In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans everywhere reflected on their most cherished ideals: liberty, freedom and justice. Coinciding with this time frame, a new Hall of Justice opened in downtown Buffalo, N.Y., housing the Erie County Family Courthouse and protected by a state-of-the-art, low-voltage security system.
The system, deployed by Frey Electric Contractors, Tonawanda, N.Y., was designed to ensure courtroom judges and occupants a threat-free environment. The project was also an illustration of how cultural and political values are upheld not only by laws but by ingeniously crafted, well-integrated and discreet electronic systems and security devices.
“The new courthouse represented a huge jump in the quality of security design versus the previous family court,” said Michael Judd, buildings project manager of the Erie County Department of Public Works. “It was built with great attention to detail from a security standpoint—with a very deliberate elimination of potential hiding spots and blind spots inside and outside the courtrooms.”
Work in progress
The Erie County Family Courthouse was a major project for Frey. It took more than 18 months from start to finish and carried a price tag of $3.6 million (half of which was allotted to security components). Frey’s crews of 18 to 24 full-time electricians and communications workers put in place a dynamic system with multifunctionality capable of optically scanning every square inch of public space of the courthouse’s interior. That is a substantial amount of real estate, according to Russ Hamlin, Frey’s project manager for this job.
“The building is quite large, 180,000 square feet, including all eight floors and a mechanical penthouse,” Hamlin said. “By the time we were all done, we had put in roughly 200,000 feet of cabling supplied by Magnum Cable, Solon, Ohio, to tie together the various components of the security system.”
Those security components include a system of strategically placed mag-lock, card-controlled doors; an extensive network of CCTV cameras, all linked to the ADT, Boca Raton, Fla., IntelliTouch screen system with centrally controlled, customized touch-screen graphic monitors; and a system of panic-duress buttons discreetly positioned, with redundancy, throughout the building.
Turner Construction, New York, N.Y., one of the nation’s largest general building contractors, was the lead for this project and worked very closely with Frey from start to completion.
There was a weekly superintendents’ meeting for Turner to manage the flow of information properly from the blueprints and other planning documents to the appropriate foremen for different aspects of the job. Every other week, a special meeting was held for project managers like Hamlin.
Checklists and logistics
Even without some of the security system responsibilities, Frey’s project checklist was full from day one.
“Because the courthouse grounds downtown are necessarily limited, there wasn’t enough space for us to keep on-site trailers,” Hamlin said. “We had to improvise. So we utilized unoccupied office space across the street and space inside the adjacent new parking garage. We stored and released materials only as they were required for the job from these two locations, which made our work a lot more involved and difficult. But we adjusted to it and what was initially a big inconvenience became just an everyday part of the job.”
With logistics and supply issues under control, Frey was already on the move with its installation of a multifaceted system that would eventually provide protection and security for thousands of Erie County citizens every year, as well as for the personnel whose daily workplace is the courthouse.
The first and most visible layer of safety is the building’s “smart” doors. On each of the courthouse’s eight floors, restricted areas are protected and sealed by heavy-duty Kelley security doors with electronic crash bars, all of which are ADT card-controlled. Frey’s staff wired the circuitry for these special thresholds, the only high-voltage component of the overall security system.
The computerized doors provide solid protection with tailored programming. Every employee of the courthouse, from custodial workers to the highest judicial authorities, is individually “ranked” as to where they can and cannot go in the building—and all are assigned customized ADT magnetic cards. The cards permit access to areas an individual has been cleared to enter, while barring access everywhere else. This internal hierarchy of security levels provides maximum control throughout the courthouse at all times.
“The restricted-access door system was one of the key, major improvements over what existed in the previous family court, which had been built in the mid-’60s,” said Judd. “Now, everyone entering the building can be separated into appropriate populations, depending on what their purpose is in being in the building.”
“Previously, the situation was much more chaotic with everyone from the outside entering the building and being all mixed together. Especially in the post-9/11 era, that is not a situation you want in any public building ... and the door plan does exactly what it’s supposed to do in protecting the public and the courthouse staffs,” Judd added.
The heart of the courthouse’s total security solution is the ADT IntelliTouch System. With county officials underwriting the project on behalf of all taxpayers in Erie County, it was determined that a single supplier was preferred, according to Frey’s Hamlin.
“It needed to be one that could be trusted for years of future maintenance and upgrades, if and when required,” Hamlin said.
Frey’s mission was to install a cutting-edge, hardwired system that would provide electronic surveillance throughout the building.
An average of 10 cameras are deployed on each of the building’s eight floors, totaling 80 Philips CSI, Lancaster, Pa. cameras. There are five more cameras covering the courthouse exterior and grounds. Each floor has its own security substation with IntelliTouch monitor, always in operation while court is in session. These monitors, in turn, are linked to the central security station on the main floor.
Customized software permits a single security officer to monitor all live camera images on his or her floor at once. Each reduced-size camera image takes up a small square on the sub-station’s monitor screen. If a security staff member suddenly notes a disturbance or suspicious activity taking place in a courtroom, or if he has been alerted by a judge’s electronic signal, that staffer simply puts his finger on the single camera image that shows the action. Other images on the screen instantly drop out of sight while the selected image fills the entire screen for more detailed viewing. Now, the viewer has an option to pan or zoom the camera with keyboard controls that function essentially like a video game joystick.
A security officer who witnesses a situation that requires response can decide either to enter the courtroom, bringing force, or call for additional help from other floors. Meantime, all images and communications are followed by officers at the central command post on the main floor. The system gives security staff an optimum level of direct intelligence with a view to what is taking place at any given moment, recording the action for future review while buying precious time for security personnel to make an appropriate response.
A critical add-on to IntelliTouch was the dispersed network of panic-duress buttons embedded in strategic locations throughout the Erie County Family Courthouse. The original plan Frey worked from called for buttons in judges’ chambers and at the judges’ chair platforms at the head of each courtroom. But the judges, headed by the Honorable Sara Townsend, met with Turner and Frey soon after taking occupancy of the new building and concluded that an additional layer of security was needed.
Consequently, in each of the building’s 20 courtrooms, at least one additional panic-duress button was installed, usually at the court reporters’ stations. The buttons work much like a bank teller’s alarm. At any moment in any courtroom, a judge who begins to feel threatened or senses the potential for escalating conflict has the option to discretely move to a button that is out of view of everyone else in the courtroom. A push of the button alerts security personnel at that floor’s substation of a problem needing immediate attention.
Because of the expanded deployment of these buttons by Frey in the new courthouse, court reporters who are closer to the defendants, witnesses, and family members can put the floor’s security detail on instant alert. Regardless of who is doing the pushing, the buttons provide another insurance layer of protection for the judge, the courtroom staff, plaintiffs and everyone else in the immediate vicinity of an unraveling situation.
The verdict: Everyone is proud and happy with the outcome ... and the citizens of Erie County have a well-protected, contemporary family courthouse to serve its needs now and in the future. EC