Q&A: Bob Ellis, Engineered Control Systems Inc.

Engineered Control Systems Inc., a correctional systems integrator, is undertaking 12 correctional projects at any given time and serves eight western states, from Arizona to California to Alaska.

The company is among a new breed of integrators that run UL-listed fabrication shops where they test the detention electronics products they use. ECS also developed Enterprise, its own integrated inmate management system.

Bob Ellis is president of ECS, which was founded 10 years ago and is based in Spokane, Wash. He talks about Enterprise, smart smoke detectors, IP video, digital intercoms and how touch screens differ from industrial touch panels.

Correctional News: Where is the correctional market headed?

Bob Ellis: We’ve gravitated strongly from a big backlog of new construction to where 85 percent of our backlog is remodeling existing, operating facilities. Consequently, we’ve gotten quite good at that over the last five years.

There’s a 10- to 15-year lifecycle for detention electronics, and we’re at a point in that cycle where there are an awful lot of systems that need replacing. That’s with almost 100 percent touch screens and touch panels.

The third change is that we used to be exclusive subcontractors to other companies, but right now we’re running probably 70 percent of our business right now as the general contractor. That number used to be 15 percent.

CN: What are the primary challenges of integrating an existing facility?

BE: The biggest challenge is that the facility is occupied and the customer doesn’t want any downtime. A lot of companies take a canned approach: ‘Here’s our system. Stick it in.’ The customer says, ‘Well, that’s not what I wanted. Our facility doesn’t operate that way.’ That creates hardship in facility operations because making the necessary changes extends downtime.

When we pick up a project, the first thing we do is send out a project engineer with a touch screen or touch panel and demonstrate the available methodologies to control a facility. There’s no right way or wrong way; it’s how that customer wants the facility to operate. We take that information back here and design the system. We fully mock it up here in the shop. We have a UL 508 Panel Shop here, where we build the system. Program it, test it. We invite the customer to come in at critical milestones to look at the operation and provide input on how they would like it changed. Some integrators say, ‘This is the way it is. If you want me to change it, it’s a change order.’ We’ve never charged yet for a change.

Everything we do is oriented to making the transition as brief as possible. We accomplish this with extensive pre-testing of the system, extensive demonstration and garnering input from the owner prior to actual install. After it’s bought off by the customer, we try to match existing wiring schemes. Wiring comes in at certain angles and lands in certain locations, so we design our new replacement back panels to fit perfectly, including where the wires land. We’ll go through and tag and identify all the wiring. At that point, we agree to shut it down, lift the wires out, replace the back plane and terminate it. You’re back online in 24 hours.

CN: What are the most exciting emerging applications?

BE: We are fairly unique from other integrators in that we have our own Research & Development Department. We look at industrial products on the market and evaluate their usefulness and their applicability to the corrections market. We’ll evaluate it, and then if we’re comfortable with it, we’ll recommend it. We’re a long distance contractor with projects in places like Guam and Alaska. It’s not cost-effective for me to put out a component on which we save, say 5 percent, if I have to send somebody out there frequently during that warranty period.

The products we use are all ones that represent 15 years of testing and evaluation. As far as PLCs, we use Modicon. We’ve been using them for 11 years and have not had one failure. We generally use Best UPSs, Vicon CCTV, Edwards/EST fire alarm, and we’re starting to use the Harding Instruments intercom line. We use Elo touch screens exclusively.

We’ve been promoting the use of touch panels, as opposed to touch screens, over the past couple years. Touch screens, of course, are PC-based and sit on the console. Behind it you have an industrial quality PC, and beyond that is some rather expensive HMI (Human/Machine Interface) software, such as Monitor Parole, Wonderware, or some of the other popular HMIs.

Touch screens have become the accepted norm – almost old hat. The downside is the Windows software is always in a constant state of revision, thanks to our friend, Mr. Bill Gates. He comes out with a new reg level and that creates some headaches sometimes, particularly for older machines and software. Plus, you have this hard drive that’s spinning all the time. It gets used. If you write your programs efficiently you can get a long life out them, but sooner or later it is going to die.

We started evaluating touch panels a couple years ago. They are rugged, industrial controls used on factory floor. You can spray them down with water and they’re able to take extremes of hot and cold. During our evaluation, we disregarded most of them and the one we’re using now is a Siemens panel. Nice thing about touch panels, there’s no hard drive or software to worry about, and they’re a lot less costly than a touch screen, typically a quarter of the cost.

