Anything But Old School

Texas school district integrates leading security technologies

Among Austin Independent School District’s top-stated values are excellence and the health and safety of its students, and it shows. Six of the district’s high schools were named “America’s Best High Schools” by Newsweek; 20 more were listed as “Higher Performing” schools by the National Center for Educational Achievement (NCEA) and 173 Austin high school seniors were recognized as National Scholars just last year. AISD is the 16th largest district in the country and the fifth largest in Texas.

Not surprisingly, Austin, Texas, known as the “Silicon Hills,” relies on integrating leading security technologies to safeguard AISD’s campuses, 85,000-strong student body, faculty and staff. That’s the role of the school district’s Life Safety Systems Department, headed by Wayne Berry and Mike Savercool. Like all things in Texas, it’s a tall order to secure a district this large: 121 campuses, 80 elementary schools, 18 middle schools, 15 high schools and 5 special campuses and alternative centers. The department’s duties include daily inspections and routine maintenance of AISD’s extensive burglar, fire and access systems—from alarms to sprinklers and fire extinguishers to badge readers and cameras.

Despite being responsible for the school district’s enterprise-class security, the Life Safety Systems Department has implemented cost-saving initiatives. The low-maintenance costs and reliability associated with Napco’s Gemini™ Security Systems have benefited AISD, Savercool said. AISD faculty are reliant on ID badges, which are a big factor in keeping nearly 2,000 doors closed and secured at all times. If someone’s ID badge doesn’t open the door instantly, Savercool’s department is called. Fortunately, the system turbo-processes door-open times in under a half second, even at peak, high-traffic periods. Savercool said the first thing people think of for school security is to lock the doors and keep intruders or unauthorized people out, but sometimes those doors need to be opened for entry.

Who’s going to be there to unlock them and/or distribute, track and retrieve the keys? Going back as far as 1998, AISD has relied on Napco’s access control system, Continental CardAccess. Savercool indicated it’s a budget-saver and great alternative to rekeying costs, which can be as much as $10,000 to rekey a school. Plus, the system is low maintenance, excluding infrequent attacks on outdoor readers, which are more prone to vandalism or graffiti tags.

AISD’s integrated security and access systems communicate via their own network using the Napco NetLink. This can save school districts approximately $40 to $50 per month, per alarm panel, eliminating panel-dedicated phone land lines, which are increasingly scarce, by using their own Intranet. Full alarm panel program downloads with NetLink are done at high-speed, taking mere seconds. Likewise, AISD’s alarm activations and remote monitoring are handled internally by AISD patrol officers, some of whom are assigned on-site at all middle schools. The system also is securely accessible and controllable around the clock via AISD’s VPN or with Napco’s Continental Remote Web Client, providing complete capability to change, add or delete authorized users and access privileges; modify schedules; lock/unlock doors; and monitor alarms and security cameras.

AISD processes more than 100 visitors a day, so stringent visitor ID is currently one of the top issues AISD’s Life Safety Systems Department deals with. Every school has integrated visitor management. Visitors use keypads to request entry. They are then viewed on security cameras with their identification and granted entry through the access system by the screening staff and secretaries. Visitors, workers, students’ relatives, parents, noncustodial- parents—all are carefully processed. “It’s a big deal today, especially with Texas’s proximity to Mexico,” Savercool said.

In the past, contractors were a big part of the largely unknown group of people going in and out of schools; no one really knew them or their exact schedules. (Years ago, AISD tracked some insider thefts of computer components to a contractor, caught on security cameras.) The CardAccess System’s integrated visitor management function has solved such problems.

“(Texas) state law requires now that contractors have security clearances, and that is integrated with the access control system,” Savercool said.

Without clearance, no badge is issued. The access system also provides auto-expiring badges used for short-term contractors and visitors. Since AISD schools are designated hurricane refuge facilities, CardAccess badging has provided access for Red Cross volunteers and hurricane refugees.

“In the case of Gulf Coast Hurricane Rita a few years back, many stayed in AISD school buildings for several weeks,” Savercool said.

Access is handled on a campus-by-campus basis, according to daily schedules.

All staff and faculty, and some students, have a badge for multi-building access needs. Special access privileges are required for entry to the Administration Building, MDF rooms—media distribution frame centers for servers—and gymnasiums. The CardAccess system also provides elevator control in the district’s multifloor school buildings. Savercool reiterated the savings using access control: badges cost $2 to $3 each versus old-school keys, which were likely impossible to retrieve, were far more costly and created security exposures resulting in thousands of dollars spent in both rekeying locks and manpower.

Savercool said the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 and Columbine attacks in 1999 were “big drivers for visitor control and the biggest expansion in Card Access. It marked a big culture shift in security for AISD.”

Emergency management is charged with planning and implementing monthly emergency drills; additionally, it coordinates with city- and countywide emergency departments; all are synchronized, especially since Austin is the seat of the state government and AISD is a designated emergency refuge facility, he stated.

Virtually all doors across the district are now secured with access control. That translates to about 11,000 employees using the access control system daily. AISD also supplements CardAccess with Alarm Lock Trilogy standalone PIN/Prox pushbutton access locks in certain areas, including the former network department, help-desks districtwide and county “combination buildings,” shared by school, library and police substations. Trilogy Prox Lock models have built-in HID Readers and can share the same badge/credential as the Continental hardwired access system. AISD recently upgraded its server to the new CardAccess v2.8; the system features integration of new Trilogy Networx wireless pushbutton access locks that are networked and controlled in real time with the Continental CardAccess v2.8 front end.

Asked why AISD originally chose Napco for its security systems, Savercool said when he first started at the district, the foreman whom he would eventually replace began an initiative to replace another manufacturer’s alarm systems with Napco systems. Over the years, the alarm systems AISD deployed evolved in technology, along with Napco Security Systems, from original Magnums and MA3000’s to the GEMP9600, 3200 and scores of Napco dual-technology motion detectors. He said the district continues to use Napco because the systems perform reliably, and AISD’s Life Safety Systems Department has always had a good relationship with Napco. It’s critical for security departments “to get a robust system and grow into it,” Savercool said. Napco’s Continental CardAccess System is scalable from a few to thousands of doors and badgeholders, and it integrates with the Napco Gemini Intrusion & Fire System and Alarm Lock Access Locks, incorporated in AISD’s new version of CA3000 v2.8. Reflective of the diverse Austin population, and thus AISD, the Continental System is multilingual, supporting 12 languages, and the workstation operator interface loads the language preference by user login automatically.

AISD also uses its CardAccess System for speedier, more cost-effective fire department response. Savercool explained that in an emergency or alarm activation, for fire department school building access, five or more keys used to be kept in an exterior Knox Box. Today, however, the Life Safety Systems Department simply puts one access card in that box. It provides savings on keys, key replacement and/or rekeying costs, substituting a single $2 to $3 access card (deactivated on demand, quickly and inexpensively). Plus, having one card to give the fire department access to all doors in the particular school saves firefighters time (juggling through keys). In the event of an emergency or fire, seconds can save lives and/or thousands of dollars in school property damages.

“Parents are happy that our schools have kept students safe and CardAccess is a great part of that,” Savercool said. “AISD—and the Life Safety Systems Department—gets positive parental support. They see the card access at work, they see cameras and they get the good feeling the school is secured.”

He also mentioned that while Austin is a relatively safe city, there are gang problems, probably seen more in schools than in neighborhoods. Closed buildings (access-controlled) helps with that a lot. While AISD at one time considered metal detectors as an option, years back, it ultimately decided that the implementation and administration of using them outweighed their effective impact or possible benefits.

This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue of Security Today.


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