Keeping an Eye Out Residents' Role in Building Security

Keeping an Eye Out

New Yorkers have always been vigilant in keeping themselves and their apartments as secure as possible. The doorman, security guard, building superintendent or concierge is traditionally the first line of defense in controlling the cadre of visitors, residents, building staff and delivery people that routinely enter a co-op or condo building each day. But, especially in the aftermath of September 11th, building owners, managing agents and residents can no longer be complacent that an appropriate level of security is being provided. And how does one keep their building reasonably secure without installing the technological equivalent of Fort Knox?

Awareness and Common Sense

For starters, say security experts, a little common sense and some basic safety skills and training are required. Simply put, resident shareholders and unit owners must be aware of their surroundings and be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary, says Mark Lerner, Ph.D., a criminologist and security expert, who is the president of Manhattan-based EPIC Security.

One of the most crucial elements is limiting access to your building and to your apartment, says Lerner. "One of the important things is having control of who they give out keys to their apartments, and they should keep a list of who has keys, in case, there's a question of who entered their apartment. For example, if they have a housekeeper, children, relatives [who have keys] and then when someone is removed [from the list] and a key is not returned, they should change the locks or a code if they use an electronic device."

If a homeowner suspects there is a duplicate key around or one has been made, the locks should be changed immediately. A locksmith will tell you that building keys that are not supposed to be duplicated often are, Lerner says.

"So their first concern is the entrance to their own apartment. Although the guard at the lobby of the building or a doorman can control the people coming to the building if someone has a key to your apartment, but, generally, once they're in the building, you should have some [of your] own responsibility yourself. Certainly you should lock your door when you're leaving even if there's a doorman in front or a guard. Lock your door and know who has keys."

Also maintain contact with the doorman or a security guard when someone requests entrance to your apartment and be very cautious about screening prospective visitors or delivery personnel. Don't just take someone's word that they are who they say they are, stresses Lerner.

Screen All Visitors

One of the common ruses to gain entry to an apartment, says Lerner, is to pretend to be an authorized person, such as a repairman or a meter reader, for example. "When a doorman or a guard calls up to your apartment or you're ringing down someone to enter, don't routinely just allow someone to enter the building if you're not expecting a delivery. Ask who it is. If you're unsure, do not admit them."

Many burglars or a person with criminal intent will often try to gain entry by knocking on doors or ringing themselves up to an apartment, Lerner says. "They just might say delivery or UPS. They know just what to say to trick you. The burglars know to say Verizon, say UPS, say Con Ed, say Post Office."

When the doorman rings a prospective delivery person or vendor in, make sure you question what the delivery is, who the package is from, and ask for the person's name and proper identification before you allow them access to your apartment, he says. And check back with the doorman or security guard to make sure the delivery person has left the building and is no longer on the premises. He warns against confronting a suspicious person and recommends leaving those details to a security guard or the police.

"Be careful letting people into the building. A security guard or doorman is only as good as the person allowing access," Lerner says. "It's always better to have a guard that's going to look at the person that they're dealing with," says Lerner, and be able to verify the visitor's identity. The doorman or concierge is there specifically to restrict access to unauthorized persons, and one of their tasks is to accept deliveries and packages from vendors or FedEx or UPS personnel.

On the Front Lines

Residents depend on their doorman, security guard or super to be their eyes and ears and also to take charge when an emergency situation arises, according to John Hamill, the deputy communications director of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ, which represents 75,000 building service employees, including doormen, porters, maintenance workers, cleaners, security guards, and superintendents.

One of the areas of discussion in the union's upcoming contract negotiations (the contract expires in April) will be the role of the doorman and building service personnel in the security process, says Hamill. They are often the key contact personnel for the first responders - police and fire departments - when an emergency crops up or an evacuation of the building is required. The discussion should formalize what the building personnel had been doing all along on an ad hoc basis, according to Hamill.

"They're the ones who accept the delivery of all packages. They know who should be there and who shouldn't be there. They know what times things are supposed to happen. Those are the things that can make their job and everybody's security better.

"For instance, if you know, you're getting a furniture delivery between 1 and 4, let the doorperson know that ahead of time. If somebody's delivering dry cleaning at 12 o'clock at night, that's probably a foul ball and it's not appropriate. It's the rhythms of the building that these people get attuned to."

