School security gets smarter

School Security Gets Smarter

Making sure you have the right security in place

School security gets smarterFrom program management to application and deployment, security practitioners from schools, corporations and government agencies are asking: Do we have enough security?

Perhaps an even more important question is: do we have the right security?

While many facilities share similar security risks such as entrance and exit points, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. After all, the security needs of a one-room schoolhouse greatly differ from those of a multi-building campus. Technologies such as access control, video surveillance and mass notification can help ensure the safety and security of a school when properly designed and deployed. But a fully integrated and functional security system doesn’t just happen overnight. So where do you get started?

From Assessment to Planning

The first step is to recognize the school’s specific security needs. School officials typically begin this discovery process with a threat and vulnerability assessment (TVA). This can be as simple as having a number of experts walk through the facility and put together a checklist to help identify operating procedures and policies for incident response, crisis management and recovery. The TVA is based on risk associated with the full spectrum of threats, including natural events, accidents or intentional acts to cause harm. The results of such assessments are then used to develop sound, scalable security master plans.

Security master plans touch on nearly all aspects and departments of a school facility, so it is important to include all stakeholders in its initial development from the system designer, manufacturer, systems integrator, parents, teachers, IT department, and superintendent to first responders.

The Department of Homeland Security recognizes six disciplines for first responders: EMS, law enforcement, fire, explosives, HAZMAT, and search and rescue. Procedures for direct communication and collaboration with first responders in any of these categories should be built in to a school’s security plan. In the unfortunate event of an incident, a streamlined approach can help save valuable time and maximize resources.

Be sure to define objectives and discuss potential consequences of the risks, threats and vulnerabilities that are identified. Developing a security plan for a school requires a careful balance of budgets, expectations, privacy and the safety of the students and staff to create a realistic and comprehensive plan.

Top of the Class Technologies

Once the security plan is created, it can be linked to human resources and security technology systems. Thanks to technological advancements in recent years, security systems have become increasingly sophisticated and have been designed to meet specific security challenges that are common in educational environments.

Communications. Emergency communications and IP paging is now typically bundled with unified communications (UC) management systems that many schools already have. A number of solution developers offer off-the-shelf and customized emergency communications and mass notifications systems. From phone-to-phone live audio paging to audio announcements to groups of phones within a school, this form of UC is gaining traction.

Intra-communication is equally important. Are there communications protocols between office and classrooms for emergencies? Cloud computing, mobility and video surveillance provide new opportunities for better communication during emergencies. A popular solution permits the “opt-in” of a mobile device to a school’s emergency communications network, allowing simplified sharing of potential threats and incidents in progress. This solution has now “graduated” to include automated call up of nearby surveillance cameras to the incident and personal emergency applications triggered by students, faculty and staff.

Automated license plate capture and recognition (ALPR). As stated by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, law enforcement agencies throughout the nation are increasingly adopting automated license plate recognition technologies to enhance investigative capabilities and compare vehicle license plates with lists of stolen, wanted and other vehicles of interest. ALPR systems automatically capture an image of the vehicle’s license plate, transform that image into alphanumeric characters, compare the plate number to a database of vehicles of interest and send an alert when such a vehicle of interest has been observed. Today’s “smart” surveillance cameras with embedded platforms can host an ALPR application and even communicate to the school and public safety “back office” systems—all within a matter of seconds.

HDTV imaging. With today’s HDTV standards, high-quality forensic video data is available in the current lower-cost IP video cameras and enhance dependent processes like video analytics, ALPR and still-image enhancement. Video quality and HDTV aid review and investigations, and together with H.264 compression, offer a balance of color fidelity, frame rate and visual acuity.

Video and physical access mobility. Remote video surveillance is now an integral part of private and public server-storage and/or cloudbased video surveillance systems. The ability to receive even buffered or near real-time video content during an event is a great situation awareness improvement for first responders. The use of the mobile access credential is still at the pilot stage for many schools, but is a promising cost reduction opportunity.

Lighting, safe waiting areas. LED lighting is now a popular part of Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) and offers an improvement to both video surveillance and deterrence. Equipped with LED lighting, advanced video motion detection and wireless emergency communications, newer, modular outdoor waiting areas on a school campus are effective improvements.

Time for an Upgrade?

Often the kneejerk reaction, especially following tragic incidents, is to completely overhaul the current security system. However, this startfrom- scratch approach is often not feasible—and even unnecessary. It is also never best to make security decisions in haste. Part of the TVA is a review of existing systems and provides recommendations on whether to upgrade, replace or keep existing components.

With many schools facing limited budgets, complete system overhauls can be expensive. However, when it comes to transitioning to IP video surveillance, for instance, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Existing quality coaxial infrastructure can be leveraged using video encoders or coax converters, making the migration path to IP video easier and more cost-effective. Schools that cannot go to a full IP video system at once can still reap the benefits of IP video, including searchable video and intelligent analytics, while adding IP cameras with superior image quality to their system on a camera-bycamera basis as budgets permit.

After compatible systems are selected and implemented, maintenance and upkeep of the system is still important. Improvements need to be continually considered in trending technologies, particularly in industrial security, cyber security and consumer electronics/commercial technologies. Technology and other security countermeasures are only useful if properly managed and maintained. Certified security professionals can recommend ways to scale the system to continue to meet growing and changing needs.

Putting It to the Test

From fire drills to bus evacuations, many schools already conduct routine tests to ensure that certain safety plans and procedures are effective. This should be no different for the school’s security system.

Schools with security staffs can conduct internal trainings for staff to become familiar with how the system can respond and be utilized depending on the type of event. Locating a lost child will elicit a much different response than preparations for an approaching tornado. Identifying the key technologies that are most useful in various situations in advance will help ensure that the best decisions are made if they become reality.

Collaboration with local and federal law enforcement agencies is also an important proactive step. Schools should work with these agencies to set up full day drills and involve the students. Oftentimes knowing that a plan is already in place can be a comfort to many students and parents, especially if a security issue arises. Working with law enforcement under normal conditions will open lines of communication and understanding, helping to establish and define the respective roles of school officials and law enforcement.

If law enforcement responds to an event, they will arrive on scene with a pre-existing relationship with school officials and an intimate knowledge of the technologies and tools at their disposable.

Many school systems across the country have specifically focused on active shooter scenarios. Resources abound, but it is important to consider education from board certified practitioners, and first responders’ perspectives. As part of their Enhanced Violence Assessment and Management Curricula, ASIS International offers the workshop, “Active Shooter: Prevention, Intervention, and Response.” Useful training is close to the schools and often available on request from local law enforcement agencies. These will typically consist of training drills involving multiple police and emergency agencies and held on site at the school.

The Department of Homeland Security developed courses and guidelines for active shooter preparedness, providing schools with numerous resources and the flexibility to prepare the students and staff in a way that best meets their individual needs.

Active shooter scenarios are not the only threats to be considered. Remember that the website,, is organized by the six major response scenarios: EMS, law enforcement, fire, explosives, HAZMAT and search and rescue. All areas must be considered in the school security plan.

No school system or law enforcement agency hopes to ever answer such a call, but having the proper procedures, communication and technology in place in advance can help protect the students, staff and first responders. Security systems are one piece of a multi-layered approach that can help provide peace of mind, situational awareness and forensic evidence in the event of the unthinkable.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Security Today.


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