USF Breaks Into Advanced Electronic Locking

Oct. 27, 2008
Electronic access control and video surveillance help secure USF's 35-building campus
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The University of South Florida , at which I am director of physical plant, is the third largest university in the Southeast and among the top 20 largest in the nation, with a total enrollment of 43,250 students. We are located in Tampa , FL , and we maintain three remote campuses in the area.

Securing a campus as large as USF is no easy task. With 35 large buildings that require access control, thousands of users who need access after hours, and more than 800 doors to lock, simply locking and unlocking doors every day was a logistical nightmare using mechanical locks. As a result, locking and unlocking of buildings was intermittent at best.

We wanted all the buildings to be locked at 10 p.m., but even if we started locking buildings early, it could take until 3 a.m. to lock them all. Then we had to start opening the buildings very early. Some were opened way too early, and some buildings stayed open way too late.


Specific Goals

We decided to upgrade to an electronic access control system that would not only lock and unlock campus buildings on a set, predetermined schedule, but that also integrated with the existing magnetic stripe card readers, the existing CCTV system, the university's fiber network backbone, and the official university databases.

The access control system also needed to be Web-based, and it had to integrate with a front end that we planned to build. We wanted the system to work campus-wide, using the same equipment in each application, and we wanted to do the installation rather quickly. For a system this size, we expected it to be about a one- to two-year program.

We knew what we wanted from the system, and we also knew what we didn't want. We didn't want to have to create new passwords or manage them. We did not want to have to create new credentials for users. We did not want to recreate databases, which might introduce flaws or have inaccurate information. We did not want to be in the data business, the card issuing business, or the access approval business. We already had all those businesses on campus.


An Integrated, Networked Solution

We chose GE's Secure Perfect access control and security management software to tie together the access control and video surveillance functions. Our staff not only installed and integrated most of the system; they also maintain it. Local integrators were hired to help install some of the equipment to stay on schedule, but several USF employees who had attended training sessions were able to perform most of the work in-house.

We were able to integrate our existing video system into the new access control system, and it works with the existing card access system. We have one integrated access control system that operates as one facility, controlling 5 million square feet. There are currently 829 doors, 205 card readers and 148 cameras integrated into the access control system at USF. About 8,000 users have been entered into the system.

In an emergency, we can now lock the buildings all at once, even during normal business hours. The last couple of hurricanes have gotten pretty close, and if we want to lock the campus down in the middle of the day because of an evacuation order, it's now possible to do that.

The standard university ID is swiped to get in and out of access-controlled doors. Our staff simply gives authorization to access approvers, who add and remove individual users from the system. There are about 50 access approvers on campus now.

We created an access control Web site that connects four university databases with a Windows-based version of GE Secure Perfect to create access permissions. The Web site works with existing university passwords, so users can simply log onto their PC using their existing university username and password, and find the access control Web site on their desktops.

Access approvers do not have to put in names or numbers for individual users. The university's existing databases populate the system. Access granters simply perform a person search of the existing database. Only students, faculty members and university employees can be granted access.


Doors Have Eyes

Both our staff in physical plant and university police can access the cameras and video footage via the university's fiber optic network. The on-campus police have a control room where they monitor the security and fire systems. During the day, our staff will check out door alarms. After hours, the police department is notified of any alarms if a door is forced open.

Now that we have integrated video, we get automatic video feed from a door when it's been triggered. People are often putting things in to block the doors or jamming the locks to keep a door from closing. We go out and take care of any of those events. We are also notified if something in the system fails or there is an electronic failure.

The access control and security management system has already helped catch culprits in incidents of vandalism, and we believe it is helping prevent theft on campus. It has also curtailed activity such as jamming and blocking doors. Without the integrated video, it is very difficult to locate the culprit. With integrated video and access control, people follow the rules.

The system has also minimized false alarms, making it more likely that campus police will respond to them. If police get too many alarms, it doesn't mean anything anymore and they may begin to ignore them. We knew that in order for people to take the system seriously, even police dispatch, they would have to have confidence that the alarms are real. The system has proven to be very reliable.


Looking Forward

The Secure Perfect access control and security management system is installed in each new building that comes on line at USF. It is now the standard access control system. With phase one of the integrated access system completed, only about a third of the doors that are access controlled also have integrated video surveillance. Next year we expect to have more cameras integrated into the access control system. We would eventually like to have one camera at each door that is access controlled.

We are also investigating the possibility of using biometric technology to verify that the person swiping a card for access is actually the authorized user.

We wanted to be able to use our existing swipe cards with the access control system initially, but we wanted to have the option to change over to a different credential technology in the future. Converting to a new credential at this point would have been a very costly undertaking and also a very complex one. We purchased the access control system with the understanding that if we did migrate to proximity or smart cards, we could simply upgrade the credential and it would work with the access control system. It will even work with biometrics.

Overall, the system has performed up to our expectations. Controlling the buildings, having them lock and unlock automatically, managing who comes and goes as well as being able to police the doors as an investigative tool is a big plus.


Adrian Cuarta is director of physical plant at USF.