Ask The Expert

This month's expert discusses the tricky business of securing high-rise buildings

THE tall, graceful skyscrapers that form the dramatic skylines of our major cities create special security challenges not found in other construction. Multiple floors with multiple tenants can lead to access control nightmares and extra fire hazards -- witness the deadly 1980 blaze at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas and a 2003 fire in Chicago's Cook County Administration Building. And as recent history has shown, high-rises can be targets for terrorists.

One building industry information provider estimates that there are now about 89,000 high-rise buildings in more than 8,000 cities worldwide. With potentially thousands of tenants and visitors entering a building each day, letting the good guys in and keeping the bad guys out is an enormous task that requires the assistance of electronic access control systems.

ISSUE: What types of access control products are effective?

SOLUTION: Optical turnstiles, which are capable of providing access to 45 to 60 people per minute per unit, are being used more frequently in high-rise office buildings. Turnstiles can work with a variety of access control technologies -- cards, biometrics or PINs -- to ensure that each person is authorized to enter. The units also can protect against piggybacking, a situation where a cardholder opens a door for an unauthorized person. Turnstiles also provide anti-passback capability, prohibiting users from leaving through an entry lane.

Visitor management systems enable building management to print a high-quality badge after electronically scanning a visitor's identification, such as a driver's license or business card. The information is then stored in the system's database for later retrieval.

Many buildings also rely on uniformed security guards in the lobby as an added safety measure.

Electronic access control also can be used to ensure elevators deliver employees and visitors only to those floors where they have business. Employees using an elevator can swipe their access cards through a magnetic card reader in the elevator car to gain access to their office floor. Temporary cards can be issued to visitors to limit their access within the building.

ISSUE: But what if unauthorized people get off the elevator when another person exits?

SOLUTION: Elevators can open into lobbies with locked doors that require another card swipe in order to enter the office areas. Or instead of locked lobbies, card readers can be placed directly outside a company's office door. Video surveillance cameras also can be used to provide information on who has gotten off an elevator on a specific floor.

In addition to elevators, stairwells also provide additional access to offices throughout buildings, as well as an emergency escape route in the event of a fire. For that reason, access to the stairs is often highly regulated by local building codes. In some cities, stairwell doors only open outward, meaning once inside the stairwell, a person cannot re-enter the building on another floor. In other major cities, these laws have changed because of incidents involving people trapped in stairwells during a fire.

Currently, some cities require that all stairwell doors automatically unlock during a fire or power outage. Other cities require that a central source, such as a fire dispatch center, be able to unlock the doors in an emergency. And others require two-way intercom communication from inside the stairwell that links to a command post that is manned 24 hours a day and has the capability to unlock the doors.

ISSUE: How can a building manager pick the best system?

SOLUTION: Building management should look for a security integrator familiar with local codes. Also, that integrator should have experience in dealing with the special security considerations of high-rise buildings. Ideally, that experience should include working with elevator companies, as this will be key in developing a strong security system.

The integrator selected also should be sensitive to a multi-tenant environment and understand the priorities and pressures on the property management firm. A good integrator will know how to balance the safety and security needs of the facility to ensure a highly secure and efficient environment.

As promised, we're delivering answers to the questions that you, are readers, want answered

ISSUE: I oversee security for a professional services firm. We have our headquarters in a downtown high-rise that includes an access control system. About two years ago, the firm leased a smaller office to be near a major client base. There was no access system, so one was installed to match what we have in our headquarters. The two systems communicate over the corporate network. Recently, we have added another outlying office that had an existing access system from a different manufacturer. Can we add this system to our network, or will we need to replace it with one to match our other systems?


Most access control systems operate in a similar way from a user standpoint using the Windows® operating platform that features drop-down menus, cardholder picture input and interfacing with select DVR units. They also tie into industry-standard locking hardware, card readers, door contacts, motion detectors and turnstiles, to name a few of the devices that are common to access control. In most cases, the cable requirements are the same from the panel to the field devices, and can be reused.

However, this is where the similarity ends. Each manufacturer has its own proprietary software and access control panel hardware that work together and form the core of a manufacturer's system. In your case, the control panel would need to be changed to match the system that is installed in your corporate facility and provide an IP address to plug the panel into.

After this is accomplished, the cables should be able to transfer directly to the new landing points on the panel and the system should work just as the other offsite location currently does.


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This article originally appeared in the February 2006 issue of Security Products, pg. 32.


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