With a traditional touch screen, you have multiple pages on that touch screen, so you’re constantly changing pages according to what part of the building or application you’re doing. With the cost-effectiveness of the touch panels, we can have multiple panels in that control room. One can be dedicated to one pod and another dedicated to movement so you don’t have to change pages.

We still use touch screens in large central control rooms and typically use touch panels in small control rooms, local housing units, towers, booking areas and for stand-alone units.

CN: What are end-users asking for?

BE: More information at their fingertips through an inmate management system. We’ve not seen a lot of demand for the hand-held terminals, although our R&D department has evaluated those products in response to customer request.

The use of hand-held PDAs (personal display assistants) depends on how the facility is operated. If they have a roving officer and don’t have a control center in a particular housing unit, a PDA would be more applicable, but most do have a control center and users would just as soon keep control there. A lot of it is protective thinking – not wanting inmates to get control of a box that can open doors and activate intercoms. Although if the integrator has done his job, an inmate won’t get very far with a PDA.

CN: Why did ECS develop its own inmate management system?

BE: We found that many existing inmate management systems don’t support a standard Windows interface. Plus, they are horrendously expensive, although they have their own use because they can interface with an accounting system. We can write drivers to talk to the inmate management system that have a standard Windows interface, so you don’t need to have duplicate data entry. In some control rooms you will see two PCs running, one for the touch screen and another one inmate management. The trouble is, you have to go back and forth between the two.

About five years ago, the state of Washington contracted with us to develop what we call our Enterprise inmate management package. What we’ve done is married touch screen technology with inmate information and tracking systems. So in a typical application, you select a cell and up pops all the information on that inmate, including photo, number, name, physical characteristics, medical and dietary requirements and warnings.

It’s all automated. I touch that cell and I see all the information on it. I can tell the officer to release Joe Brown and his physical characteristics are easily verified by the officer. We also have automated cell search schedules. You can sort by dietary or medical requirement, or with the touch of an icon you see all those needs on a given floor. It gets rid of the paperwork in the modern control room. You also can generate cell search reports and inmate locations for documentation.

The modern control room workload doesn’t get lighter year by year. They just keep adding more and more tasks to the list, and this is a way to reduce that workload. We want to get rid of paperwork in the control room.

CN: Have we seen the end of hard panels?

BE: We hardly do one hard panel job a year. We’re doing a downtown mid-rise jail in Multnomah County, a mixed-use facility in Portland, Ore. That was a job that was specced for hard graphic panels. We did a presentation using these less expensive touch panels and the customer went for it. They’d never had a touch screen or touch panel in any of their facilities.

Due to the diminishing volume, our traditional supplier of fire life and switches for hard panels has a six month lead time for delivery. Prices for hard panels have tripled in the last five years and the quality has gone down. We used to be able to get two years out of a push-and-talk button, but now we have jails where the sheriff has to replace them every month. Unfortunately, a decline in quality is one way of competing.

CN: Correctional facilities must keep smoke detectors away from inmates, which also makes them difficult to access for maintenance. Two recent jail fires spread largely unchecked in facilities with compromised detectors. How is this addressed?

BE: The smoke detector heads are getting smarter. One of things we like about the Edwards line is that the internal circuitry compensates for the build-up of dirt. That’s one of the biggest problems for a correctional fire alarm system. All the bedding and laundry generates a lot of dust and lint. I’d say probably 90 percent of correctional facilities do not properly maintain their smoke and heat detector heads, which results in a lot of nuisance alarms.

With internal circuitry, when the detector reaches a threshold and, rather than going into alarm, it just sounds for trouble. You can actually look at a screen and plot the amount of build-up, so instead of just an arbitrary maintenance program where you clean all the heads once a year, you can focus on the heads that need attention.

CN: Aside from a complete upgrade, what are the options for jails and prisons with dirty detector heads?

BE: Unless you’ve got one of the modern systems that can actually report the amount of contamination, the only way is to climb up there and pull that cover off and see what it looks like. Depending on the extent of the contamination, some heads you can clean yourself, some you have to send to the factory, others you have to throw away.

