Cutting the Tech Edge without Bleeding

JJ. Michael Henson, vice president of the Technology Studio (formerly Security Group) at Phillips Swager Associates (PSA), tells Correctional News about the advantages of non-lethal perimeter systems, touch screen technology, and what customers should look for in a technology consultant.
Before joining PSA, Henson founded Creative Technologies, a systems integration company. Later, he worked in facility design as a contractor. “Working as a contractor gave me insight into what it took to design a good set of documents,” says Henson. At PSA, Henson specializes in the fully-integrated engineering approach. “Contractors value us for the completeness of our work.”
Henson leads an eight-member technology planning and design team that serves PSA’s four offices. They currently are creating designs for technology projects at 22 correctional facilities nationwide, and have expanded into medical and education markets. “PSA will always win contracts with our architectural services,” he said. “But we also win projects by virtue of our technology services and bring the architecture services with us.”
Henson spoke to us from the firm’s Peoria, Ill. office.

Morgan Jones: What are the most significant advances in electronic monitoring and security during the last three years?

Michael Henson: One major improvement has been that contractors now write more detailed specifications for the Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) and PLC software. The PLC is the security electronics backbone of a facility. In years past, integrators-or security controls contractors-developed their own proprietary software to run on those PLCs, instead of using standard, off-the-shelf software packages. This arrangement held corrections institutions hostage if they ever needed to make modifications to a PLC system.

If you’ve got a PLC system that’s proprietary there’s no way you can get competitive bids. You’d have to replace the system. Also, you’re dead in the water if your integrator ceases to exist, and, given the volatility of the market, that’s a real possibility. I hear a lot of horror stories about clients who had a brand new building and, three years after everything was installed, the equipment was more or less useless and had to be ripped out. In fact, there are instances of integrators virtually giving a system away knowing they’d get rich by maintaining it. Now, we always specify that facility owners have ownership of the software.

Another exciting advancement is in perimeter intrusion-detection and non-lethal, stun fence technology. In the past, perimeter technologies depended upon the upkeep of the system, such as periodic preventative maintenance. They also were subject to a lot of environmental variances that triggered false alarms. But stun fence systems are very robust under different environmental conditions, such as driving rains, snowdrifts, ice, and fog-things that give some security fences fits. Other deterrent/delay perimeter systems amount to rolls of razor ribbon, but the unfortunate part of having razor ribbon around the perimeter is that you contend with weed growth and trash that blows in and is very difficult to remove.

Stun fence technology answers the three issues that lethal fence technology brought to the market: detection, delay, and deterrence.

Once an escapee tries to break through the stun fence, the fence more or less prevents additional progress over the barrier and allows time for manpower to be deployed to the site. Better yet, the stun fence offers a very good psychological deterrence, preventing an offender from entertaining any thought of escaping because he’s afraid of it. And, stun fence perimeters don’t have the liability baggage associated with lethal technology-in regards to both inmates and staff. When we researched lethal fencing and toured installations out in California, the problem that concerned everyone was the potential of being hauled into court and the huge expenses we could incur. California and a few other states actually had to pass specific legislation preventing lawsuits over lethal fencing.

MJ: How important are sensitivity adjustments to non-lethal fencing? How should an institution respond in a severe storm to compensate for environmental conditions?

MH: With other technologies, sensitivity adjustments are paramount in providing probability of detection and false alarm rates. But, with stun fence technology, adjustments are based on sensing ground faults. However, sensitivity adjustments are largely a non-issue with stun fence technology because it takes a major hit to register a false alarm when sensing current in a ground fault. A much more defined “change” is required for detection and that’s how you’re able to get away from many false alarms.

MJ: PSA’s Technology Studio specializes in touch screen control systems. What’s the major difference between using a flat panel touch screen versus using a hard panel, cathode ray tube (CRT) unit?

MH: A number of things come to mind. With touch screens, you don’t seem to have the problem of drift that is normally associated with CRTs where touch points overlap the graphics. Also, touch screens allow more mobility in the control room because there’s less of a parallax problem when the control officer is off-center from the screen. When budgets allow, we’re also specifying flat panel video displays that provide low-profile central controls.

If you’re operating a central control room and you have a lot of monitors-both video and touch screen control stations-the equipment doesn’t throw off a lot of heat so you don’t have to worry about dumping more cooling into the room.

MJ: Is there a general guideline to telling customers when to use a hard control panel versus using a touch screen unit?

