The lecture had run late, and on top of that the sophomore biology major had joined a couple of friends for a cup of coffee afterward to kick around the speaker’s provocative ideas. It was well after midnight when he made it back across campus to his residence hall, where he noticed a side door that was ajar.
Hesitant to enter—who knew who might be lurking around inside?—he called the public safety office to report what he was seeing. The dispatcher took the report and glanced up at the bank of monitors displaying live shots from dozens of spaces across campus. Sure enough, there was the open door, flickering in the fuzzy, black and white picture.
The dispatcher radioed an officer patrolling that area of campus and relayed the student’s report.
“What are you seeing on video?”, the officer asked the dispatcher.
“The door’s open,” she replied.
In a couple of minutes the officer arrived at the residence hall and found the student, wearing nothing heavier than a hoodie, shivering on a bench along a pathway leading to the front door. The student repeated what he had seen upon returning. A full 20 minutes after the open door had been reported, the officer cautiously entered the residence hall and shone her flashlight ahead of her while making her way along a darkened hallway. After several minutes of checking, she reported back to headquarters: false alarm.
The door’s failure to close triggered an alarm at headquarters. The dispatcher took to her console and called up video from the security camera trained on the residence hall. She double-clicked a few times to zoom in. The recording of the footage from the residence hall had automatically tracked back to show the 30 seconds before the alarm had gone off. The dispatcher saved the clip and emailed it to a security officer patrolling that part of campus.
The officer watched as a couple of students swiped their ID cards and entered. A textbook—a hefty one, by the looks of things—dropped out of an open compartment in a student’s backpack and fell to the floor by the door jamb. The door swung back inward but stopped short of closing, blocked by a corner of the book.
Had she spotted trouble, the officer would have radioed for help immediately and proceeded straight to the residence hall to respond. Instead, without having to leave her patrol, she simply radioed back to headquarters: false alarm.
All Together Now:
The first scenario is representative of what might be called a traditional security operation: separate systems, slower responses, and valuable time taken up while responders struggle to assess what has happened and is happening.
The second is an example of unified security—integrated and comprehensive technologies, policies, and procedures that bring together numerous and varied campus departments to make institutions safer, increase security efficiencies, reduce risk, and limit liability.
“Unified security ensures that all college and university departments are operating to the same plan and standard,” says Joseph F. Taves, solutions engineer for Blackboard Transact. “This helps make sure everyone is on the same page and helps to reduce confusion or questions about how to respond to different situations that can undermine effectiveness.”
As campuses provide more services for students, as they evolve into 24/7, year-round operations, and as technology becomes ever more sophisticated, more institutions are looking into unified security options.
With incidents such as the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings still fresh on the minds of those who work within and with higher ed institutions, manufacturers, installers, and users of such systems say they allow for far quicker responses in emergencies, which can save lives.
Mike Betten, a retired police officer who does sales for TED Systems, a provider of fire alarm, security, and communications products and systems, says that systems whose components are installed individually cost critical minutes because they extend the amount of time required to verify what’s really happening and what is needed to address it.
“When we talk about first responders in any emergency situation, it’s not law enforcement or fire personnel. It’s the people at the scene,” he says. “The lives that are saved are saved by the people that are there. The information they’re given and the assessment that can be immediately made is what’s going to save lives and minimize losses.”
Uniting Existing Equipment
Unifying security is nowhere near as simple as purchasing a system, plugging it in, and turning it on.
For starters, according to Paul Briggs, vice president for sales at OSSI, many colleges and universities simply lack the budget power to blow up their existing systems and start over. Instead, they are seeking ways to unite better what they already have.
“In a lot of cases, what we are dealing with is places that have legacy equipment out there,” Briggs says. “What they’re looking for from us is a path forward to provide them with some of the current needs, but to get it done with the same legacy hardware they have had in place.”
Even if you lack the funding for a unified system now, think forward about how new products will merge together in the future.
Additionally, say experts, one size doesn’t fit all. It may be tempting to buy a product off the shelf and try to configure existing systems within its framework, but, in the long run, colleges and universities, they say, are far better served by a more considered approach.
In other words, do your homework. Consultation with departments across campus—including public safety, information technology, communications, and more—helps institutions develop a clearer picture of what they truly need, which leads to the purchase and installation of a system that is calibrated to their particular situations.
“Start with the end in mind,” advises Berkly S. Trumbo, national business manager for higher education with Siemens Industry Inc. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” he’ll ask clients.
Once campus officials, working with their external partners, zero in on their needs and envision what things should look like and how they should operate when all is said and done, they can develop a more customized system that best meets those needs through smoother integration and increased efficiencies, Trumbo notes.
“Let’s use diagnostics or a scorecard that begins with an existing inventory that we can incorporate,” he says. “How do those stack up in terms of scalability, ease of use overall, and effective communication, command and control, and detection and monitoring? What can we start hooking together to streamline the process and create a phased approach toward that end goal?”
Above all, Trumbo advises, don’t think that your existing systems need to be jettisoned wholesale.
“If anyone is telling the end user, ‘You have to start over,’ that should be an immediate red flag,” he says. “I haven’t gone to any campus where there was nothing to work with.”
Due diligence in researching needs and deciding on an integration platform should be applied equally when purchasing individual security components, says Rob Simopoulos, vice president for sales with AdvanceTechnology, a systems integration firm. Schools that lack the funding to unify their security now may be able to do so in the future; in the meantime, cameras, access systems, and the like still need to be purchased.
“Products can’t talk to each other,” Simopoulos points out. “Make sure before you purchase anything that you think forward about how you’re going to unify things so that you choose the right products that are going to merge together in the future.”
Choosing an experienced integrator is as vital as picking the right system, he adds.
Systems “do get very complicated,” Simopoulos says. “Everything is IT-centric, so make sure the integrator you’re working with is at that level.”
An integrated system does more than increase safety. By tying in various components and overlaying more sophisticated technological capabilities, colleges and universities can secure their campuses much more efficiently, as well as effectively.
In the fictitious example at the beginning of this story, the unified system allowed security personnel to check out the situation quickly—and from far away.
“They can verify remotely what’s happening on site without having to dispatch anybody,” says Simopoulos. “Your ROI is huge. You can save on manpower of going down to a door.”
Betten agrees, pointing out that schools would be wise to think outside the box when it comes to determining whether they can afford unified security. In a sense, Betten says, they can’t afford not to have it.
“A properly designed system, no matter how much it costs to implement, can minimize the number of personnel you have to put out in the field,” he says. “You can only watch so many screens. The devices never get tired.”
Keeping a unified security system running well isn’t an automatic process. Taves identifies the maintenance of continuous operations, remaining visible, regular training, and annual assessment as challenges. Having dedicated resources that diligently use the technologies can also be a struggle, he adds.
“We often suggest rotating officers in the Campus Safety Panel to insure everyone stays involved and engaged,” Taves explains. “Partnering with a vendor to conduct an environmental scan of the campus at the onset can also help mitigate some of these challenges.”
A single, trusted vendor also is valuable in the years after implementation. For one, having a single point of contact for support is budget-friendly, says Trumbo.
“I can have 20 subsystems and roll them into one enterprise system, and I can negotiate one [service level agreement] and have one partner to look to for performance and maintenance and enhancement across all of the 20 subsystems,” he notes. For another, as technology evolves and systems grow larger, a dedicated third party can help ensure that security remains unified, Betten says.
“Once it’s newly installed, you shouldn’t have too many problems,” he says. “But two, three years down the road, that’s when your integrator plays a vital role in maintaining it.”