Staying Secure Safer Buildings with Technology

Staying Secure

 Recent nationwide crime statistics show that New York City and its outlying  suburbs has become one of the safest cities of its size in the past 15 years.  Nevertheless, in a sprawling metropolitan area encompassing New York and New  Jersey, security is always a concern.  

 “People are either interested in security or they’re not. There are plenty of options out there for a condo or co-op to better  protect their building,” says Harry Squasoni, senior vice president of American Security Systems, based  in Long Island City. “Most buildings still have keys, which is the worst security alive. Keys go to  girlfriends, boyfriends, contractors…you have no idea who has keys to your building.”  

 As technology has advanced, security system options for multifamily buildings  and homeowner associations have broadened as well. The key is getting boards  and management companies to institute the changes.  

 “There is a fear of change and a fear of technology sometimes,” says Colin Foster, vice president of sales and marketing for Manhattan-based  Virtual Doorman. “The biggest hurdle is working through a democratic process. When you are dealing  with a board and there are 8 to 10 people making a decision, it can be a long,  slow process,” he says. Boards and managers need to do their due diligence to determine what  will work best for their building and decide if the security improvements won’t soon become obsolete.  

 “When management companies select a security system, they should consider one  that’s upgradeable, modular and easily fixed,” says Lucien Bohbot, founder and president of Unitone Communications Systems,  Inc., a Manhattan company that has been designing, manufacturing and  maintaining top-of-the-line video intercom and alarm systems since 1981. “I believe the best option for residential managers and board presidents are  systems that give them what they need—and not necessarily all the ‘bells and whistles’,” he says.  

 However, with technology today evolving so fast, and people ever more connected  to their cell phones and text messages, it’s important to have a technically sophisticated product that can handle the  needs of this rapidly moving environment.  

 Watchful Eye

 CCTV, which has been around for decades, has taken on an important role in both  new construction and existing buildings.  

 “With advances in software, CCTV cameras can now be viewed remotely by management  companies and superintendents in different locations,” Bohbot says. “HD cameras have enhanced picture quality and detection methods and can be  integrated with real-time video. We have had situations at Unitone, in which  the police have called us asking to review our DVRs in order to help them  detect possible robbers.”  

 Security cameras have improved greatly over the last two decades with the  benefits of installing a state-of-the-art security system being that they  provide privacy, security and convenience to residents.  

 “Unitone created the first computer-based residential security system more than  25 years ago, and those systems are still installed in many of our luxury  high-rises,” says Bohbot. “Over the years, our systems have evolved to incorporate many upgrades, but the  basic system provides residents with a clear picture of arriving guests,  on-screen messages, and personal alarms such as intrusion, police or medical.”  

 Even in this tough economic environment, buildings with top-line security  systems are much more attractive to potential buyers. Costs vary, but for a  combined video intercom and alarm system, the material cost is about $600 to  $800 per apartment, extremely cost effective when you consider the system is  running 24/7 and 365 days a year.  

 The Technical Doorman

 The advent of video doorman technology has changed the way that many co-ops and  condos run their day-to-day operations when it comes to security, as an  off-site concierge accomplishes remotely some of the functions of a real  doorman.  

 “When deliverymen press the button on an outside call panel, they are seen by  trained central station operators elsewhere,” Bohbot says. “Through a series of cameras and speakerphones, which are installed in building  hallways, the deliverymen are ‘watched’ as they drop off parcels, and eventually leave the premises. It is a great  service for buildings that are doormen-free.”  

 It’s not only deliveries that the video doormen are used for. They also provide  residents with a greater sense of safety and security. Since someone is always  there if needed, an operator can help someone coming home late get to their  door without the fear or trepidation of having someone follow them.  

 “It’s security with a live interface,” says Larry Dolin, president of Manhattan-based American Security Systems, Inc.,  which has trademarked the name Video Doorman for its service. “It’s not there to be intrusive. If you don’t want to be bothered, then don’t press the button. But if a young woman is coming back from a date and wants to  know that she is safe, the system can monitor her all the way until she gets  inside her door.”  

 The company recently introduced its Safe Lobby surveillance system, targeted at  middle and lower income affordable housing.  

