Answering a Cry for Help

Sept. 25, 2004
A roundtable discussion of emergency phone and communications systems
Advanced security technology serves many purposes, from controlling access to a facility or a network to reporting theft and providing evidence of a crime in court. But security through the ages has evolved fundamentally as a response to one thing: a cry for help. While all security technology still metaphorically serves the purpose of responding to that cry, emergency phone and communications systems are some of the few that have continued to take their task literally. Through all their enhancements and increased functionalities, these systems still exist to hear and respond to a cry for help.

ST&D recently approached five experts in the emergency phone and communications sector to get their opinions on how this market is evolving and where it may go in the future.

Stephen Pineau has been president and CEO of Viscount Systems Inc. since 1997. Viscount has been manufacturing telecommunications and security systems since 1965, and until 1997 was a division of Telus, a Canadian affiliate of Verizon Communications. Previously Mr. Pineau was president of BMT, a security integration dealer. He has been involved in electronics and security for 15 years. His educational background is in economics.

Samuel Shanes is executive vice president and general counsel of Talk-A-Phone Co. , Chicago. A graduate of the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago Law School, he has been a close observer of the communications industry and changing technology, as well as the legal issues surrounding both, for many years. Mr. Shanes has authored numerous articles including "Expanded Roles for Security Resources," "Communicating Security in the Parking Environment" and "Safe and Secure at the Shopping Center."

Milton Sneller has been CEO of Trigon Electronics since early 2001. He has stimulated the development of more than 20 new products and a new patent application. Dr. Sneller was recruited by DDL Electronics in 1985 as its EVP and COO. DDL consisted of eight acquired subsidiary companies, one of which he was responsible for acquiring and all of which he was responsible for operating. Over the previous 10 years Dr. Sneller served as vice chairman, president and COO of the Taylor Dunn Corporation.

Elizabeth Chesnul co-founded Jeron Electronic Systems Inc. in 1965 in Chicago, Illinois. The shared vision of Ms. Chesnul and co-founder Jerry Chesnul was to design and produce high-quality security and communication solutions. Jeron's success is credited to Mr. Chesnul's engineering foresight and Ms. Chesnul's hands-on management style. She is one of the most respected and knowledgeable persons in the industry. As Jeron heads into its 40th year, Ms. Chesnul looks forward to the future, including the second generation of family growing the business.

Carl W. Gandolfo joined Code Blue Corporation as the midwest regional manager and was later promoted to national sales manager. Responsible for the sales effort in the United States and Canada, Mr. Gandolfo directs a force of three company district managers and 13 manufacturer representative organizations. His background includes 10 years of experience as a police officer and an education in criminal justice administration. Prior to joining Code Blue, Mr. Gandolfo was the director of sales and marketing for a vehicle recovery manufacturer in the Midwest.

ST&D: Many describe emergency phone and communications systems as low-end components in the total security scheme. Is this characterization appropriate?

EC: It is not appropriate. Many of today's emergency phone and communication systems, such as Jeron's Spectrum Series, feature state-of-the-art digital, full-duplex, non-blocking multi-talk paths. For those who may not know, full duplex is a feature that allows communication through a system without pressing or holding buttons. Unlike voice-activated systems, which only allow one path of communication to cross at one time, full spectrum allows for two paths of communication simultaneously. Two or more parties can speak and hear at the same time, while other systems allow for just speaking or hearing at any given time. These features allow clear communication in any kind of situation and environment. I would not call these low-end components, but like computers, a fundamental component.

CG: We believe just the opposite is true. In many cases our Code Blue phones are seldom activated, but when the need arises, it is critical that the readiness and performance is dependable. In other applications our communication systems are used on a regular basis more for an information need than an emergency. In either case, it is vital that the design and construction can support the installation in spite of the elements or surrounding conditions. This includes weather, temperature, surrounding noise and power requirements. Our products are now being used more and more as the basis for integrating additional elements of access and security, and as such our housings, electronics and software systems must be flexible to accommodate these requirements.