The doorman becomes familiar with the residents' patterns and habits, he says, and they will know when a shareholder is on vacation or will be out of town on a business trip for two weeks. The resident can help by providing information on their whereabouts and that of their guests, says Hamill. In that way, the building can be kept as secure as possible.

"They know the residents. They know their kids. After a couple of years, they know who their regular visitors are. They know when grandma is coming by. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt. It breeds safety."

Seal Off Unauthorized Entry

Another common point of entry is windows or a fire escape, Lerner says. "If you have windows in the apartment with a fire escape, the tenant should take responsibility to have a fire department-approved device so that a burglar can't come in through your windows. Generally, a person should have responsibility for their own apartment."

It is also the resident's responsibility to make sure that their front door has proper locks. Some type of alarm system also might be a good idea, says Lerner. Some larger co-op buildings, says Lerner, have each individual apartment alarmed and connected to a computerized panel at the front desk, alerting a doorman or security guard that someone has entered an apartment.

The minimum that most buildings have, and which is required by New York City law for buildings six stories and above, are audio intercom systems, according to John Neos, security manager for Academy Mail Box Co. Inc., which installs mailboxes, intercoms and various other alarm systems. The majority of city buildings have a bell and buzzer system, which is managed usually by a doorman, security guard, concierge or a super, but there is more call today for video monitoring, says Neos.

"Even though there's a doorman, being kind of like the front line of the building, and you would think there's no need for video. People are now actually requesting video almost as a backup, for a couple of reasons. Number 1, it allows them to view who is actually trying to visit the building." Secondly, it allows a resident to not answer the call if it is someone they do not wish to see, says Neos. "That's a huge feature that's being used in doorman buildings now - to verify the party is who they say they are. If it's someone who doesn't belong in that building, no matter who they are, it's another fail-safe way for the resident to verify that party is who they think they are."

Technology Can Help

Technology can help the doorman in screening visitors and accepting deliveries of goods and services. Certain companies, for example, provide software that can track and monitor anyone having access to your building. Building Link™ has added a new Event Log module to its online building communications and management software.

As building managers look for ways to streamline operations as well as improve communications with tenants, their focus turns, of course, to front desk operations. Thus, in times of heightened security awareness and accountability, managers are looking for a simpler way to track package deliveries, admitted visitors or even, the number of keys that are given out on a regular basis.

The company's Event Log acts like a security tool and a tracking medium that enables doormen to capture signatures from guests, delivery personnel, contractors, or anyone that enters or exits the premises, while at the same time still being able to monitor who is in the building. The Event Log allows for recording package deliveries, pickups and scanning and storing of package bar codes. An automatic email can be delivered to notify tenants of any pertinent event that needs their attention.

"We're very excited about Event Log. When we set out to create this new module, we wanted to design something both practical and easy to use," says Jerry Kestenbaum, BuildingLink's president and founder, about the product.

"Event Log is such a flexible tool because it accommodates every conceivable front desk scenario from dry cleaning drop-offs and UPS package deliveries to visitors and key requests," according to Michael Gubbins, resident manager of Vanguard Chelsea, a 300-unit residential building in Chelsea. "In today's security-conscious environment, residents need something extra to feel secure."

Training is Critical

According to security consultant Jim Kennedy of Kennedy Fire Safety Consulting Inc., of Irvington, N.Y., training for building staff is also essential. "The doorman or concierge - they are critical. They are first on the scene but no one seems to train these people in how to deal with different types of emergencies," Kennedy says.

Kennedy, a former fire lieutenant with the FDNY, regularly holds classes for management and building employees instructing them in emergency preparedness and safety techniques. For example, he held a class recently for employees of broker Brown Harris Stevens and gave a series of instructional classes to residents of Battery Park City after 9/11. "What it comes down to is it's your life and you must take responsibility for it. We live in a new and different world today and not necessarily a better world."

People have to be more observant, he says. If you see someone carrying a package and something looks amiss, question it or report it to the doorman or the security guard, Kennedy says. If you smell smoke in the basement or on your floor at 2 or 3 in the morning, just don't ignore it because it's not your problem. It will shortly become "your problem," he says.

Debra A. Estock is Managing Editor of The Cooperator.

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