Budgets, Buildings & Biometrics The Future of Security

 Not so long ago, if you wanted to know who was on your stoop, you stuck your  head out the window and asked who was there. But these days, the demand for  greater security and the evolution of technology has led to the availability of  systems that not too many years ago were purely in the realm of science  fiction. Things like biometric scanners and time-sensitive key cards are in use  every day in residential buildings around New York City and are becoming more  widespread.  

 As these security systems have become more widely used, the cost of many of them  has declined. Some of these systems are now affordable enough that they can be  customized for smaller buildings with fewer residents and more modest  resources. Newer systems can also often be integrated into a building’s existing security system, giving the benefit of added security at a relatively  small cost. Taking advantage of the available options starts with assessing a  building’s security system to determine what sort of upgrade makes the most sense.  

 Voice to Video

 Many residential buildings in New York have older security systems that use  phones or intercoms as the primary communication between residents and  visitors. Telephone-based systems are a good starting point from which to begin  a security upgrade, since the existing components can often be switched out for  newer parts.  

 Resident demand has driven buildings to change from voice-only security systems to a much heavier use of video intercoms, says  Larry Dolin, president/CEO of American Security Systems in Long Island City.  

 “Even with an actual doorman, a lot of times residents want to see the visitor,” Dolin says. “Everybody wants to go to video so they can see the person coming in, and also  see them in the vestibule and in the elevator.”  

 According to Dolin, residential buildings that already have a telephone system  in place often can have a video security system installed for a relatively  manageable cost. For a 20-unit building, it might cost up to $30,000 to install  an audio/video surveillance system from scratch, but buildings that already  have a security system with cameras can be upgraded to a more advanced “cyber” or “virtual” doorman system for a relatively small cost—as little as $3,000 for some places.  

 “For buildings with a camera security system, we install an inexpensive recorder  and an inexpensive security system,” says Seth Barcus, vice-president of Bronx-based Cyberdoorman. “Because of the recession, people want to protect their assets, and there are  less expensive methods to achieve the same security.”  

 Using the Web

 As with so many aspects of daily living—such as cell phones, high-definition TV and text messaging—the Internet has enabled notable advances in security. “Cyber” doorman systems are one way the Web can be used to provide more security for  residential buildings. With such systems, the “doorman” actually is a security company person using the system to remotely view those  who enter and exit the building, and sometimes to view those traversing the  building’s hallways and common areas.  

 Cyber doorman systems enable monitors to screen anyone seeking access to the  building remotely, by either viewing them on camera or speaking with him through the  security system’s phone or both. Certain people—friends, relatives, dog-walkers, babysitters, and cleaning personnel, for  example—can be pre-approved by a resident and OK’d for regular building access. The Internet is certainly not infallible—servers can crash, and wireless communication links can sometimes be disrupted  by rain or other inclement weather. To address these occasional glitches,  Web-based security systems are usually installed with a redundancy protocols.  For example, Cyberdoorman installs upgraded systems, but leaves the phone lines  intact, Barcus says. “We keep the audio portion of the phone calls over the regular phone line.  Because the phone is analog, it’ll work even if the digital does not.”  

 Manhattan-based Virtual Doorman is another computerized doorman system that can  service up to 125 apartments, and it can easily be retrofitted into existing  buildings, according to Colin Foster, vice president of sales and marketing for  Virtual Doorman. The web-based system also includes account management features  and streamlined communication that connects residents with the command center  and their building management. Residents can log into a website portal that  allows them private access to input their own personal information. They can  also log in to find out what happened last week or two months ago, Foster said.  Residents can also provide a passcode for family members, friends or guests.  Management staff can also control building functions, maintenance requests and  provide residents with emergency contacts through the Web portal. The system  can be customized based on each individual building’s profile, said Foster. Formerly limited to telephone and email communication,  residents can alert the Virtual Doorman system about guests that will be  arriving, what packages or deliveries are expected, and any other activities  that require attention and access to the building. The Web portal will allow  for efficient handling of requests, enhanced event logging capabilities,  improved communications between residents and management, (sort of like a  building bulletin board) and real-time guest and delivery management.  

