Electronic Currents: Three Security Electronic Pros Share Their Opinions and Expertise

By Zach Chouteau

For the 2023 edition of CN’s Security Electronics roundtable, we tuned in with Stephanie Barsella, Vice President of Sales for TimeKeeping Systems; Nathan Skipper, VP of Sales for Montgomery Technology Inc. (MTI); and Clint Wemhoff, Security Electronics Department Manager for CML Security.

The trio of industry stalwarts shared detailed thoughts on trending security topics, do’s and don’ts and prognostications on future waves in the SEC landscape.

What makes Security Electronics so vital to correctional facilities in 2023, and how do you think the field has changed over the past decade or so?

Barsella: As facilities’ requirements increase, and staffing continues to be an issue, security electronics is one of the areas correctional facilities look to for solutions.  Legal mandates, operational efficiency, and especially staffing – all of these are creating the need for greater efficiency.  Security electronics and especially integration are game changers for improving correctional operations.

Skipper: Security electronics have become an assumed part of the security for correctional facilities. Over the last decade, I’ve seen correctional professionals become very familiar with all of the industry buzz words: PLCs, touchscreens, HMI, etc. These professionals have become more savvy about what is needed (and not needed) in a control system. This has been a great help for us as a provider, as those professionals have become familiar with what is needed for the maintenance and ongoing support of their systems. For example, there is more awareness around the fact that an integral component of the control system, the touchscreen workstation, should be upgraded on a recurring schedule, just like the office computers they already upgrade on a schedule. 

Wemhoff: One of the main reasons for Security Electronics in a correctional facility is to create efficiencies with day-to-day operations. It allows operators to observe activities within the facility at all times, as well as be able to get personnel anywhere they are needed at a moment’s notice. With the developing work-force challenges, ensuring a facility can operate efficiently as well as safe – is an ever-increasing concern when the work force is new or inexperienced. It is our hope that these systems continue to provide efficiencies and safeguards that are now more important than ever.

One of the biggest changes in my opinion is switching from analog cameras to IP technology. This has a huge advantage for the facility to be able provide the best available surveillance and storage. We are seeing more and more cameras technologies being implemented to improve the field of view and quality of video. Digital analytics are assisting in event alarms and recording and we will see a continuation of this push going forward.

In your opinion, what is the most significant trend today with security electronics within justice and corrections?

Barsella: At Guard1, our involvement is from the perspective of inmate tracking, personal duress alarms and documenting well-being checks and services with RFID and mobile devices.  The trend here is that facilities need and want these solutions.  For us, the pace of new implementations and system upgrades is increasing.

Basically, customers want more.  A facility that in the past has done simple cell checks with a basic device now wants real time RF inmate tracking.  Facilities that had basic panic alarms in the past now want real time location.  When an emergency happens they want to know immediately where it happened and whose device is reporting it. 

Skipper: There are two significant trends developing in security electronics today, both of which primarily involve video surveillance, but which have wider implications for the integrated control system. Video Surveillance manufacturers have widely adopted OnVIF Profile S as a standard for integration. This has been significant for wider integration into the security electronics system because it allows the integrator to directly control and access streams from video surveillance devices without any additional third-party software. A second and related development is the rapid advancements that have been made around analytics. Video surveillance manufacturers are regularly adding new features for analytics, and they are standardizing these features through OnVIF so that any manufacturer or integrator can access them.

Wemhoff: We are seeing most facilities bringing their IT department into network/hardware conversations. With technology changing at such a rapid pace it’s great to see different departments work together and achieve a common goal.

If you had to choose the most vital “do” and “don’t” moves for today’s facilities implementing or expanding security electronic systems, what would they be?

Barsella: First and foremost, you should have a champion for your project.  Our most successful projects always have a project champion!  You want someone from your facility’s leadership, someone who is engaged and active, involved in overseeing the project and overcoming the inevitable obstacles.  In addition to a champion, planning well in advance and making sure everyone involved is informed and prepared, always makes a big difference.

That goes double for the IT team!  Involve them early, get their input and buy-in for the project.