MH: It usually depends on the functionality you’re trying to achieve and the amount of real estate you have. If you have a function-specific area, such as booking, and there’s not much to deal with in terms of peripheral utility control, a hard panel would be fine, as it would be when you’re not turning lights on and off or operating electrical outlets and water solenoid valves. But, if you are planning for a situation that may require you to take over control of the system if the facility becomes compromised, touch screens are superior. When you consider the question in terms of real estate, you’re going to need multiple hard panels to operate whatever it is you’re controlling. If you have space to do that, that’s fine, but if you have space limitations, then touch screens shine. You can have multiple screens all called up on a single monitor.

I also like the flexibility that touch screens allow me in the design process. When you make changes to the floorplan, it often happens that you have to replace the whole graphic, and that process is easier with touch screens than with hard panels. Through the development process of the touch screen, you also can give the client more flexibility when they actually get into the space. We can change the way an icon appears in the snap of a finger compared to changing switches and the hard panel itself.

If you have certain situations, maybe an outside security post exposed to extreme temperatures, a hard panel makes sense because of its resilience. However, with the touch screens used by us at PSA, the overlays themselves have a military specification rating. We’ve gone back for renovation projects and have been amazed by how long touch screens last. We’ve seen them hold up incredibly well in direct supervision applications-unless someone knocks over a cup of coffee on the unit.

MJ: Is there a point at which a control system can become too sophisticated? Some of the owners with whom I’ve spoken voiced concerns that too much centralization may, in fact, delay response time in critical situations rather than increase it, particularly in the case of locking and unlocking doors. Is this a concern you’ve had to address?

MH: Yes, to both questions. I think those concerns say a lot about the consultants involved in the projects because, quite frankly, unless you have a client who’s already built a new facility and has previously migrated from hard panels to touch screens, they’re not always sure what they should be sensitive to. We earn our money instructing the owner on, for example, how many screens should be on a particular touch screen or deciding what kind of functionality one control officer should be tied to because you don’t want to put too much on that officer’s plate.

I’ve seen situations in large facilities where there’s just too much traffic for one individual to handle. Officers are driven absolutely crazy jumping from screen to screen, and it’s hard for them to even tell what day it is while jumping through hoops.

A lot of responsibility rests on the consultant’s ability to define a realistic work load for the control officer in terms of action and reaction during heavy traffic times or shift changes. If a system is done correctly, it will enhance the operation of a particular control room or control post.

One caveat I have is, just because something can be automated and tied to a touch screen doesn’t mean it has to be. That’s why I reflect back on the importance of the consultant and the relationship with the client. From day one, you need to determine whether a hard panel works better than a touch screen. You need to work with the client on how they’re actually going to use this facility. You need to determine how many bodies are going to be going through certain sally ports. You need to know whether or not to require a separate control. And many other, similar questions.

In normal day-to-day operations, we try to distribute control to appropriate areas. If we have a central control room that doesn’t need to stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week but, for example, only during the third shift, then it’s during that shift that we place all control back in central control.

You asked about centralization. Central control is where we find touch screens working extremely well because, when planning and installing the system, we consider emergency operations requirements. We thought about what would happen if Cellblock B riots and how the officer should be able to hit a duress control and automatically throw everything over to central control. Central control has access to the sights and sounds of everything it might be responsible for in a takeover or emergency situation.

Say there’s a lockdown. We’ll energize speakers in that area to listen for abnormal sounds. We’ll utilize video motion detection to trigger an alarm if somebody is moving in a space that they shouldn’t be. That type of automation is helpful when directing control officers to a troubled area.

That’s the same way we treat closed circuit television these days. We don’t have a bank of monitors that some poor guy sits and watches. You have video following an event-whether it’s a call from an intercom station, motion in a certain area, or an alarm condition-and the video prompts a control officer to respond to the event. Everything you install should enhance an officers’ ability to survey the facility, control ingress and egress within secured spaces, and monitor sensitive areas and protected barriers. Unfortunately, I have seen some consultants try to put up memorials to themselves by simply applying the latest technology, good, bad, or indifferent.

MJ: What should an owner look for when selecting a security electronics contractor?

MH: That’s a great question. We pre-qualify and pre-approve two major elements, and I’d like to stress both of them.

The first one is the security controls contractor or systems integrator. What we’ve really done is break that role into two segments: security controls contractor and security controls manufacturer-or integrator. The security controls manufacturer is going to be the PLC specialist, together with being a touch screen specialist. The security controls manufacturer is a key person who must be pre-qualified on every project.

Transitions in the technology industry are unbelievably fast from year to year, or even project to project. Before we work with any manufacturer, we have a long list of criteria they must meet. If they’re utilizing new technology, we always require equipment demonstrations. The manufacturer has to be able to meet our spec and we need to know that they are not going to give us a fight in bidding or do and say anything just to have their product installed-regardless of whether it’s a fit or not.

