Why Wireless?

Network electronic access control offers flexibility, auditing capability and lockdown options

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 instantly.”

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 such auditing.”

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 audit trail.

“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.”

Lockdown Mode
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 halls.”

Why Wireless?
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.

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