UBC Fire only the most recent example of why remote management for Access Control systems is so important

Friday’s fire at a UBC condo serves as yet another example of why remote management for access control systems is so important.

For those who didn’t catch the story… A fire started (sounds like from a BBQ) on a 3rd floor patio at the building… neighbours called the Fire Department reporting seeing smoke billowing (no smoke detectors in the suite??) … when the Fire Department arrived, they could not get into the building because the building had an access control system that required a keyfob to both unlock the front door as well as control the elevator.

As CTV reported, precious minutes were wasted when Fire Fighters arrived on scene because they were unable to gain entry to the building because of its access control system. (Click here to view CTV’s photo gallery of the fire)

Sadly, like most buildings in Vancouver that have access control systems (where you use a card or key-fob to unlock your door), the systems are designed with more marketing in mind than actual ‘security’. A security system should not put you at greater risk in the event that Police, Fire or Paramedics are urgently needed.

Here is the text from an article I wrote last year for Canadian Property Management Magazine that outlines the solution to this completely avoidable problem…

In February 2006 the Vancouver Police received a call from a distraught woman who said she was being beaten by her husband and needed help. When Police arrived at the downtown highrise where the call originated, they found the front doors locked and had to use the building’s intercom to dial the suite. The phone was answered by a male who simply said “She’s fine” and hung up.

When the Police tried to get into the building by dialing other residents on the intercom, they learned that although any resident could buzz them into the front lobby, the security system was designed so that only a resident on the 18th floor could allow the elevator to open on the that floor. For security reasons, none of the suite numbers were displayed on the intercom. As a result, the Police were forced to choose between randomly selecting between hundreds of residents to find one who actually lived on the same floor as where the 911 call originated, or break into the stairwell and climb 18 stories.

As pointed out in the Vancouver Province column that discussed the incident, this is not an uncommon occurrence for the Police. In fact, it has become a big enough issue that the VPD created a program called ‘Project Access’.

‘Project Access’ calls for construction companies and strata councils to install a lockbox, which would be accessible by the VPD Sergeant on duty. Inside the tube would be a full access key fob or card.

The fact that the Police cannot quickly access a building in an emergency is clearly a huge problem… and is only going to get worse. However, I strongly recommend AGAINST any building using any type of lockbox. The Fire Department has used lockboxes for years, and theft from these boxes has always been a major concern. Irrespective of construction, and even if the box itself is monitored as a part of the alarm system, an external lockbox presents an unnecessary risk to condo owners.

If the lockbox gets broken into, a thief can gain full access to the building.

The best solution is remote management.

Remote management of building access control systems solve two very serious risks: 1) as described above, the difficulty for emergency responders to gain access to the building, and 2) it eliminates the risks associated with having an access control system managed through a PC located on-site and operated by a resident manager.

The way this service works is that rather than an access control system’s database being held on a PC located at the client site (which in itself is a huge security risk) the database is moved to a secured server located in a high-security, central monitoring station.

Using either dial-up or broadband connections, security firms (that have the proper infrastructure) are able to remotely manage the database, including adding, modifying or deleting users as well as make regular database back-ups.

With a fully managed system, off-site security can talk to the Police, verify their identity, view them live on camera as well as remotely unlock the front door and control the elevator for them.

Another common failure of most building access control systems is the lack of professional management of the system. In most cases, the database that controls the system is ‘managed’ by a resident manager, concierge or other person for whom database management is not a full-time job. The result is often that new users get added into the system, but regular audits are not performed and many keyfobs and cards for former residents/tenants are left in the system. Further, because the system is being maintained on a single PC, the access control software is at significant risk of data loss due to hard drive failure, improper back-up procedures as well as the risk of the physical theft of the PC itself.

The fewer key fobs/cards in circulation, the better. Even more important, each and every keyfob must be assigned to a single person to maximize accountability. Remote access control system management maximizes the effectiveness of any building’s system and ensures that the fewest possible ‘holes’ in security exist.

Rather than waiting until a serious incident occurs in your building, answer the following questions:

  1. Where is the database for your access control system physically located? Is it secure? Is it backed-up? How often?
  2. Is entry to the parking garage tracked in the same way that entry through a door is? (ie. Do you know exactly who opened the garage door and when? Or does everyone have a generic ‘clicker’ that is not individually assigned?)
  3. Does your building still use lockboxes for the Fire Department, or anyone else?
  4. Is the building’s telephone room secured with its own separate alarm system?
  5. When was the last time you had a security professional (that knew what they were talking about) provide a thorough audit of your building?

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