K-12 Security Tips for Integrators

Aug. 5, 2014
Navigate the challenges of the market to find success

­Despite the vastly increased media attention paid to K-12 security as shootings and other incidents are publicized across the United States, finding and sustaining business for security integrators in this market has been a difficult proposition. Tight margins and multiple challenges that range from finding end-user funding, to choosing technology, to low bids might make it seem next to impossible to break into K-12; however, a good plan of attack and help along the way from your distribution and other partners can create for you a robust customer who will keep coming back for more.

“In order to be profitable within the K-12 market, it is imperative that integrators receive the best possible pricing from their technology and distribution partners,” explains Tony Varco, Vice President of Convergint Technologies’ Security Division. “Then, they need to ensure that projects are properly and professionally managed to bring the projects in on-time and on-budget.”

The one easy part for integrators in K-12 may the the most difficult in other markets — getting the end-user on board the security bandwagon. “Unfortunately, it is not difficult to show (K-12 end-users) an ROI (on security),” says Keith Watters, a General Manager with Protection One. “With all the recent events across the country, you can back up any presentation with some solid information.”

Challenges to Overcome

Lack of Funds: In talking to several integrators, the biggest challenge for the K-12 market when it comes to commissioning a security system is — you guessed it — funding. For many school administrators, the choice might come down to either a video surveillance camera or a smart board for a classroom; or door hardware vs. new equipment for the library or student computer lab, and most of us realize that security will be on the losing end of those decisions. “Many states are managing through substantial deficits, and they simply lack the funds necessary to implement even the most basic technology upgrades,” Varco says.

A lack of time and resources among already busy school administrators goes hand-in-hand with the funding issue. “K-12 customers tend to lack the resources or have the time to assess technology options,” explains Mike Painter, President of Salt-Lake City-based integrator AlphaCorp Security.

When there are funds available, it is important to know if the funding for security be part of a capital expense, or from grants for security, or the school’s technology budget. But there’s another potential stumbling block: “For schools which must award to the low bid, there is real risk that after the long process to choose what they want, they will get something different or a poor implementation, which disappoints everyone,” Painter says.

Integrators should strive to be a trusted partner for K-12 administrators by at least making an attempt to help locate additional funding through security grants and other means. While sources for federal and state funding may be diminishing over time and through rough economic stretches, some are still out there. “We do a basic web search for the district and often find articles or grants that the school never knew about,” Watters says. “We also make a call to the local authorities who also have insight on different funding options.”

“We point them to resources or other schools who have had luck,” Painter adds.

“In our region, school districts are doing a better job of exploring on their own the availability of school security funding,” says Gannon Switzer, Vice President of Koorsen Security Technology, based in Indianapolis. “The State of Indiana and advocacy groups have also been much more proactive in communicating to school districts what funding is available.”

Defining the Decision-Maker: “Those in the positions to, or who have expertise to make technology purchase decisions, tend not to be the security systems decision-makers,” Painter says. “The budget authority for spending on new technologies — particularly those related to security/safety — is not readily accessible for those who have the most interest in these technologies.”

Beyond finding the person(s) who can actually authorize a purchase, the issue of system oversight and maintenance must also be addressed and made clear for the systems integrator. “Does that go to the integrator, the technology department or the local school administrator — you must define who is responsible for what aspects,” Switzer warns. “IT is going to support it, but the question becomes who is going to administer changes and how involved will the integrator be in building and working on a system tied to the school network. Those challenges need to be understood early on to have buy-in from all parties.

“Often, the drivers of school security and safety are the principal and the superintendent,” Switzer adds, “but for others, it is the school safety officer or the school board.”

Tight Margins: “We encourage schools to create tight specifications with clearly-defined requirements in the bid process, so that when bidders submit bids, it can more readily enable an apples-to-apples comparison, reducing the chances that a less-able, less-aware integrator will be awarded a project which it is unsuited to deliver,” Painter explains. “This can tend to enable survivable margins for all competitors. We often provide free services over a long period of time to help elevate a school district’s understanding of what it really needs. Sometimes, this generates decent business far down the road; sometimes it’s just a service.”