SP: In terms of the sophistication of much of this technology it may be true. In terms of the importance of the equipment in a particular application, the communication equipment may be more critical than other security systems. A person being attacked in a parking lot would rate the ability to call for help as more critical than the ability of a campus to retrieve images of what had happened from video recorders after the fact if the emergency phones were not in place. Emergency phones connected to relays that shut down malfunctioning equipment or valves in industrial facilities or mines can potentially save more lives and money than any other security equipment in place. They can have a much bigger impact on liability issues for large facilities than other, more "sophisticated" types of equipment.

SS: "Low-end" can be characterized in several ways. Low-end can equate with low-tech, or with low cost, or even with the concept of basic. To some extent emergency phones can be seen as all three, although recently they are more and more feature rich, so they may not be as "low-tech" as they once were. However, the ability of a person in distress or danger to communicate that fact quickly and efficiently is "basic" to any total security scheme. Probably equally basic is CCTV, providing the ability to see what is happening. The integration of these two basic and perhaps "low-end" technologies can make each more effective, and perhaps even a little less "low-end." As for concept of "low-end" equating with "low-cost," it may be true that emergency phones can be among the lower-cost elements of a total security scheme. But just as the tires, steering wheel, and windshield on your car are among the more "low-end" elements of what today is a rather high-tech device, every car needs them.

MS: The total security scheme primarily relates to the security of assets and the security of people. The many that describe emergency phone and communications systems as "low-end components" are most certainly revealing where their priorities are. Since most "low-end component" emergency phones are targeted for outdoor use, this would infer that facility owners and managers are not responsible for the security of people while they are outside of their facilities.

ST&D: Emergency communications systems benefit a range of application environments. Are there particular sectors that are currently showing increased interest in and need for this technology?

CG: We are seeing continued growth in all of these sectors as well as cities and municipalities, parks and recreation. Biking and hiking trails are also beginning to install these types of products and are using solar-cellular options to meet their requirements.

SP: Local legislation is driving the need for emergency phones at swimming pools. Many jurisdictions are also implementing stricter regulations requiring dedicated voice communications for elevators. ADA seems to be driving many of these requirements. At the same time, the proliferation of cellular phones has made emergency phones less critical for roadside assistance.

EC: The military and government sectors are purchasing increasing amounts of communication systems for use in security systems of all varieties. Entertainment venues, such as theme parks, stadiums and concert halls, are also using ever-increasing numbers of emergency phones and communication systems. There has also been an increase in mass transit, airports, bus stations, train stations and subways.

MS: Hospitals and university and college campuses have been pursuing this technology at a steadily increasing rate for the past 20 years. Parking lots in practically every area of commercial and industrial segments are showing increased interest in and need for emergency phone and communications systems.

SS: Emergency communications has historically been driven by two factors: service and liability. The balance between these two shifts over time, depending on events, and over various market applications, depending upon changing public perceptions. In some markets there is almost a blend between service and liability.
For example, shopping mall operators now consider emergency phones to be a standard element of their parking lots. From the service standpoint, they want customers to feel comfortable and welcome. They want customers to know that the mall cares about them, and that if a customer can't find or start their car, the mall will send someone to help.
At the same time, courts have been more and more strict in imposing liability on owners and operators of these facilities for crime that may occur on the premises. It is important to be able to demonstrate that you, as the owner or operator of the facility, took appropriate steps to reduce possible crime and to enable potential victims to promptly and effectively obtain help in an emergency.
... A few years ago an article appeared in Good Housekeeping magazine (hardly a high-tech security book) that told its readers that they should not shop at a mall that did not care enough to provide emergency phones in appropriate locations.
Airports have come to view emergency phones as an essential element of their parking facilities. Talk-A-Phone has done parking facilities at numerous airports, including Logan Airport in Boston, Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta and O'Hare and Midway Airports in Chicago. We are now in the process of delivering customized emergency phones to LAX Airport in Los Angeles for integration with AED defibrillators throughout the terminals, which is another instance of how integrating two apparently isolated technologies can amplify the power of each.

ST&D: The integration of security functions and technologies into a single-database, enterprise security solution has become an important undertaking across the security industry. How is the emergency communications market meeting the integration challenge?

