Vanishing Vendors

Engineering Security With Non-Proprietary Electronic Controls 



At a time when prisons and jails across the country are struggling to cope with growing inmate populations, shrinking budgets and stretched resources, correctional agencies face myriad challenges in keeping aging security systems operational.


During the 1980s and ’90s, security controls systems were composed of equipment proprietary to the system installer. Processors, software, intercom relay boards, door control relay boards and other electronic components could only be provided, installed and serviced by the original installer.


In the years since, many of these system vendors and integrators have migrated to a different technology or market, have undergone fundamental restructuring as part of a corporate acquisition, or have simply gone out of business for a multitude of reasons.


The absence of original equipment manufacturer support for antiquated systems with proprietary software and hardware can leave facility maintenance teams without system service support for mission-critical installations and unable to find replacement parts. The owner is left holding the bag.


The ongoing evolution in software flexibility, improvements in production processes and growth of competitive manufacturers have yielded declining technology costs and increasing interoperability. Non-proprietary security systems represent a viable solution for agencies struggling to support or update older existing facility systems.


Advanced technology and custom engineering deliver systems that can improve overall facility operations, reduce maintenance costs and optimize staffing requirements, while providing a more secure environment for the public, staff and inmates.


A variety of mission-critical functions — including access control, surveillance and paging — can all be integrated into a single user interface far more easily than in the past. This new generation of non-proprietary security systems offers an alternative solution to systems built, installed and serviced by single providers.


Evolutionary Track


In the old days, users who wanted to control a door associated with intercom and cameras would be required conduct the audio communication from the intercom audio system master station, then view and verify the subject on camera at another control panel before reaching for a separate switch to unlock the door.


When the industry was in the infancy of interface integration, designers and engineers relied on hardwired connections to achieve the desired interfaces for communication between dissimilar systems.


Systems installed during the 1980s and ’90s were primarily made up of relay logic and hardwired controls, such as industrial switch panels and membrane lexan-overlay-type panels with pressure sensitive switches. In the latter case, a round disk must be milled into the aluminum substrate at a precise dimension for the switch to operate consistently. There are very few manufacturers capable of producing these panel components.


At one Midwestern jail, the panels included a multiplexing interface board mounted on the backside of the operator panel that was used to communicate remotely with a processor located in a nearby closet. The interface board was designed to reduce the amount of wiring between the membrane panel and the processor.


The manufacturer of the interface board went out of business and jail officials had a difficult time finding a company that was willing to even look at the board. An electronics shop agreed to trouble shoot and repair the board for $8,000. With several of these boards on other panel locations in the facility, officials decided it made more sense to replace the entire security system with a non-proprietary touch-screen solution for $230,000.


Also developed in the ’90s, remote door control systems used a remote input/output/relay module installed in the frame of the door it was intended to control and monitor. A data loop was connected to each module in a daisy chain configuration and back to a proprietary processor to provide monitoring and control.


Again, these systems could only be serviced or receive replacement parts from the original manufacturer. They are particularly difficult to replace because none of the individual door control and status wiring comes back to a common location and system upgrades require installation of additional conduits.


System integration, through hardwired control panels and, later, touch screens, allowed users to respond to controls and alarms with less effort and fewer task steps. It can accommodate heavier work loads and requires fewer officers to operate.


Because off-the-shelf programmable logic controllers from industrial control companies were an expensive option, system integrators had few choices for these types of control processors. System integrators began to design and fabricate their own brand of control processors and programming software to streamline the installation, simplify the integration, maximize market share and increase profit. Facility owners derived the short-term benefit by having systems with the latest technology, albeit proprietary.  


Early touch screen systems, which were handicapped by slow response speeds, could get bogged down under heavy operational loads. Frequently, a series of cheater switches for high-activity doors would be located below the user station counter.


Wired directly to the door control relays, the cheater switches allowed users to reduce control time by bypassing touch screen processing to unlock the door. With any new technology, there is a time lag that can only be perfected through real-world application.


Where Are we Today?


The technology has changed tenfold since the ’90s, and system integration can now be attained mostly via software interfaces rather than hard-wired connections. At the same time, improvements in production and expansion of competitive manufacturers exert downward pressure on the cost of technology.


Greater processor speeds, software flexibility, open protocol interfaces and lower price points are driving the creation of systems that are user friendly, cost effective and easy to maintain with replacement parts that can be obtained from local electronic warehouses.