Second, you need to plan for the future!  Your systems are going to grow, probably faster than you think, and in ways you cannot anticipate.  So for example, if you are installing cable, a spare cable run is a fractional cost.  Often in existing facilities, infrastructure is the constraint, something we have to work around.  So if you are building a new facility, allow extra space in your server room and your wiring closets. Don’t make the mistake of not providing room for system growth. Your facility’s needs will evolve over time.

Skipper: There are three principles when considering the design of security electronics. First, use widely accepted and scalable infrastructure. We recommend selecting electronics that support IP-based communications, as this medium is widely accepted, both for manufacturers and installers. Second, select products which allow for least-common-denominator integration. In other words, the simpler the integration method, the better. We recommend selecting products based on whether they can integrate to other systems through industry recognized standards. For example, most lighting systems implement BACnet/IP for integration. Most video surveillance systems implement OnVIF profile S. When standards are implemented, it minimizes the finger pointing that can surround the use of third-party drivers and APIs. Third, we recommend having a plan for upgrade/replacement. A common plan is to replace computers every 5 years. Also, don’t forget software related updates, as these can improve performance and patch security risks.

Wemhoff: Each system is only as good as its network infrastructure. There are a ton of different ways to approach each project. Having a solid network sets the foundation to build upon in the future. There are only going to be more and more devices added to each network as time goes on. As much as technology progresses and facilities are interested in new features and systems – it really all comes back to IT technology and how robust the network is.

Does your firm have any new/recent projects, partnerships or other news you think the industry might want to know about?

Barsella: We are constantly developing new products and processes, both within our own company and partnering with other technology providers.  These new items will build on our current products as well as bring new equipment and technologies to our customers, increasing their efficiency and productivity.

We’ve done several hundred new projects over the past few years.  Increasingly, we are also replacing existing personal alarm systems, with updated systems that identify the location when there is an emergency.  More and more, we find that correctional customers are realizing that inmate tracking is now a viable, reliable technology, so we are implementing that, too.  Finally, there is RFID inmate tracking and documenting officer tasks, something that Guard1 does with rugged mobile devices, and we are upgrading many customers who adopted the PIPE and have used it successfully for many years.

Customers are looking for more and expecting more.  For us at least, that is driving our business growth.

Skipper: Over the past couple of years, MTI has been broadening the platforms on which our system is available. Our Human-Machine-Interface (HMI) software, ProVision, is now available on Android devices. While we’ve had mobile options for our control system since 2003, the inclusion of Android devices makes this functionality more cost effective and provides a wider range of hardware configuration options. We also continually expand our integration capabilities. Over the last five years, we’ve added integration with industry standards like BACnet/IP, SNMP,  and OnVIF Profile S.

Wemhoff: Drone detection is also on our radar. Our industry needs to react to the increased need for drone detection as part of a site security package. While there are great systems coming to market – it will be important to recognize the importance of integration to the Security Electronics system. There are quite a few facilities that are understaffed, therefore when we integrate with these systems the facility doesn’t have to try and find another person to add to their staff.

Looking down the road a bit, how do you think security electronics will transform in our industry over the next 5-10 years?

Barsella: Security electronics will grow and provide a range of solutions that are in place or currently in development.  RFID inmate tracking will be pervasive.

Skipper: Over the next 5-10 years, I think security electronics providers can add great value to the industry through the simplification and tight integration of analytics, whether it be through the features provided by video surveillance systems, or the use of audio and even metadata analytics.

Wemhoff: There will be a sea change in a movement for all devices to be IP based. Also, with more and more devices being added to the network, and IT departments getting more involved, network security is going to take a higher precedence. We could see a huge departure from the PLC driven platforms in our industry is used to and a movement toward IP based I/O. We are running on PLC technology that is based on industrial control processes, many of these technologies and components will reach end of life – forcing our industry to think toward the next technology. Networks are also now becoming more robust to allow more thin-client applications on control (HMI) interface where in the past latency would have been an issue.

And addressing the obvious elephant in the room is storage, where we may see more facilities opening their networks to be able to use cloud services storage. While it is an awkward conversation in relation to our industry peers, overall cost of storage will be a discussion point. Cost of replacement (storage) will outweigh reoccurring operational costs of service/subscription.

Editor’s Note: This forum originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Correctional News.