CG: We are seeing increased integration demands with our systems, including the utilization of the physical location of our units, the auxiliary inputs and outputs of our phone and the integration of our software with other devices on the site. Our Code Blue units can host cameras, card readers and other identification hardware. The contact closures within our phone system can be used to activate and direct this hardware, and the phone can be used as a listening device while cameras provide the visual surveillance. Our software, specifically CMS, is capable of sending signals in ASCII format to facilitate head-end integration for a total system solution.

SP: Emergency phones are being integrated in multiple ways. As security equipment, software that manages the location of calling units is becoming increasing important. Cameras must be integrated to identify activity at the calling unit. The activation of an emergency phone indicates a "time is of the essence" condition, and a well-integrated system must follow this principle.

EC: Integration is extremely important. Jeron intercoms are designed to be part of facility-wide security systems including access control, CCTV, wireless phones, P.A. page and pocket pagers as well as other devices and systems the end user is looking to incorporate.

MS: Emergency phone and communications systems do not require as much constant programming as do telephone entry and access control. Integration of security functions becomes applicable to emergency phone systems in the polling programs that give reasonable and timely assurance that the emergency phones are performing within normal operating specifications. Polling programs that were once written to be stand-alone operating systems must now be written to easily integrate with a single-database enterprise security solution.

SS: There have been two sources of technological enhancement in emergency phones in recent years. The first has been in technical enhancement of the units themselves. The most powerful enhancements, however, have come as a result of integration. It really is a case of one plus one equals three. Having the emergency phone automatically call up the associated CCTV cameras; having a GUI interface that can visually display the incoming emergency phone call and activate related systems; being able to call and listen to a location because you see something wrong on a CCTV monitor?these are just a few examples ...

ST&D:Do you believe the capability for integration will become a required element in emergency communications solutions? Is user demand high for this capability?

CG: Demand is growing, and not only because of the need for improved coverage both from a visual and audio perspective, but also from an "installed cost" consideration. This includes the initial up-front cost as well as resource support.

SP: Other than simple stand-alone devices, most emergency phones must already integrate with other security software.

EC: End users want seamless integration. To work efficiently, the different components of an entire security system must function as one, often being controlled by a central console/computer system. Security agents operating a program logic control station can monitor areas in real time, audibly and visually. Integration will not become a required element in emergency communication systems; it already is a required element.

MS: The greatest limitation on overall integration of emergency communications is the ability of software solutions to work in an environment that consists of several different manufacturers' emergency phones. Many campus installations have several different types of emergency telephones, manufactured by several different manufactures. Interior phones may be different from elevator phones, which are probably different from exterior phones. This makes the task of having a centralized integrated solution very challenging.

SS: It is already recognized as highly desirable. In a matter of time, probably a rather short time, it will be considered essential. Integration allows emergency phones to be used in ways not previously considered. A good example is the power of voice over IP (VoIP). Talk-A-Phone currently has equipment that can operate as VoIP systems. By doing this, we can install emergency phones throughout parking decks and lots in numerous locations, and have those units report in to one central security facility that could be monitoring dozens of facilities. The simultaneous labor savings and increasing levels of professionalism that can be provided because of the economies of scale can be very significant. It's a win-win situation. Now that IP cameras are commonly available, other savings can also be seen. These savings will allow even more facilities to be equipped with the equipment and function that owners, operators, and security professionals all know that they need. Without integration, one cannot efficiently manage these resources in a centralized fashion.

ST&D: The homeland security initiative has bolstered product development and increased spending in certain security sectors. Has it had this effect in your market?

CG: The homeland security initiative has indeed bolstered development in the security industry. Specifically in our market segment, we believe it has raised the awareness level of the need for active communication support in any type of applications where 24-hour patron activity occurs. EC: Jeron Electronic Systems has seen a marked increase in purchases by military and governmental agencies primarily for homeland security applications. When I mention government, I mean all levels?city, state and federal?have increased purchasing of communication and security systems. Overall outside of government and military we have also seen a marked increase in purchase activity.

