Network electronic access control offers flexibility, auditing capability and lockdown options
- By Sean Leonard
- Oct 01, 2010
At 7,522 feet above sea level, Estes Park in Colorado is surrounded
by nationally protected lands and mountain peaks that range in
elevation from 8,500 feet to more than 14,000 feet. While Estes
Park’s population numbers are less than 6,000, Estes Valley is home
to almost 12,000 residents who are served by the town’s facilities.
Over the years, many of the town’s buildings have been converted from their
original use to a different purpose, with consequent changes in security requirements.
For example, the town hall originally was a high school but now houses
municipal offices, the police department, a board room and public meeting rooms.
Other buildings house the fire department, fleet services, light and power shops,
the park shop and many other services. In addition, the town runs its own electrical
and water utilities, which have facilities located throughout the area.
Many of the buildings were built when security simply consisted of a mechanical
lock and key. Changing security needs brought the requirement for greater key
control and improved security measures. At the same time, certain areas needed to
be accessible after hours for public meetings and various community groups.
“When we changed the high school into the town hall, we went from giving free
access between classrooms to trying to limit access and protect our employees,”
said Bruce Walters, an IT/LAN support specialist at the high school.
Electronic Access Control
Over the past several years, the town has upgraded its security by converting mechanical
locks to electronic locks that improve key control, yet provide flexibility
in meeting access control needs.
“The initial reason we installed the electronic locks was because we needed
entry and exit audit information from our light, power and water facilities for
Homeland Security,” Walters said.
The first installations used Schlage offline computer-managed locks, in which
data that controls access is downloaded to each lock individually, using a PDA.
Audit trails and other information were uploaded to the PDA and transferred to
a computer. The database itself was managed on the computer, which provides
quick response to personnel changes, lost credentials and changing access requirements.
The self-contained locks were easy to install, as they did not require separate
wiring. The offline locks are still used at several remote locations, such as the
water facilities, which do not require frequent data upgrades.
Moving to broaden electronic access control throughout its facilities, the town
began using Schlage wireless online locks a few years ago. With such a variety of
existing buildings, this eliminated the need to pull wires to each opening while still
providing online access control. This approach also allowed staff to make instant
access data changes at every lock. Both types of lock are integrated with a security
management system, which manages both online and stand-alone offline locks
from a single database.
Estes Park uses proximity credentials, including cards and key fobs. Walters
said the cards are not used for identification and are restricted to specific facilities
and times so they cannot be used if they are lost. Electronic credentials provide
several advantages over mechanical keys.
“We don’t have to change locks if someone loses a key,” Walters said. “If we
don’t get a key or credential back when someone leaves, we can disable their access
The town hall application demonstrates how the system operates. During regular
office hours, the building’s entrance is open to the public, although interior doors
to certain offices, such as the police department, finance and IT, remain controlled.
After hours, the building is zoned to allow access for community groups while the
offices remain secured. The exterior door and elevator lobby can be unlocked and
locked automatically by the SMS system when a meeting is scheduled.
“One group has an employee who comes in early to make coffee, so we give her
a card that lets her in an hour early,” Walters said. “With the system, we can control
access down to a single person, a single door and a specific time.”
Currently, six separate buildings that use wireless online locks are on the management
system, while approximately the same number use the offline computer-managed
locks. These include such facilities as the water treatment plant and chemical
storage for water treatment, as well as remote water storage tanks. The firehouse also
is on the offline system, although it may be converted to the wireless online locks later. Walters said the same credentials
work with either type of lock.
Local Hospital Security
Sandhills Regional Medical Center,
owned by Health Management Associates,
has been serving the citizens of
Hamlet, N.C., since 1915. Until recently,
security consisted of the lock-andkey
method. According to assistant
administrator Thomas Roddy, officials
determined in 2008 that the medical
center needed greater security. That’s
when they called in Ned Russell, salesman
for Seven Oaks Doors and Hardware
of Oakboro, N.C., which services
customers throughout North Carolina
and South Carolina.
“Using keys and key locks was no
longer enough,” Roddy said. “They are
too easy to duplicate or to lose. In addition,
they provide no information on
who has been where and when. We felt
we needed our security system to perform
Plus, the hospital also wanted something
easier to use than the traditional
lock and key.
“The hospital required something
that was not too invasive and could be
easily installed,” said Kevin Lamonds,
system technician with Seven Oaks. “In
addition to providing a system that was
easy to administrate, we also faced the
many installation restrictions one has in
medical buildings, including limitations
on where you can drill and lay wire.
“The Web-enabled system application
is embedded on the control panel,
which is network-ready and connects
easily to Sandhills Regional Medical
Center’s existing network. The system
has its own IP address, and authorized
users at the medical center can use any
networked online computer to access
and manage the system.”
For the doors, the medical center is
using wireless proximity card readers,
which seamlessly integrate into the system’s
access control panel, eliminating
wire between the lock and the access
control panel and providing a complete
solution at each opening. No drilling or
wire pulling is necessary.
“It’s so easy to use wireless in such
an application,” Lamonds said. “Not
only were the readers installed quickly,
we saved the medical center all the labor
costs associated with a typical wired installation.”
Phase One included securing six
doors -- the main entrance, accounting,
business, medical records and two
other internal office doors. Phase Two
will add more doors.
“Installation of the entire system
was very simple,” Roddy said. “Seven
Oaks met with our facilities and IT
groups and proceeded to undertake a
very seamless integration. Plus, they
were so flexible. They had to change
their schedules several times due to unforeseen
interruptions, such as a visit
from the Joint Commission.”
The system economically and efficiently meets the hospital’s objectives of providing greater security as well as an
“We can now determine who has accessed what offices and when to ensure that
only authorized people enter specified doors,” Roddy said. “We haven’t yet had to
use any of the more advanced system features, such as lockdown, but it’s sure nice
to know that they are available.”
A lockdown cannot be a heartbeat away, said Gary Conley, facilities and systems
engineer in the office of business operations at the University of Virginia.
“This issue is major with wireless access control,” Conley said. “Usually, with
Wi-Fi, access control decisions are downloaded by the host into the lock five to six
times a day versus five to six times per hour with 900 MHz solutions, a 10-minute
heartbeat. Access control decisions may also be managed within the locks -- as is
the case with offline locks -- to minimize communication from the lock to the host
and conserve batteries.
However, such limited -- analog -- connectivity limits the locks’ ability to receive
urgent commands from the host. For instance, even with a 900 MHz platform, a
direction to immediately lock down could be ignored for more than 10 minutes.
“A new patent-pending ‘wake up on radio’ feature works in parallel with
the 10-minute heartbeat,” Conley said. “Without waking up the entire lock, it
listens for complementary commands every one to 10 seconds and responds.
Thus, 10 seconds is the longest it will take to initiate lockdown of all our residence
The value of implementing wireless access control systems in a wide variety of
security applications is compelling. Real-world installations prove that wireless solutions
often have substantially lower installed costs than wired alternatives. That’s
because wireless systems use less hardware and install between five to 10 times
faster. Even in situations that were perceived as impossible or impractical,
retrofitting electronic access control systems is easy and
affordable with wireless solutions.
This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of Security Today.