Centralized Monitoring of Remote Locations

July 1, 2003
Integrated systems make remote monitoring an easier, more cost effective option.
With the ever-tightening security budgets nationwide, security managers must consider creative ways to maintain their programs without increasing the risks to the persons and properties for which they are responsible. This is especially true when a security manager is responsible for multiple facilities, whether they are across the street, across town or across the country from each other.

In the United States, security began as night watchmen or firewatchers who sat in a building after hours to make sure no one broke in and the facility didn't catch fire. While this was then the easiest method of securing a facility, it has now become the most expensive. Paying one or more security officers to guard multiple buildings on-site, day and night, is cost prohibitive.

The alternative is the installation of an intrusion alarm system monitored either in-house or by an outside security firm. If the alarm is activated, a facility employee, security officer or law enforcement agency is dispatched to the site to check out the condition. This approach may be sufficient in most cases.

The monkey wrench in this intrusion alarm approach is the increase in false alarms. More and more law enforcement agencies throughout North America are fining facility owners for responding to false alarms or for refusing to respond after a set number of them. Some law enforcement agencies are considering policies that call for them to respond to alarms only if they have confirmation of a criminal act in progress.

Using intrusion alarms as the only method of security is also problematic in facilities with 24 x 7 activities or after-hours deliveries. A security manager wants to be able to keep an eye on the activity at the site but wants to avoid the monumental expense of paying a full-time, on-site guard.

This is where the centralized monitoring of remote locations can be physically effective and cost efficient. Such programs allow for the security staff in a central command center to maintain watch over a large number of buildings. But before you jump into such a program, you as a security or facility manager need to be aware of the different types of systems available to you for remote monitoring and how they can best serve you.

Access Control
Let's say you are a security manager in charge of five buildings spread across North America. The employees who work in each of these buildings may have work that brings them back to their facility after hours. In the past, you'd have given the employees a key to the front door and hoped they didn't lose it. You may have also given them the code to the intrusion alarm so they could disarm it when they entered. Many intrusion alarm systems allow for each employee to have his or her own code. The system can then create a record of who armed or disarmed the system and the time the action was taken. When an employee is terminated, his or her code is removed from the system. This is a perfect scenario for the majority of small facility security programs.

But let's say your buildings are of a good size?large enough so that more than two persons could be working in the same facility and never hear each other. Will one person leave the premises and arm the intrusion alarm, leaving the second employee inside to set it off? In this situation, an access system monitored at a central location may be the perfect answer. For example, you can install an access system in each of your five buildings. The system will have a locked panel in each building?a small computer that runs the access control program of that building. These systems can be equipped with battery backups to keep them active in the event of a power failure. Either through a dial-up connection or a local area network (LAN), this building panel can communicate with the central computer at your central monitoring station.

The access control systems of today allow people access to a facility when they present an access card or key fob, enter a PIN, present their finger (for example) to a biometric reader, or when they perform any combination of these acts. You have preprogrammed the system to allow the individual in question to access the building on certain days during certain time periods. The panel in the building will allow the individual access and then report to the central monitoring computer that the individual has entered the building. If you position readers at the building's exits as well, the system can create a record of when an individual enters and leaves the facility. This can be especially important in an emergency evacuation situation; the system can name who was in the building at the time of the alarm so you can advise responding emergency agencies.

The physical absence of guards tasked with controlling access may create concern. For instance, some may worry that access systems control access to the credential, not the credential holder. But using biometrics or a combination of authentication techniques to control access severely lessens the chances of unauthorized individuals gaining access with stolen cards or information. Tailgating?when an authorized individual intentionally or unintentionally allows an unauthorized person access?is another concern. It used to be that this could only be dealt with by having a security officer at the door or using floor-to-ceiling turnstiles with weight sensors. Now doorway systems are available that can act like optical turnstiles. When an individual displays his or her access media at a door, the system will authorize only one person to access the door without causing an alarm. These systems can be programmed to limit the number of times a person can enter a door during a given period, so they cannot use their access media to allow others to enter.

You can wire door contacts, motion detectors, smoke detectors or any other type of alarm device to most access control systems. If the alarm switch is activated, the access control system will give you an alarm with a message at your central monitoring station on what action should be taken. I have even wired facility monitoring systems into access control systems. For example, if you have a basement sump pump that goes out during a rainstorm, an alarm to your central monitoring station can get a maintenance team member to the location within an hour.

While remote access control systems provide you marvelous information, they do not let you see the facility. The new digital CCTV systems can help you solve that problem. The popular use of these systems is to have a digital multiplexer/recording device in each facility acting as a part of either your LAN or Internet-based system. These units can be wired to four, 16 and even 32 cameras, which watch the locations you feel are important such as access points, hallways or security-related areas like server rooms. The systems can be programmed to record only in predetermined circumstances?when movement occurs in front of them, for instance, or when an alarm sounds in the camera's vicinity. The cameras record to a hard drive at their location, which you can then access from inside the building or across the nation, depending on the configuration you have designed.

