Technology: Building Security Takes the Next Step Forward

Ten years after 9/11, digital security systems are still taking root in the industry as another line of defense. But is deployment worth the upfront costs?

By Dees Stribling

The attacks on New York and Washington a decade ago inspired a frenzy of activity in the field of commercial property security, establishing a somewhat heightened new normal. True to form, however, Americans did not pursue improved security in lockstep but via a number of different strategies employing a bewildering array of improved (or new) devices to supplement traditional guard-based property security. Property managers snapped up sophisticated analog and then digital surveillance systems, CCTVs, alarm systems, new mechanical and electronic access-control technologies such as keycards, smartcards, face recognition, voice recognition, fingerprint recognition— and more.

The array of new and improved technologies designed to make commercial properties and their tenants more secure may be confusing. But a decade into the new normal of building security, it is no longer the overarching trend, though new systems continue to proliferate.

Rather, the integration of security systems onto Internet Protocol-based platforms has gained momentum in recent years, and is expected to continue its pace of adoption for a number of reasons. These include the standardization of IP systems, the decreasing cost of the technologies involved and the simple fact that property managers and their security staff are becoming more familiar with the concept.

“With the broadband revolution, highly skilled and trained security officers pilot control panels that one would expect to see on a space shuttle,” pointed out J. Michael Coleman, vice president of commercial real estate for AlliedBarton Security Services in Philadelphia. He listed IP-connected digital applications that include closed-circuit television, life and fire safety systems, and remote online access control systems. “While the past may have seen either a security officer or a security camera, today we often see both. Not as two separate functions but as part of an integrated system” that also includes an access control system and sophisticated motion sensors.

“Is this all too much? While the industry may be exploding with products and choices, the ideal is a carefully selected and integrated suite of security products specific to the needs of a particular location.”

Until recently, one of the main sticking points to wider adoption of IP-based integrated security systems was the fact that many are proprietary. But in recent years, two security industry groups, the Physical Security Interoperability Alliance and the Open Network Video Interface Forum, have been chipping away at the problem by developing IP system specifications. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based PSIA has, among other efforts, created specifications for IP camera and video management software compatibility; recording and content management, which standardizes the way those products interface with other devices in the security ecosystem; and a specification that enables video analytic platforms of all types and brands to automatically integrate with video management systems and physical security software.

“Deploying standards that drive true interoperability is a critical step to unlocking the potential of IP for the industry as a whole,” said Scott Harkins, president & general manager of Honeywell Systems, but he added that IP is not yet comparable to standalone systems. “Until IP technologies are just as easy to design, sell and install as traditional analog CCTV systems, IP will not deliver on its true value.”

Cost vs. Benefit

Will the benefits of IP-based integrated systems soon outweigh their costs, at least for conventional commercial property purposes? It is one thing, after all, for the federal government to use state-of-the-art building security systems to protect high-visibility targets such as labs or military installations. Commercial properties, on the other hand, do not generally need Pentagon-level security, nor do property owners usually care to pay for that much security (though at the same time it is not wise to be too cheap with property protection).

Average outlays for building security increased during the 2000s, which might make owners a little skittish when it comes to upgrading to IP-based systems. According to the Building Owners and Managers Association, security-related costs averaged 46 cents per square foot in 2000 but increased to 56 cents per square foot in 2002. More recently, security costs averaged 61 cents in 2010, compared with 65 cents in 2009. Those are averages, of course, meaning that real-world costs for any particular property will be a function of the property itself—scattered facilities tend to cost more, for example—and the owner’s tolerance for risk.

BOMA’s definition of security costs is fairly broad, covering expenditures related to the security of tenants and the building itself, including payroll and fringe benefits for security personnel as well as expenses for individuals or firms contracted to perform specified duties. It also includes the expense involved in maintaining security systems—ordinary supplies necessary to operate the program— such as access cards, system components, batteries and control forms—but also any other miscellaneous expenses, such as uniforms.

How the integration of security functions will affect overall cost remains an open question. One unclear variable is training, because introducing IP into the security equation necessitates introduction of skills that security personnel did not previously need, such as the IT knowledge required to keep a system operating smoothly 24/7, especially at hours when a company’s IT specialist might not be around.

AlliedBarton’s Coleman does not believe training will be too much of a hurdle, however. Technology itself will take care of that, since training is now available via the Internet and “many of today’s security officers are avid computer users,” he noted. “This is especially ideal for officers who would like to continue their standard training but work in remote locations or work atypical hours, making classroom training a challenge.”

Some emerging technologies will probably become more common in an IP-based security environment, especially as they become less expensive. One is biometric-based access control systems. For instance, there are already iris-recognition technologies that scan the eyes of dozens of individuals passing near scanners so unobtrusively that they might not even notice, unless the system were to flag them as unauthorized and alert the human security staff to take them aside. With such advances, a number of entrances or even scattered facilities can be remotely monitored using an IP-based platform.

Iris recognition is still expensive, and thus far the government has been one of the main adopters, with commercial property users still preferring fingerprint or face recognition, if they use biometrics at all. “The technology has witnessed limited adoption for applications such as physical access control in commercial buildings,” noted Neelima Sagar, a senior industry analyst with the international consultancy Frost & Sullivan. “However, a shift in dynamics is expected in the next three to five years as the price of the technology lowers.”

According to Acuity, iris-based technology will have a 19 percent share of the global biometrics market by 2017, compared with 8 percent in 2009. “Technology that is time effi cient, cost effective and highly accurate is expected to boost the adoption of biometrics technology for commercial properties,” Sagar said, predicting that it will not be long before property owners see the utility of products that can identify people in motion with few errors.

Technology that gathers and analyzes such information, controlled by IP-based systems and overseen by security personnel versed in IT, may well be at the heart of building security in the not-too-distant future.