Secondly, look at the security electronics contractor who, in some cases, is the same person as the security controls contractor, depending on how the manufacturer approaches the project. The security controls contractor usually comes in and provides the off-the-shelf equipment-namely a closed circuit television system or a perimeter intrusion-detection system. With the scope of work we require, they would probably be responsible for providing complete installation of all equipment so that we have a single source of responsibility for all installed work. We put them through the same rigors to make sure they have factory-trained personnel.

Again, transition is a problem within our industry. In some cases you’ll have companies that suddenly go away one day. And you’ll have individuals who may work with one company for five years and then another company for five years and then, before they bid, they’ll submit a resume stating they have 10 years experience with their latest company. You have to constantly be aware of the players. You need to identify who’s going to be working on a particular project and pre-qualify them before they bid.

Unfortunately, some jurisdictions in which I’ve worked do not allow pre-qualification, and then it gets a little dicey for us. What we do in those cases is require the submission of qualifications at the time of bid. The onus is then on us to perform the qualification procedures, and that can get a little hairy because we have to throw somebody’s bid out because they’re not qualified. But, sometimes that’s the way a particular state or county has elected to go, and that’s why we’re asked to apply our expertise-and we do, under various constraints.

I also would question a consultant who always uses the same standardized prototype. You should look for a professional who finds out how the facility clicks. You should always be given multiple applications of a technology. If a consultant can’t give them to you, be wary. And, you don’t want to be placed in a position where you’re creating a beta test site for new technology. Serving as a beta site isn’t advisable unless you have an incentive from the manufacturer, such as free equipment-even if the warden considers him/herself a trailblazer.

MJ: What are some of the criteria by which you judge manufacturers of perimeter technology?

MH: You always want to use leading-edge equipment, but you don’t want to use what I call bleeding edge equipment. You also don’t want the other side of the coin, what I call dull edge technology or equipment. What we normally require are references from three to five projects-similar in size and scope-that already use the technology we plan to deploy. Good manufacturers are happy to supply references.

It’s also important to talk with end-users. When someone is suggesting a certain technology, ask where it’s been used before and then do research. That’s one of the nice things about the corrections industry, the folks in the industry are always down-to-earth and there’s a great brotherhood. If they find out you’re building a new facility, they’re more than happy to tell you what went right, what went wrong, what they’d do again, and what they’d never do again. That’s what we normally go through when we’re trying to pre-approve manufacturers.

A good referral is also the best measure of a contractor. I want to hear that they did exactly what they were supposed to do and that they didn’t leave anyone in debt with change orders or other items. Ask for all the paperwork and background. You’ll find yourself having to get on the phone-and sometimes even on an airplane.

MJ: Do you check back with clients to assess how your system is functioning on a day-to-day level? And, if you do, what do you find?

MH: Yes. One of the buzzwords that you’ll hear is “commissioning” which is a very important element of what the consultant does. Commissioning is a very detailed start-up and testing meter that’s performed by a consultant. It’s not like the old days of spot checks and punch list development because now every function and every device is tested and certified in writing. The procedure normally involves a three-to-six month follow-up throughout the warranty period. At that point, you can go over maintenance logs and interview people. PSA’s marketing approach relies on referrals. You can have all the glossy brochures you want, but the best marketing is having a happy client, so we have a vested interest in maintaining an ongoing relationship with ours. I always try to make the client feel comfortable in calling us with any concerns, especially a problem with their systems.

MJ: In view of high employee turnover, how persistent are manufacturers at providing operators with ongoing training?

MH: It’s very important you have training clearly specified in the original contract and outlined in detail. In our contracts, we require a structured classroom setting and require an owner manual be completed before training is done. We also videotape the sessions for both operations and maintenance. We also require that a training agenda be submitted with the shop drawings so we get people focused on the training before equipment is even built. You need to impress on the client’s mind the importance of training but, unfortunately, a lot of times it’s overlooked because everyone wants to get out of Dodge when contracts come around.

Many times I work with an owner’s IT department and suggest they work with the technical people on the project, because with all the software involved in the system, it makes perfect sense for them to work together. We stress maintenance training so the owner knows when there’s an operator error, if a contractor needs to come out, or whether the modem switch needs to be switched “on” to perform remote diagnostics. It’s beneficial for the client to have a technical staff in place while the system is being brought up and shaken out by the contractor so they can ask questions that might not be brought up during a formal classroom training.

Placing a training requirement in the contract makes it clear that if training isn’t satisfactory, the manufacturer’s contract is automatically extended until they can remedy the problem. If it’s written well, you’ll get high value from the contractor.