for, respond to, and manage such a crisis on campus. Similarly, events at Columbine High School, Delaware State University, Northern Illinois University, and many others have factored into our decision-making, budgeting and planning processes.”

Communicating Plans

For measures that are not kept purposely in the background, effective communication is a must, experts agree.

“Have good faculty, staff, and student awareness programs so they become active participants,” Evans advises. “It’s not a lot different than telling people to not leave that bag alone at the airport.”

This may require frequent and concerted efforts to keep campus constituencies informed. “Planning and public information campaigns on campus are key in communicating the importance and focus of emergency management planning,” Trumbo says—noting that many campuses have branded their campus alert and perhaps even the associated office, and it’s viewed as a best practice to communicate protocols and exercise public tests continuously.

Trumbo adds that with systems technology playing a prominent part in our everyday lives, ensuring students understand how they will receive communication during an emergency is essential. “Email, text, and automated phone calls, paired with visual cues via digital signage, as well as audible warnings from fire evacuation systems or giant voice, all play a part in a layered system philosophy. Most of these systems are in use at a large number of campuses and should be considered essential pieces of everyday infrastructure.”