School Security: No Strings Attached?
- By Steve Trundle
- November 1st, 2006
In the past, discussions about campus security technology often focused more on flashy technologies like access control or video surveillance than on conventional alarm systems that use door, window, motion, and other sensors to detect after-hour intruders and property threats. Admittedly, this latter type of system, while critical to any institution’s security infrastructure, has enjoyed few noteworthy technological facelifts for several decades.
With the emergence of wireless and Web-enabled monitoring technologies of the last few years, however, the functionality of sensor-based systems has expanded to include many applications beyond alarm detection. Many schools are now beginning to give these systems the attention they deserve.
The Difference Between Night and Day
While access control is valuable for monitoring and controlling traffic through a facility’s entry points during the day, an alarm system is necessary to protect the facility from a break-in at night. Every campus building should have some type of intrusion alarm system in addition to any access control technology that may be installed. Even residence halls, which must stay open to students around the clock, typically have certain off-limits areas that require intrusion monitoring.
A typical alarm system consists of a central control panel connected to door, window, motion, smoke, and other types of sensors installed throughout the property. Each sensor monitors activity and communicates this information to the control panel via a hardwire connection or a wireless radio frequency (RF) signal. The control panel, in turn, is connected to a central monitoring station via a phone line or other wired connection. If one of the sensors reports an alarm, the control panel sends a signal to the central station, where operators can notify the appropriate emergency authorities according to established procedures.
While more and more colleges and universities are now using their existing wired LAN networks to integrate these security systems with a campus-wide access and control monitoring system, in some cases it may be preferable or even necessary to use a standalone alarm panel to protect a facility. For remote facilities, older buildings, and construction or renovation sites that may lack the necessary networking infrastructure for security integration with the rest of the campus, an independent, wireless alarm system can provide the perfect monitoring solution.
A wireless system can communicate data over a cellular network without the need for a phone line or other wired connection to a central monitoring station. Not vulnerable to line tampering, it offers greater security than a landline system. And its freedom from a wired communication line makes it flexible in terms of installation, especially if all of its sensors are wireless as well.
Temporary or Difficult Installations
Most educational institutions today adhere to a near unrelenting schedule of construction and renovation projects. A security system that uses a cellular connection and wireless sensors can be installed temporarily at a construction site until the necessary cabling is in place for security integration with the rest of the campus. When a school has completed one building and is ready to break ground on another, the security system and its sensors can be relocated easily to monitor the new area.
Wireless monitoring can also be a good choice for historic buildings, especially those with walls constructed of solid stone. Running wires through these buildings is often not an option — the walls are difficult or impossible to penetrate, or drilling holes would interfere with the preservation of the historic site. Using a wireless security panel and wireless RF sensors in an older building eliminates the need for difficult or invasive wiring installations, without sacrificing the security of the facility.
The inherent flexibility of wireless systems extends beyond their ease of installation. Many of these systems offer customized monitoring options and remote-control capabilities that make them adaptable to numerous security applications. While some wireless systems are designed to communicate alarm signals only, more advanced systems maintain a 24/7 dedicated two-way wireless connection and report all system and sensor activity to a remote data operations center, where the information is processed and made accessible to users via a secure logged-in website.
From any computer or PDA, campus security personnel can log in remotely to see system status, view a history of all activity reported at the property, and even send commands to arm, disarm, or reprogram settings at the panel. They can also customize notification options to receive e-mail or text message alerts for certain non-alarm activity that, while important to monitor, does not need to be forwarded to a central station for emergency response.
These enhanced Web monitoring and control features make an advanced wireless security system far more useful on a day-to-day basis than a traditional phone-based alarm system, whose value is realized only in the event of an attempted break-in or other major threat to the property.
For example, a facility supervisor for a wirelessly monitored campus library might log into a Website each morning to check activity from the previous night. He can see when the system was armed and which employee armed it. Through the same Web interface, he might pull up a live video feed to monitor activity in one of the reading rooms. And throughout the course of the day, he might receive several alerts on his PDA letting him know when someone has accessed a particular rare books collection.
The everyday monitoring applications for a Web-enabled system are infinite and diverse, but they all share the common effect of establishing a constant connectedness between campus personnel and the facilities they manage or protect.
When one high-tech graphics design college was searching for a way to protect individual pieces of computer equipment in one of its technology labs, Las Vegas-based security provider Integrated Technologies & Security recommended a merchandise anti-theft device connected to a wireless security system from Alarm.com.
If someone tries to move or tamper with one of the computers or other monitored equipment, a local alarm sounds, and several campus security personnel receive alerts on their cell phones or PDAs, said Richard Steeley, president of IT&S.With Alarm.com’s advanced Web control capabilities and customizable alert notifications, we were able to provide the school with a flexible solution that keeps relevant school personnel informed of any unwanted activity in the lab, even if they’re on the other side of campus.
The use of sophisticated security technology throughout a campus is clearly an important step towards safeguarding a school and its community. But the investments an institution directs towards the installation and ongoing maintenance of campus-wide security measures will yield much greater value if there is also a concerted effort to encourage students to take proactive security measures of their own.
While residence hall regulations often do not permit the installation of personal security systems, schools can encourage students in nearby off-campus housing to purchase residential wireless security systems with wireless sensors. Because no wires are involved except for the power adapter, the system can be installed in less than an hour and then removed easily at the end of the school year, until school is in session again. In addition to offering students valuable protection, a wireless security system can help alleviate the safety fears and concerns that might otherwise detract from a positive college experience.
Protecting an entire college or university and its students and staff is no easy task, but rather a delicate balancing act to achieve an environment that is both safe and welcoming for everyone. Most schools must rely on multiple security measures that, while not always physically integrated, work in concert with one another to provide an optimum security infrastructure for the entire campus. While wireless security systems may not be suitable for protecting every building on a campus, they often solve monitoring challenges where other security technologies would fall short. Their reliability, adaptability, and usability make wireless systems an attractive option worth every school’s careful consideration.
Steve Trundle is the CEO and president of Alarm.com, a provider of wireless and Web-enabled home security and monitoring technology.