Hi-tech makes for safe spaces

From access control to terror threats, Sally Jones examines how hi-tech security systems are making universities secure for students and staff

As the shots rang out in the 2015 Bataclan massacre in Paris, 30 students and staff from a British university faculty based nearby received urgent messages on their smartphones. All were asked to check in and share their positions and status by simply pressing a button on their phones, part of an app known as SafeZone. Twenty-sesven did so, some miles from the attacks, others just streets away. Three did not respond, so the University’s security department tried to locate them via phone calls and checks with their colleagues. Thankfully, all three were quickly found to be safely away on holiday. The university sent the other 27 a string of real-time updates, based on their closeness to the violence. Those at a distance were advised to avoid the danger areas while those nearby received clear instructions; to stay put, to avoid a particular neighbourhood and ultimately that the threat was over. All escaped unscathed. Welcome to the latest generation of campus security for the 21st century. 

“When you’re managing an emergency, time is critical,” explained Darren Chalmers-Stevens, Director, EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) of the security technology firm CriticalArc, which has developed SafeZone. “Universities need to understand quickly which part of their organisation and who’s affected, where they are and what help they need, so they can coordinate the response appropriately. That day in Paris, our platform gave them a real-time visualisation of the situation and helped keep their people safe. 

SafeZone also allows students and staff to get help across campuses and surrounding geo-fenced areas so security teams can respond quickly to any problem, from a medical emergency to a violent intruder.”

Accessing a university department with a SALTO key card

Threats like the Bataclan attacks may be vanishingly rare but terrorism is just one of numerous contingencies which universities must plan for to fulfil their duty of care to their students and staff. Ever since the first mass-shooting, from the University of Texas clock tower in 1966, which killed 11 people, university campuses with thousands of people coming and going each day, have proved a tempting target to those with violent intentions. So far, this has been a mainly American phenomenon but the rise of global terrorism means that no institution can risk complacency. 

Gallagher Security is a global manufacturer of hardware and develops software solutions including electronic access control used in university campuses around the world. Their strategies reflect lessons learned from US campus shooter incidents. 

“These sort of incidents are almost a daily event over there,” said Jason Boyce, Strategic Business Development Manager for Gallagher Security Europe.

“It’s crucial to be able to decide quickly what’s happening and if necessary change the dynamic of a building, putting areas into lockdown. Once an incident or emergency is under way our technology can give the right information to the relevant people so they can decide exactly how to proceed and give precise advice to those involved. 

A university is a dynamic organisation (20,000 people turn up and 20,000 leave each day on busy campuses). Our electronic access controls use different methods dependent on the degree of risk: a card, card and PIN number or biometric solutions such as fingerprint or finger vein. These dictate who can go where, when and with what.” 

The SafeZone app

Universities with their concentrations of young, unwary teenagers, many away from home for the first time, also provide rich pickings for thieves and vandals. Other hazards include drink-fuelled fights and medical emergencies, from diabetic comas to car accidents. Individuals working alone in remote locations may be at particular risk and increasingly hi-tech initiatives, rather than just teams of security guards, are providing most of the answers.

AIT supplies electronic door access control and ID management to dozens of universities, using a sophisticated card system that acts as a student’s passport around the university. 

“On a big campus with thousands of students, it’s important that only those with the right to access particular areas can do so,” explained Liz Marshall, AIT’s Marketing Manager. “It’s also useful for welfare reasons to know if students have attended lectures and to be able to track where they go to in the university, for their personal safety and to know they’re engaged in campus life. We use a simple, elegant product manufactured by SALTO; an ID card for each student which identifies them but can also be programmed to assign them rights to access specific areas, for example, their accommodation, the student union and their particular lab or library plus services like printing, laundry, canteens and sports facilities. To enter their room, they present their contactless card to the reader at the entrance to the accommodation block and their specific card gives them access rights only to the main door and their room. 

“CCTV cameras can also be integrated with a university’s access control solutions, so if someone tries to enter an area using the wrong card or one that’s been lost or stolen and blocked, the video camera above that door will record who’s trying to get in.” 

University department with access control on its doors

With the growing use of payment facilities via mobile phones, there is a push to begin moving student ID credentials and cards onto their phones, partly because young people are far more likely to lose a physical ID card than their treasured mobile. AIT also offer ID and access control using the NFC and BLE technology on students’ smartphones, which can set access rights like a more traditional card-based access system, such as by course or department.

SALTO Systems are world leaders in wire-free and wireless access control solutions, providing access control for many UK universities. 

“Today, students, staff and parents expect a lot from educational environments so security solutions need to be seamless and technologically smart to keep up,” said Keith Carey, SALTO’s Marketing Manager. “Our access control platform enables universities to secure virtually every door on campus, across multiple sites. From a centralised control system, they have complete control over who can access what, where and when. This enables the campus to be an integrated, multi-application, keyless and contactless environment that integrates with other self-service facilities in a single smartcard or mobile device, including building and room access and cashless payments for vending machines and canteens Networked campuses enhance both the user experience and management control.”

Security strategies vary hugely between different universities. Some still rely on basic systems like room keys which can be easily lost or copied and a few CCTV cameras. Others, like Aberdeen, Ulster, York, Swansea and Kent have embraced state-of-the-art inter-connective technology to keep students and staff safe, on- and off-campus. The most sophisticated systems are not cheap but pay dividends in efficiency and peace of mind. 

SafeZone Swansea Bay campus

“We have a moral obligation to look after our students and staff,” said Russ Huxtable, Swansea University’s Head of Resilience and Business Continuity, “and having top-class security systems shows we’re determined to fulfil this. During the recent Texas floods, a dozen students were at Houston University on exchanges or secondments. Within two hours we’d managed to check that they were all safe and sound via SafeZone, a massive plus from a duty-of-care perspective. 

Our system does a lot. It lets us communicate with the whole population on campus instantly: 25,000 people on two main sites, including 18,000 students. It allows them to call for emergency help. It shares their location with first responders and any other information loaded on the system: if they’re allergic to penicillin, for example. We can see where a response is needed and also pinpoint where our response teams are at any one time.” 

Swansea is even providing safety off-campus, including live monitoring of transport, so students can see exactly where their bus is and when it will arrive. The authorities are also discussing making volunteer responders available to help students who are distressed or drunk around the Wind Street bar and club area in Swansea. According to Russ Huxtable, this high-level risk management makes excellent business sense.      

“It’s a great differentiator and helps us market ourselves more effectively in an unpredictable world,” he insisted. “Higher education is increasingly competitive, so if a parent is comparing Swansea with other universities where the fees and academic side are similar to ours, but our security systems are far better, this gives us the edge on our competitors. Knowing we’ve done everything humanly possible to ensure the safety of our young men and women is literally priceless – and makes all that we spend on security an entirely worthwhile investment.” 

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