Digital intercom systems, IP-based camera and card-access systems, industrial programmable logic controllers and touch screen GUIs can communicate through cross-compatible platforms with system servers, hubs and routers rather than through hardwired interfaces. The seamless integration of control, audio and video systems enables agencies to customize system setup, access and operation.


Users can transfer controls for an entire housing block from one control station to another with the touch of an icon. Second and third shift housing units can be monitored from a central location, eliminating the need for staff in the housing unit. Watch tours can be remotely monitored with touch screen audio-video recording capabilities.


Dual-function cell intercoms can be programmed with touch screens to change function from intercom call to a door release, facilitating inmate privilege step-up programs. User friendly, intuitive touch screen controls and accelerated system response promote staff professionalism, improved management and control of inmates, and heightened inmate accountability.


Digital audio systems allow the transfer of intercoms from one touch-screen control station to another and can interface with the facility’s telephone system, enabling staff to call an inmate cell location from their desktop phone. Inmates can be questioned, given instructions or notifications, and medications can be discussed without staff having to visit inmate cells.


Audio monitoring allows users to listen to each cell intercom sequentially, with the ability to pause at a desired cell location. Systems can also record the audio from dayroom speakers or cell intercoms by touch screen. Each recording event can be stored and transferred to CD or DVD to provide a record of staff interactions, inmate actions and incidents.


Agencies can utilize video in similar ways. Video group call-up capabilities, which represent areas of the jail with touch screen icons, allow entire groups of cameras to be called up on video monitors adjacent to the central or satellite control touch screen for surveillance of broad or selected areas of the facility.


Audio and video systems simultaneously respond to controls and alarms to capture events and incidents and video recording interfaces with duress alarms to automatically record images from cameras in the area at a higher resolution for evidentiary support.


The Road Ahead


Touch screen technology continues to evolve in terms of visual and operational usability and functional flexibility. Existing designs allow for single-touch, sequential selection of desired actions: Unlocking a door, for instance, requires selection of an icon to specify the door location from a building map, having the floor plan regenerated for the selected area, and selecting another icon to complete the function.


However, numerous companies are working on touch screen systems that incorporate screens large enough to display entire areas of a facility on one screen and allow for simultaneous multi-touch screen interactions by the user. Users will touch and drag building areas, positioned in a circular pattern around the main screen, to the central area, providing total flexibility in control-screen arrangement and operation.


Widespread use of large megapixel cameras, which will come down in cost, in combination with newer H.264 video compression technologies will yield significant improvements in the quality of video surveillance and evidence, while using less hard drive storage space. 


A word of caution: As with any new technology, the initial cost of these systems is difficult to justify based upon simple return on investment. However, in the not too distant future, these technologies will be mainstream and as common as what is in use today. It may be best to wait; leading edge technology can quickly become bleeding edge technology.


Scalable Solutions


Higher facility traffic and reduced resources create a demand for more efficient and reliable security systems.


Older systems that are fabricated with relay logic and hardwired controls that require staff to operate doors, intercoms, cameras and audio with different switches and separate controls are nearly impossible to maintain due to eliminated product lines and are becoming more likely to have system failures.


The non-proprietary model ensures that systems can be expanded and updated more readily as a facility changes and expands to meet demands. If the original installing vendor goes out of business, is difficult to work with or slow to respond to problems, owners can service systems and source replacement parts from a competitive pool of vendors.


With some manufacturers using dynamic link library software programs that overlay the computer operating system with restricted-data files, designers/engineers specifying non-proprietary systems must ensure the system is truly non-proprietary. The specifications should require that software and programming are directly imbedded in the touch control software.

System specifications must require the installing vendor to provide the owner with a complete up-to-date program disk, all passwords, IP addresses, tag names and tag name libraries and addresses as part of the installation closeout.


Owners should be aware that they are precluded from performing system programming or hardware changes independently during the warranty period. Once the warranty period has elapsed, owners should then be free to solicit replacement parts and system servicing from any qualified vendor specializing in this technology.


Today’s electronic security system engineers are delivering more value to facilities through customized design and system upgrades, readily available replacement parts and open service contracts. The right security solution — one that increases efficiency and flexibility while optimizing operational budgets — should deliver integrated systems that are scalable, user friendly, cost effective and easy to use and maintain.


Jeffrey Geiger, DE, PSP, is a security designer with MKK Consulting Engineers Inc., a Colorado-based firm specializing in security-electronics design and consultation. Geiger has designed and engineered security electronic systems for 40 county jails and 22 state prisons.