Some hotels are now demanding sensitivity testing, which means you bring in this expensive $5,000 smoke generator and you start hitting the detector with different levels of smoke until you find out what the activation point is. If it’s too high, you get rid of the detector or replace it. But the problem there is that it’s a time consuming process, and in a correctional facility, that factor increases four times.

Almost never do correctional facilities have someone on the payroll who can handle an inspection of heads. Generally, you should probably contact the local contractor for that brand of fire alarm system. They can give you advice on how to proceed.

We’re also seeing more integration of the correctional system with the fire alarm. Most fire alarm systems nowadays are addressable. Each detector or pull station comes up on its own discreet address and gives you, to use plain English, a descriptor of where it is. We’re seeing more and more of integration into the touch screen so that, in the event of a fire alarm, we pop up a graphic map and show the exact device and alarm, which means we write a driver to talk to that fire alarm system. We’ve written drivers now for most of the major brands out there.

CN: What’s new in intercom applications?

BE: As you probably know, there are a lot of intercom manufacturers out there. In the 60s and 70s, there were numerous pre-packaged systems like the Stentophon and the TOA and some of the other big systems. They were typically stand-alone or had some rudimentary integration into the control system. The industry kind of got away from that, into more relay-based, contact-driven systems off the PLC and interfaced with discreet intercom amplifiers. With the advent of some of the more modern systems, such as Harding, I’m starting to see a swing back. Harding came out with their new DXL unit, which is a smaller, more distributed unit that’s more cost-effective for a lot of facilities.

We are promoting systems like that. They employ a technology called DSP, or digital signal processing, which takes the audio signal, digitizes it, cleans it up and then sends it on out. One of the biggest problems you’ll see with audio systems in a cells with six hard surfaces produce a tremendous amount of echo. With DSP, we can clean up the echo effect and make the signal more intelligible for the control room operator. This also applies to dayrooms and other high noise areas.

We’re seeing a lot of interest in IP video. In a traditional video system, we have cameras going into switchers and multiplexers and then coming out on the monitor. For long term recording, we have the DVR. We’re seeing an awful lot of customers going to IP. In fact, we’re doing a project right now for the state of Idaho that uses all IP video. It looks like a good technology. Essentially, it uses the same Local Area Network that your computer uses.

My forecast is that, within five years, the majority of systems being installed will be IP-based. It means the camera would be going directly into your video server, your PC, and there the images are stored and displayed in real time for control navigation or brought up for an event that happened two months prior. Already with the job we’re finishing in Idaho, officers have gone back and looked at three inmate fights they didn’t even know had happened. Another inmate will mention the incident, and they go back and look and sure enough, there are four inmates beating this guy up.

CN: Is the use of DVRs and IP mutually exclusive?

BE: DVRs are IP-compatible. You can tie them together and bring the information up from the DVR. But what IP video allows is getting rid of the DVR altogether, and the recording and storage is done right on the PC. Of course, these are high-powered video servers we recommend for this application. Compared to DVR, IP video has a superior storage time, access and cost. As the IP software gets better and more robust, switchers and DVRs will disappear altogether.

CN: How does ECS stand out?

BE: Again, we have a UL-listed shop. For most integrators, their fabrication shop is not UL-listed, but it is becoming more common. That guarantees electrical safety and the proper way of fabricating electronics. Another thing we recommend for integrators is that they have their own installation staff.

So many integrators are what we call ‘Parts & Smarts’ contractors. They do the design, ship the components off to the job site, and an electrical contractor who may not be qualified to mount the cameras and intercom stations, and then the integrator comes out and sorts it all out. You have less quality control over that installation.

We do long-distance work, but it’s how you implement and execute it. We have our own crews that go out and do the physical installation at the job site, as opposed to just shipping it out and hoping everything works out OK.

Probably 10 years ago, integrators had limited bonding capability. We can bond up to $20 million, and those that can’t do it are getting left behind. We’ve seen a number of integrators go out of business in the last few years, particularly in the West. But bonding capacity is just a symptom. These are companies that have not kept up with the changes. We’re proactive and looking for new ways of doing things. We help write a spec or come out with a product, and others follow suit.

My day has not been successful if I haven’t learned something. One of things I like about this industry is that there are very few days when I haven’t learned something from a customer.