SS: In his address to the nation after the September 11th terrorist attack, the President asked every American to become the eyes and ears of a national campaign to protect this nation. If you see someone doing something suspicious, report it at once. If you see a suspicious package left in a public place, notify the appropriate security authorities right away. If you observe unusual activity of virtually any kind, report it.
But how do you report it? With a cell phone? It may or may not work in underground garages or mass transit stations, or the cell network may be busy. In any event, calling 911 connects you to the police, which may not be the most efficient line of communication. They may not know where you are, and quite possibly you're not exactly sure either. You certainly don't want to stay around after reporting the incident, in case the package or abandoned car really is a security problem.
In those locations equipped with emergency phones, it may well be that the most appropriate call is to the security professional designated by the facility's manager and security director to receive such calls. Using the emergency phone, you get to that party quickly, the phone tells the security professional where the call is coming from and allows you to report what you have seen and leave the area. The professionals can then take over, evaluate the situation, and take appropriate action. If the police or fire departments are required, that is a call that can be made by them after due evaluation. Otherwise these civic resources may well be overtaxed, over-utilized and otherwise spread so thin that they will be unavailable to respond where actually required.

ST&D: What types of emergency phone and communications products exist or are in development to transition the market towards wireless and digital communication? What obstacles will it encounter in this transition?

CG: As our market looks at industry trends toward both wireless and digital types of communication, a key challenge will be to provide the dependability, flexibility and robust system currently supported by hard-wired and analog installations. Is your personal cell phone 100 percent reliable every minute of the day, regardless of your location or your power source? The general expectation of the public for our type of products is a key consideration in the design and development of our future products.

SP: The largest issue facing wireless applications is the perceived lower reliability of wireless signals. Since emergency phones also require the connection of consistent, constant power, it is generally not an obstacle to install land-line phones at the same time as power. The main application at this time for wireless is for remote sites, where it would be cost prohibitive to provide power and/or telephone lines. These sites typically use cellular repeaters combined with solar power and batteries. Emergency phones based on digital and VoIP are in development for enterprise and server applications.

EC: Jeron's communications products, including emergency phones, are already digital. Integration to wireless phones, two-way radios, wireless emergency call pendants, pocket pagers and other such devices has already been accomplished. Wire consumption itself in communications and security systems has greatly been reduced. Years ago a wire was needed for every single line, much like the visual of an old switchboard. Now as few as two lines can be run that are controlled by a central computer. Analog has some uses, but it has already been supplanted by digital. I see fiber optics as the next step forward after digital.

SS: From Talk-A-Phone's standpoint, this question is related to the homeland security issue and the issue of integration. Talk-A-Phone is now releasing a new product called WEBS, or Wide-area Emergency Broadcast System. WEBS integrates into one of our towers a Talk-A-Phone emergency phone, blue light/strobe, and optionally a PTZ camera, with high-power paging. The administrator can connect to the paging either by RF or though a telephone line. The RF receivers are available in virtually any licensed band that the facility is currently using, and they enable the security office to call a single tower, a group of towers, or all towers simultaneously. The emergency phone itself can also be on its own RF link.
... We are all familiar with emergency broadcast systems from the Cold War days. These systems continue to be installed and used to alert entire towns or even cities of natural disasters such as tornados, deploying power paging of up to 2,400 watts. WEBS is designed to address security issues such as smaller-scale chemical accidents at a university, fires or terrorist attacks against soft targets such as shopping centers, schools and office complexes.
If an emergency call is placed to security to report an incident, the strobe immediately starts flashing. As soon as the call is answered, the emergency phone automatically tells security where the call is coming from. Depending on the nature of the incident, security can not only dispatch appropriate personnel, but can page the exact area where the call is coming from, telling people in that area what to do. Security can also then separately page surrounding areas, telling people in those areas what action they should take, such as avoiding a certain location due to a certain problem. By combining these two technologies we have enhanced the power of each to deal with scenarios we could not have imagined two years ago.

Marleah Blades is managing editor of ST&D. She can be reached at [email protected] .