Technology Choices and Proving ROI

If you are able to navigate the funding and other challenges that affect K-12 security procurement, the next steps are similar to other markets — create a technology solution, prove its value, and ultimately, implement it. The basic building blocks of any facility-wide security solution are especially relevant and important to K-12 security. Access control keeps potential bad guys out of school buildings and individual classrooms; video surveillance keeps an eye on all things security-related, right down to a bullying incident in the hallways; and alarm monitoring and management protects the areas and facilities when they are unoccupied.

“Today, K-12 end-users cannot get enough IP video and are looking at more and more creative ways to use cameras for both security as well as for improving day-to-day operations,” Varco says. That IP video can also be fundamental in providing real-time information to first responders in emergency and evacuation situations; and, the increased use and viability of 180- and 360-degree-view cameras also make a lot of sense for school facilities that are characterized by long hallways.   

Still, it seems that access control is the real backbone of K-12 security. “The technology that makes the most sense for schools right now is access control, as it limits the access into buildings and monitors the status of doors,” Switzer says. “Access control also lasts a long time and is cost-effective. We are seeing video being deployed by schools, but in many of these scenarios, the schools are locking the doors on the outside and using the surveillance to identify an incident — which is reactive, as most school administrators are too busy to continuously monitor video on their own.”

Just remember: Having and offering your experience pays off. “Large K-12 projects should not be used as a training ground,” Watters warns.

As for proving the value of these systems for administrators who may not be as security technology savvy as end-users in other markets, it is all about education, and becoming that trusted advisor. “To educate the customers, Convergint focuses on a concept called ‘the cost of same vs. the cost of change,’” Varco says. “We spend time creating a baseline of their current operations and compare it to a projection of savings for the various improvement measures we are recommending. This takes time, but can be a very effective way of educating end-users on the need for change and how to sell it internally.”

Adds Painter: "We hold events like lunch-and-learns, where we provide demos of systems. We connect end-users who are not as far along the path to secure school design with those who are.”

“At the end of the day, it’s mostly about networking and building individual relationships with each school district’s leadership,” Switzer says.

Finding RMR and Success for Your Business

It may be a difficult path to traverse, but there is RMR and continued success at the end of the road to being a K-12 security provider. “Over the next couple of years, Convergint believes that providing outsourced managed access, video and other security services will be the norm in this vertical market,” Varco says. “By providing a managed service to these clients, they will reduce their capital expenditures, as well as the growing internal IT cost they face to support all of the technology they install.”

Switzer and Koorsen have also found success in this area: “We’ve had success in developing managed and hosted services for school districts that are not able to dedicate an administrator to manage the surveillance or access control system,” he says.

Of course, service, maintenance and inspection are other areas ripe for RMR in the K-12 market, as internal staff dedicated to these tasks dwindles. “The market is tight, but many K-12 districts are downsizing their IT departments,” Watters explains. “They are open to maintenance and inspection agreements to make sure their investment is maximized for years to come.”

Switzer points out a third —and quite unique — avenue for RMR: “Another RMR opportunity could be to provide financing, because many schools don’t have the capital money up front, but they do have the funds if the cost can be spread it out over 12, 30 or 60 months.”

Tom Hanks’ character in the movie A League of Their Own may have put it best: “It’s supposed to be hard — if it was easy, everyone would do it.” No adage may be more true in the K-12 security market. That said, once your organization finds the winning formula for success, the snowball will only grow as it goes down the hill.

“When you develop an ongoing relationship with the school and district, integrators are able to increase profits over time as schools add on and update systems,” Switzer says. “Also, your value as a systems integrator increases as you help them better utilize and maintain their systems.”

Paul Rothman is Editor in Chief of Security Dealer & Integrator magazine (www.secdealer.com).

About the Author

Paul Rothman | Editor-in-Chief/Security Business

Paul Rothman is Editor-in-Chief of Security Business magazine. Email him your comments and questions at [email protected]. Access the current issue, full archives and apply for a free subscription at www.securitybusinessmag.com.