You should avoid simultaneously displaying as many CCTV monitors as possible in your central monitoring station. We have seen many central monitoring stations that looked like NASA command centers, with more active screens than you can count. The problem with these scenarios is that you station one poor security officer in this environment and in a short period of time that guard is saturated with so much electronic data that he or she no longer reacts to any of it. Keep the number of active monitors small and let the systems display only as much as the officer can take in at one time. This is where programming an integrated system and the use of video tours can be important.

Here's an example of how integrated systems can assist in remote monitoring. At two in the morning, a man comes to the front door of one of the buildings you are monitoring and displays an access card. The access control system will decide whether the card is valid. At the same time, the access control system can electronically alert the CCTV system that there is someone at the front door. The CCTV system may already be recording the man because he is moving in front of the front door camera. The system may even be programmed to alert the central monitoring station that there is someone opening the door, because of the late hour. The system can automatically display the picture of the person entering as well as the ID photo of the cardholder. The security officer monitoring the system can then decide if the person entering matches the ID photo and whether unauthorized persons are entering with the authorized individual. Many such systems can be programmed to not open the door until the security officer provides electronic authorization.

CCTV systems can also be programmed to conduct video guard tours. During periods where there are no alarms, the security officer at the central station can keep an eye on a single screen as the system electronically walks through the facility. This allows the officer to look for non-security problems, such as leaking water or smoke. The video tour, of course, is overridden by any alarms that need the officer's immediate attention.

Remember to plan sufficient lighting for your CCTV systems at night. Nothing impresses a CFO less than walking into the central command center at night to see all the monitors dark because of insufficient lighting. In some off-site locations, multiple exterior lights can upset the neighbors. In those cases, don't forget infrared illumination. Some CCTV cameras are designed to work in color during the day and then to switch to black and white during low-illumination periods. Infrared illumination during these periods will let you clearly see activity without disturbing the neighbors.

Emergency Call Boxes
We have talked about monitoring the access to a facility as well as watching a facility from a great distance. But consider designing in a little more interaction with the site. Let's say you have emergency call stations in the parking lot of one of your buildings, or in the lobby or elevators. You can tie these call boxes into the other facility systems. For example, if someone presses the emergency call button in the building lobby, the access control database can record that action as an alarm. The lobby camera and other nearby cameras can automatically be displayed in front of the officer in the monitoring station. Thus, when the officer answers the call he or she is not only talking to the individual, but seeing the individual and the surrounding area and being told by the access control system where the individual is located.

If another individual is bothering the person calling, the nearby cameras may allow your officer to see the suspect. The officer can then describe the suspect to responding security or law enforcement personnel.

Public Address Systems
Two-way verbal communication can be useful in crime mitigation. If the facilities you are monitoring are subject to potential criminal activity, consider the use of a public address system as part of your integrated monitoring system.

Perhaps one of your facilities has a side alley that is a haven of criminal activity. Using your integrated security system, you can tie motion detectors to your access control system to alert you of movement in the alley. You can also position a CCTV camera in the alley that can alert you to movement.

If you receive an alarm, you can see the individual in the alley on the CCTV camera. The system can be programmed to then automatically switch the monitoring officer's headset to a public address system in the alley so he or she can announce that the individual is under surveillance and should leave immediately to avoid being arrested for trespassing. The officer should describe the subject??You in the red jacket???so he or she knows this is not a pre-recorded message.

It is important that the officers monitoring in the central station are trained in all the functions of the system. Remember, when a system is installed, the installers will provide training. But what about the officers who will be hired a month or a year later? Will they get the same training or will they depend on existing officers or a manual? Existing officers can train new ones, but then any bad habits may be passed on to the new generation. I recommend developing audio/visual training sessions that teach the officers the procedures, so there is no question how they will handle emergencies.

Make sure the officers you select for these posts are qualified. If the officer will have to communicate over an emergency call station or public address system, make sure he or she has a good speaking voice and can be understood over the PA. Create checklists at the central monitoring station. When there is an emergency, the checklist will walk the officer through the response process step by step.

While setting up a central monitoring station can have some high up-front capitol costs, the long-term money saved in staffing at remote sites will soon offset this initial outlay.

Richard D. (Rich) Maurer is an associate managing director of the Security Services Group of Kroll Inc., where he manages teams responsible for conducting risk and security assessments of facilities worldwide. He has more than 30 years of law enforcement and security management experience. Rich is the Chairman of the ASIS International Physical Security Council and gives workshops across the nation on the aspects of balanced physical security. Rich can be reached at 212-833-3239 or at [email protected] .