 Unlike having a real person behind a desk, virtual systems also can have a setup  in which packages can be left in a secure room in the building, from which  residents can pick up parcels at their convenience. Dry cleaning, UPS packages,  food deliveries and other regular deliveries to residents can be safely picked  up by residents still in their slippers. Such conveniences enable residents of  a telecommuting world to have both security and flexibility. In buildings  located in higher-crime areas, residents whose buildings have a cyber doorman  system can be sure that visitors to their building are being screened by the  remote operators of the system. All of the activity caught by the system’s cameras also is digitally recorded, making storage and viewing of the footage  much easier and less expensive than in the days of VHS recording.  

 Buildings can also opt to install what's often called a “video escort” function to their security package. With such a service, the system is equipped  with transmitter fobs that residents activate when they go into their building.  When activated, the video escort enables the remote security operator to view  the resident as he or she walks through the building to the apartment door—keeping an eye out for their safety.  

 Reading Digits

 While lock-and-key security systems still are in use in most buildings, that  method of securing one’s home and valuables—especially in an apartment building—becomes less secure over time. The reason for this is obvious: over time, more  and more people have access to keys for the building. Keys could be with the  old girlfriend of a resident, or they might be in the hands of former  residents, or with former building security and maintenance personnel who no  longer should have access to the place. Security professionals advise changing  the locks and keys in your building every few years to maintain a basic level  of access security.  

 A newer system seeing increasing use in residential buildings is key card  access. Key card systems have been used for years in hotels and are on the rise  in residential buildings because they alleviate the necessity of changing metal  locks and keys periodically. With a key card system, a former resident, former  employee or other formerly-approved visitor to a building who no longer is  welcome there can be denied entry simply by deactivating his key card.  

 It's precisely this efficiency that is making key cards so popular in  multifamily buildings, Dolin says. “In the long run, card access is cheaper than lock-and-key, because of  replacement costs with locks and keys,” he says.  

 Another trend line for card access is remote management, where the security  company actually manages the system. Such a setup allows the same people to  control the system over time, as opposed to having to regularly train employees  to use the system. “With remote management, control of the system is consistent, and consistently  secure,” Dolin says.  

 No security system will be fail-safe, Barcus says, because residential buildings  aren’t banks. He recommends that buildings considering upgrading their security start  with a small system that has camera views of the building’s main entry, lobby and elevator.  

 Dolin agrees. “We like to grow the building to enable them to add cameras later on, as needed.  You want to give the building’s [boards] the ability to budget correctly for security improvements,” he says.  

 While electronic doorman systems and other remotely-viewed access systems are in  greater use than ever before, higher-end buildings have moved on to biometric  systems that use a finger or palm print as the “key” to access the building itself, or secure areas within it, such as health clubs  or storage areas. As with other remotely-viewed systems, a live operator  answers calls and can alert a resident if a visitor or package is waiting for  him.  

 “Real” vs. Remote

 While virtual doormen and remote monitoring certainly have some advantages over  live, on-site security staff, there are those who say that technology is no  match for a pair of human eyes keeping a lookout for suspicious activity and  making sure a building is secure. According to Mark Lerner, Ph.D., a  criminologist and president of EPIC Security Corporation in Manhattan says  there is no substitute for a live doorman in helping to deter crime.  

 “Research shows that criminals are not deterred by being videotaped,” Lerner says. “Criminals usually don’t target a place with a guard. Relying on closed-circuit TV is a poor substitute  for a real doorman.”  

 Lerner says that while he doesn't feel that CCTV systems are effective  deterrents, they are a good tool in helping to piece together an incident or  theft after the fact, for purposes of investigation. “I do recommend that buildings have video systems, because they are good for  solving crimes,” he says.  

 Effective as they may be, live security personnel cost money. A building might  pay anywhere from $135,000 to $250,000 annually for a full-time security  officer. Part-time security personnel might be employed for as little as $15  per hour, but armed security guards can cost as much as $30 per hour.  

 While security guards can be pricey, Lerner asks what price can be put on  security, or on a life. “[Gianni] Versace was murdered in Florida, right in front of his house. The  killer waited until the guard went to lunch, and then rang the bell,” Lerner says.  

 Security technology is changing right along with other communications  capabilities— yesterday's cutting-edge innovation is today's standard equipment. Whether  you're in an older building with a modest budget looking to merely bring your  security system into the 21st century, or a brand-new development that was  outfitted with the latest gadgets from the start, the bottom line is that the  best security system is one that fits the needs and expectations of your  community without breaking the bank.  

 Jonathan Barnes is a Pittsburgh freelancer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperatorand other publications.  

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