The guests are here
Two months ago, Othniel Askew was invited by Councilman James Davis to join him at a meeting at New York’s City Hall. Stretching a policy that exempted council members from passing through metal detectors, Davis waved Askew around the security checkpoint. Later, from a balcony in the council chamber, Askew drew a gun, shot and killed Davis. A police officer then shot Askew, killing him.
The violence inside New York’s City Hall has heightened concerns about the need to screen visitors to public buildings, but local governments must walk a fine line when winnowing out or, at least, deterring thieves, disturbed individuals, angry former employees and spouses or partners intent on violence.
No one wants to lock visitors out of public buildings. The costs are high, and the inconvenience to visitors with legitimate business is great. At the same time, no one wants petty thieves or people contemplating violence roaming freely through public buildings.
But how can people who may cause trouble be separated from the majority of visitors to public buildings? There are no systems that can guarantee total security, but there are emerging visitor management systems designed to reduce or, at the very least, help manage risks.
Four different systems can help manage visitors. The most basic is a manual system, in which visitors present credentials and sign log books. Another type includes software that automates manual record keeping such as visitor-logging functions.
Then there are more comprehensive visitor management systems that automate verifying credentials, logging visitors in and out, and generating reports to help security personnel review incidents. Finally, there are emerging systems that integrate automated visitor management software with full-featured access control systems.
Experts note that requiring visitors to follow a protocol to get in and out of a building will reduce risks by deterring some people who are bent on causing trouble. From that point of view, even the simplest manual sign-in systems will produce desirable, if limited, results.
Building size a factor
An automated visitor management system may be too costly or complicated for small office buildings. “In a small building that attracts few visitors, you can write down names in a log book easily enough,” says Henry Garcia, a vice president in the security services group of Chicago-based Kroll. “And smaller buildings probably don’t have the security concerns of larger buildings.”
Garcia also says that the number of people working in a building will affect security decisions. A facility housing several thousand employees likely will have hundreds of visitors per day and probably should install some kind of automated visitor management system. He also suggests considering automated visitor management for public building complexes. Buildings in a campus setting often have numerous entrances and exits, attract more visitors than single buildings and require more active security management.
View from a small city
The first step in managing visitors is to ask employees to watch out for trouble, and city employees in Venice, Fla., are doing just that. The 100,000-square-foot Venice City Hall employs more than 150 people, all of whom are required to wear photo identification badges. “We are close, and we all know each other,” says Pamela Johnson, a city spokesperson. “When we see someone in the building who we don’t recognize and doesn’t have a name badge, we ask where they are going, what their business is and how we can help.”
Venice officials recently considered upgrading their informal approach to dealing with visitors. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, affected the entire city deeply when it was discovered that two of the hijackers had attended a flight school located there. “It changed the way we look at security,” says Johnson.
After 9-11, the city manager and council evaluated an automated visitor management system tied to a card access system. “We didn’t want to do anything that would prevent taxpayers from coming in and feeling comfortable doing business here,” Johnson says. “The system we were reviewing did meet our concerns about public access, but it was too expensive. To ensure public access and still have a secure building, we would have had to put up metal detectors and hire four people. The cost was prohibitive.”
Indeed, few city and county governments can afford visitor management systems and their associated costs, says Ron Orchid, a consultant with Roseville, Calif.-based Glover/Resnick & Associates. “Ideally, a city would have an electronic visitor management system tied into an access control system,” Orchid says. “Security officers would enter names, dates and times into the system and hand out visitor badges, allowing access to certain areas of the building.”
Entry barriers are important as well. Orchid recommends using metal detectors and x-ray machines to keep weapons out of buildings and card access turnstiles to ensure that those entering are authorized. “It’s costly,” continues Orchid, who says that a single turnstile entry lane in a building lobby can cost up to $10,000, plus the cost of the access control system, visitor management system and weapon-screening equipment.
Managing visitors in Los Angeles
The largest local governments have larger budgets to manage security, as well as visitors. Los Angeles, for example, installed an elaborate access control system in its major buildings in early 2001. Today, all city employees carry a photo identification card encrypted with appropriate access privileges. “If you’re not an employee and don’t have an access card, then you’re a visitor,” says Tony DeClue, assistant general manager with the city’s Department of General Services.
People visiting major public buildings in Los Angeles encounter security checkpoints at public entrances. A security officer directs visitors through a metal detection portal and then asks for a driver’s license for identification. The officer then places the license in a verification scanner that determines whether the license has been tampered with or made from unofficial materials.
Once the license is verified, the individual’s name flows from the scanner into the city’s access control system, where it is recorded in a database separate from the one used by city employees. Finally, the officer prints a one-day visitor’s pass that is returned when the visitor leaves the building. That system allows city security managers to review the names of visitors who have entered and left the facilities.
Total visitor control
Westchester County, N.Y., has installed a full-featured, visitor management system and access control system in the county’s Michaelian Office Building. The new courthouse also will have a similar system.
Westchester’s visitor management system, PassagePoint, from San Jose, Calif.-based STOPware, operates with a C-Cure 800 access control system supplied by Lexington, Mass.-based Software House.
The nine-story Michaelian Office Building spans 170,000 square feet and houses the county executive, board of legislators and several county departments, including public works, planning and public safety. Approximately 800 people work there, and hundreds of visitors enter and leave the building every day, says Salvatore Carrera, who oversees the department of public safety and is Westchester’s director of economic development and real estate.
Visitors enter the Michaelian Office Building only through the main door. They follow signs through a partitioned hallway until they reach an area where they place their packages onto an x-ray machine conveyor belt. Then, a police officer motions them through a metal detector and asks the visitor’s name, driver’s license number and the name of the person being visited. This information is entered into the visitor management system. Next, the officer asks for photo identification, which is scanned and retained in the visitor management system. Finally, the system prints a paper tag with the visitor’s name, a barcode and the floor being visited.
The name tags are valid for four, six or eight hours. After the allotted time, the word “Invalid” appears on the nametag, and the visitor must leave the building or return to the visitor registration line.
Visitors with nametags are directed to elevators to travel to their destination, but a locked vestibule near the elevator protects each floor in the building. While access control readers allow authorized employees and officials with access cards to enter and exit, a visitor must stop in the elevator vestibule, call the office being visited and await an escort.
Upon completing their business, visitors return to the elevator and go back to the first floor. Anyone attempting to get off at another floor will encounter another locked vestibule. On the ground floor, visitors leave the building by swiping their passes through a bar-code reader, which is connected to the access control system.
Although Westchester County’s system is sophisticated, it still requires at least two types of software to make it work: one to track visitors and another to unlock the doors. While the visitor management software can log visitors in and out and supply passes and generate reports, it sometimes needs the help of the access control software to investigate incidents. For example, the county had to use both software systems to identify the person who set off the fire alarm on the fifth floor of the Michaelian Building a couple of months ago. It turned out to be a false alarm, but Carrera wanted to know who did it. A closed-circuit television camera (CCTV) near the fire alarm photographed the culprit: a confused 90-year-old woman. “Of course, we did nothing,” Carrera says. “But we were able to find out who it was by matching the CCTV picture with the photos stored in the software.”
City and county governments have a number of options to manage visitors. They can adopt simple, manual systems or tightly controlled automated systems. Although any kind of visitor management system will add to the cost of each building’s operation, local government leaders have to decide whether they can afford to do nothing at all.
Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.