Better Safe then Sorry Security Measures Protect Buildings and Boards

Better Safe then Sorry

New York City is currently enjoying a period of prosperity and low crime rates. However, no matter how safe a building appears to be, it is important that the board doesn’t relax building security. If a building isn’t adequately secured, it risks the safety of its residents, making itself vulnerable to lawsuits. To prevent the worst from happening, buildings and their boards should have a strong security system, as well as ample insurance coverage, to protect them if faced with a lawsuit.

Avoid Common Mistakes

The best way to reduce liability is to reduce the chances that criminal activity will take place in the building. In the event of a lawsuit, which could potentially penalize a building for millions of dollars, courts tend to look much more favorably on buildings that can prove that they have made a concerted effort to protect their residents. And if the building has been the scene of multiple crimes in the past or appears to be negligent about security issues, it is very likely that the building and/or its board will be found liable.

There are many precautions that should be taken into consideration to avoid security risks. First, all entrances should be well lit. Criminals are much less likely to commit crimes in a place where they feel visible. Shrubbery, particularly around entrances, should be kept closely trimmed, so as not to provide hiding places. If a doorman is not present, there should be a lock on the first door people use to get into the building, so that an attacker cannot trap someone in the vestibule area. And all alarms, locks, intercoms and security cameras should be kept in top condition.

However, all efforts to provide good security are useless if residents do not understand the importance of controlling access to the building. Unfortunately, many residents feel that they are safe and do not take security issues as seriously as they should. Many residents with intercom access walk over to their buzzers and let people in without first determining who it is. It is important residents understand that if they let strangers into their building, they are putting themselves and their neighbors at risk.

Diana Darlington, vice president of Jordan Intercom Systems in the Bronx, says that too many residents hold the doors of their buildings open to strangers. "I go out to buildings a lot, and people always let me in–it’s amazing. People should shut the door on people that they don’t know, and they shouldn’t feel bad about it. We can provide all kinds of security equipment, but if it’s not used properly, it won’t do any good."

Residents should also be warned against propping open the doors of the building. This provides intruders with an opportunity to enter the building, even if the door is only left unattended for a short time.

Boards need to be proactive in addressing security issues with their residents; they should discuss them during semi-annual meetings and flyers should be distributed if management notices security hazards. By not allowing residents to fall into a false sense of security, boards protect their residents and themselves. It is unwise to wait until a crime occurs to increase the awareness of security issues among residents.

Hi-Tech Security

Matthew Arnold, president of Academy Mailbox Co. in College Point, New York, a firm that specializes in intercoms and closed circuit television (CCTV), says that buildings should "try to get residents to understand that the intercom is the most important system in their building; it’s more important than the electricity, plumbing or heating." Modern technology has introduced a wide variety of security systems to the market, including intercoms that use telephone lines and television sets, surveillance systems, and sophisticated key control equipment.

Intercoms can now be wired so that when someone presses the outside buzzer to a particular unit, the resident’s telephone rings. This technology is most frequently used in new buildings; rewiring an old intercom system to this capability requires extensive work in every apartment in the building. Intercoms can also be connected to television cables, so that when someone hears the buzzer, they can view the visitor on their television screen.

Also, buildings that install security cameras should always keep their surveillance tapes for at least a week. Crimes are not always reported immediately and it is important that if someone reports a crime several days after it occurred, building management can go back and review the tapes.

Darlington says that Jordan Intercom has been approached by buildings that want to cut corners by installing "dummy cameras," cameras which do not work, but are installed to deter criminals. She says that they refuse to do this because it is a legal risk. "It gives people a false sense of security. If something happened, the tenant would sue the building and the building would probably sue us."

In addition, "Some buildings are notorious for poor key control," says Todd Cymbol, New York field manager of KeyTrak, a security company based in Deluth, Georgia. KeyTrak provides a computerized safe that keeps track of every time a key is borrowed by a resident who has misplaced a key or, say, a maid which is scheduled to clean an apartment. Borrowers are required to register their name and reason for using the key; management is able to keep records.

Cymbol says that some of his clients have received reductions on their insurance premiums as a result of installing KeyTrak. "Buildings that install KeyTrak should go to their carrier and see if they can get a reduction."

Another option is that buildings can utilize key cards instead of traditional keys for the front door of a building. Larry Dolin, president of American Security Systems, Inc. in Manhattan says, "People can’t duplicate the card and give it to a friend. But if they lose their card, it’s easy to get them a new one. And if a building has a maid that works every Tuesday, they can give her a card that only works on Tuesdays."

Uniformed Watch-Dogs

The presence of a security guard, or even a concierge, can be an enormous deterrent to crime. Criminals seek out isolated areas, and a prominent, official presence in the building will keep them at bay.

Of course while it’s ideal for every building to have a 24-hour security presence in the building, it is not always an affordable option. However, some co-ops and condos have formed coalitions with other buildings, to provide a patrol for the entire block. When guards are visibly present in an area, criminals look for other places to go.

Although some buildings attempt to hire their own security guards, most hire them through a security service. Services will assign regular guards to a building, but one advantage to using a service is that substitutes are available if the regular guard is sick or goes on vacation. Guard services are also able to guarantee that their guards are properly trained and certified.

Mark Lerner, Ph.D., president of EPIC Security Corp. in Manhattan, says that by hiring an insured guard service, buildings get more coverage than they would if they just hired their own guard. "EPIC is able to provide $10 million worth of coverage, as compared to the $250,000 required by law, which, in my opinion, is way too low." He says that a board should ask to see the certificates of insurance of the security companies that they are considering doing business with.

Insurance Coverage

Renee Vara, a fine arts specialist at Chubb & Sons, Inc., an insurance company in Bridewater, New Jersey, represents high-end co-op and condo owners who collect expensive works of art. Vara says that her clients’ policies may be affected by the level of security in their buildings. She personally visits the homes of her clients and meets with their buildings’ superintendents to determine if the buildings have adequate security, or if her clients need to pay for a private alarm system, or possibly even a guard, in their own apartment.

Vara also says that it is important for boards to clearly tell their tenants exactly what type of insurance coverage the building will provide for them. She says that many people think that damages to the renovated interiors of their apartments will be covered by the building’s policy, when this is usually not the case. Boards should inform their residents about what coverage, if any, they will receive from the building in the event that the interior is damaged through theft or vandalism.

A good Directors and Officers (D&O) policy is obviously the most important insurance coverage for boards. "It protects the board if someone told them that a lock was broken, they didn’t fix it, and a robbery or theft happened as a result," says Ian H. Graham, president of Ian H. Graham, Inc., an insurance brokerage firm in Encino, California. These policies cover the legal costs of suits that are the result of any other alleged, wrongful act.

Buildings should also be covered by a Fidelity Bond, which will protect them from fraudulent acts of their employees. Fidelity Bonding covers the loss of cash or property that is stolen by a staff member. This includes theft that any employee was an accomplice to; for example, if the doorman looks the other way while someone removes property from the building.

By taking common-sense precautions, boards can greatly cut down the risk of crime in their building. Unfortunately, however, even with the best security available, it is impossible to make a building 100 percent crime-proof. So boards are wise to protect themselves with ample insurance coverage, while not forgetting that everyone will benefit from making the security standards as high as possible.

As Dolin says, "Too many buildings wait until something has scared them and made them feel vulnerable. It’s in a building’s best interest to be able to say, ‘We have the best security.’"

Ms. Baker is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

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