 “It’s interactive and proactive,” says Squasoni. “Research shows that 95 percent of problems start at the point of entry. With  Safe Lobby, we have cameras and mikes in the lobby and if someone is loitering,  it triggers a connection to our central station and an operator will warn them  to leave or we will dispatch the police. People don’t like being filmed and having someone talk to them, so they will generally  leave.”  

 Only in its first year, the system will also trigger contact if someone forces  the front door open, if the door is left ajar or if strangers are hanging out  in the stairwells.  

 “There’s also latch-key kid notification,” Squasoni says. “When children come home, they use an access control card and we notify their  parents that they are safely home.”  

 The Video Doorman and/or Safe Lobby systems are perfect for those buildings that  can’t afford a doorman, as it costs approximately 10 percent of what operating a  24-hour human doorman service would.  

 With the Virtual Doorman System, individuals can log into a portal and customize  their service based on their own preferences. They are able to put family and  friends in the system, set up email alerts for packages and even received text  message notification if wanted.  

 “Virtual Doorman created a new industry 11 years ago because we saw a niche in  the security industry where service could increase value,” Foster says. “When FedEx or UPS comes to a building and Bill Smith is not at home, it goes  remote to our command center. The UPS person comes up on a video screen and we  can have a two-way audio conversation. Once we determine who they are, we would  let them in by buzzing the front door, opening the package room door and  scanning a signature for manifest release into our custody.”  

 Beyond packages, the command center can let in personal friends or family  members and give access to a digital key safe that will release the key for one  apartment. It also offers a personal security guard feature, which will allow a  resident to talk to an operator as they walk home to their apartment, with the  operator checking the cameras to ensure no one is lurking behind a tree.  

 A one-time cost ranges from $9,000 to $12,000 for the system with service costs  based on a management fee and per apartment fee. That’s still a 90 percent savings over a union doorman, the spokesmen say.  

 Nothing’s Perfect

 A system that runs continually and relies on power and the Internet will have  occasional outages or breakdowns and can need repairs. Luckily, most usually  aren’t serious and can be quickly fixed.  

 Sometimes, the video can go down, the audio needs to be louder or a new camera  needs to be installed. Maintaining a system is the key to keeping it  functioning properly.  

 “When our repairmen go to buildings that have our systems installed, they don’t just check individual apartments, they check the entire riser system and  concierge station, to make sure everything is working properly,” Bohbot says.  

 With video doorman systems if there’s a blackout and loss of Internet, they will go down. “We can go off-line, but in those rare circumstances, we can fix the problem  quickly and the building will still be locked,” Foster says. “Even if you have a regular doorman there are problems. He can be out sick, he  can go away for 15 minutes and you have to account for human error.”  

 Biometric Identification

 A security feature just starting to find its way into high-end condos is  biometrics, the science and technology of measuring and analyzing biological  data. In information technology, biometrics refers to technologies that measure  and analyze human body characteristics, such as DNA, fingerprints, eye retinas  and irises, voice patterns, facial patterns and hand measurements.  

 “The newest biometric software uses facial and/or fingerprint recognition, but it  isn’t very user-friendly yet in residential buildings because each member of the  household has to get his or her fingerprints or face programmed,” says Bohbot. “In an apartment building, card access or key fobs are more user-friendly and can  even be easily programmed through the management company or through the video  intercom provider.”  

 To look down the road 50 years is hard to do, but most of our experts don’t see the traditional lock and key going away any time soon.  

 “No way do I see the key disappearing,” Foster says. “What may happen is that it becomes a good supplement to technology. People will  have a key lock door with the ability to backup with technology.”  

 It is expected that fingerprint biometrics will grow in residential buildings  over the next 10 years, but even with that, since every member of a family will  have to be fingerprinted, people will likely be concerned with privacy and that  could delay implementation of such systems.  

 “Biometrics may take a greater role in the future but that’s not all that will be used,” Bohbot says. “I predict that more and more buildings will upgrade to include DVR activation,  apartment video monitors, on-screen messaging, floor-wide announcements and  cell phone text alerts.”  

 It seems that simple lock and keys will always be around in individual  apartments, but even there, many residents will one day want to have their own  video intercoms to increase security and provide modern conveniences.  

 “People want to see their visitors before they are allowed upstairs,” Bohbot says. “They need on-screen messages to alert them they have a package waiting. Many  garages have electronic access and electronic gates to homes are commonplace.  So the days of only lock and key are long gone.”   

 Keith Loria is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.

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