Stop thinking burglar and fire alarms and start thinking computer-based integrated building solutions

No matter what you call it—low voltage, voice/data/video or security—it’s a discipline that almost always is coupled with other technologies, facilities management and computer functions in a turnkey solution. And if you’re involved in any part of it, you’re in the right place at the right time.

Integration has been on the minds of the industry since the ’80s and earlier, but now there are mechanisms in place to make it all happen, and it will occur quickly. Computer technology has driven prices down in all types of products and components, and now, systems incorporate built-in intelligence and microprocessor control.

Many systems, including burglar and fire alarms, closed-circuit television surveillance (CCTV) and especially access control, are controlled and operated via personal computers, laptops, cellular telephones, PDAs and perhaps even wireless devices such as the Blackberry.

CCTV is evolving for the better. Cameras have sophisticated little brains, microprocessor controls, special lighting adjustments and installation and troubleshooting functions, while digital video recording just keeps getting better with compression and other storage-saving techniques. Everyone’s placing bets on the network—as a safe, secure and efficient means to control every aspect of the facility, including data and security, and building management.

Information technology has converged quite dramatically with security and other facilities management functions within each and every vertical market. The computer is the king of control, and wireless and remote control is a strong second in command.

Compete knowledge of information technology (IT) and computer control is a must, or at least having an on-staff expert to handle these areas is. That’s becoming increasingly obvious, especially as the Internet’s World Wide Web, intranet and other private data networks continue to evolve. In fact, some central station monitoring operations in the burglar and fire alarm industry are using the Internet to monitor and send alarm signals, including fire alarms (which meets fire codes and Underwriters Laboratories standards), over broadband cable and high-speed digital networks. But it means the traditional alarm-installing company and UL central station operation must be extremely savvy in information and computer technology, said David Raizen, president of Scarsdale Security Systems Inc.

Raizen, like other security integrators and facilities managers, is banking on the strength of existing data networks and the Internet. With Internet monitoring, central stations are able to share more data with the monitored site (such as system checks, better video images, faster reprogramming or control) more quickly and less expensively than with the existing dial-up or leased-line alternatives. Scarsdale has been providing network-based monitoring for some time, so the addition of the Internet as part of the transition was not difficult. Raizen cautioned, however, that it takes an extremely IT-savvy company to pursue the Internet and network monitoring and successfully incorporate and maintain it at the central station and the customer’s premises. His company relies not only on the Internet, but mostly on what he referred to as a private-type Internet or frame-relay network. It has no traffic on it other than the user and offers even higher levels of uploading and downloading and line security, along with faster service.

On the home front

Using the Internet to monitor signals is more common in the business environment, but as residential users continue to embrace high-speed connectivity, it will find its way to that market as well. Kurt Scherf, vice president and principal analyst for Parks Associates in Dallas, said field data show a large increase in the percentage of broadband Internet subscribers with children who perceive the idea of Internet-enabled cameras for child-safety applications as useful/appealing. “The linkage between broadband services and home security is going to become more critical, as this data would indicate, at least as it relates to consumers’ desires to have two-way access into their homes to view cameras and check on the home status. I definitely think that we’re going to see a trend toward the integration of IP-enabled cameras with security system installations over the next few years,” Scherf said.

Others in the industry concurred that network connectivity is one of the hottest trends to hit the security industry—these in-place data communications now can handle much more than computer data, and the end-user is making good use of them as a transmission vehicle. According to Jay Stone, mid-Atlantic regional sales manager for The Systems Depot Inc. in Hickory, N.C., Web- and networked-based control and distribution are future trends for the security and audio industries. And, just as the end-user is looking for one-stop installation shopping, contractors want the same. “Contractors are looking for companies (suppliers) that can provide whole-house solutions, not just pieces of the puzzle. Contractors want to rely on one company for burglar alarms, automation, lighting control, structured cabling and home audio,” Stone said.

Of course, increased dependency on the World Wide Web and networks may have its drawbacks. While line security is strong, corporations have taken it upon themselves to install firewalls and other means to prevent hackers and bugs from getting in. But a new enemy on the Internet’s battlefield is unwanted e-mails and advertisements, commonly referred to as spam, said Jason Wright, an industry analyst and program leader/Security Technologies, Frost & Sullivan, San Antonio, Texas. “The battle of spam is raging on and garnering a lot attention,” Wright said. “As such, users are looking at application-layer security that provides more in-depth security and the movement to intrusion detection and prevention systems for networks.”

Retrofit system applications offer another bright spot for contractors. In addition to using the network more and more for video, with issues of space being addressed by compression, motion or activity-based recording and special recording techniques, the use of existing, unshielded telephone wire is also growing as the use of video surveillance continues on the upswing. Known in the industry as UTP or unshielded twisted pair, this technology is being deployed instead of coaxial cable to carry video signals. Companies such as Network Video Technologies Inc., Menlo Park, Calif., are pioneering the use of UTP in both new and existing applications. For example, one recent application includes the deployment of the UTP at the Treasure Island Resort & Casino in Red Wing, Minn. The casino is using equipment to transmit video signals from an old surveillance room to a new one located 600 feet away via UTP wire. NVT’s transmitters, receivers and hubs allow the use of new or existing unshielded twisted pair wire.

“Our goal was to find the easiest and best way to transmit about 650 video signals from the current surveillance spot to the new location,” said Sao Yang, the casino’s security systems maintenance supervisor. “We thought about running RG-59 coaxial cable but couldn’t even imagine all the wires that we would have to pull.”

Innovation in video surveillance has also made it more palatable for the end-user to allow security to deploy its parameters on a network. In fact, according to Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC), San Diego, many of today’s surveillance systems are run on IP networks. Software applications can extract critical data from the digital video streams and look for particular events that trigger alerts and/or enhance the resolution and recording speeds of the digital streams. The foundation of modern digital video surveillance structures, according Matt Kelleher, spokesperson for AMCC, is RAID storage, in systems that act as video vaults or virtual repositories for everything the cameras see and record. With new compression algorithms, high-resolution video streams can be significantly compressed and occupy less disk space than ever before.

In access control, computer-controlled multiapplication configurations are the wave of the future. Administration of the security and access control is most often computer-controlled from a central location, said Jerry Cordasco, vice president and general manager of Compass Technologies Inc., a Wheelock Co., Exton, Pa. Cordasco said access control rarely stands alone. It’s often combined with digital video and surveillance, and now wireless is also becoming an integral part of the picture. A corporation may use an access control card for entrance, but may also in the future use wireless tracking features in the card to find persons within a corporation for emergencies or other purposes. For physical security and wireless or proximity access control, corporate users are migrating more to 13.56 MHz from the well-established 125 KHz, as these users require additional memory for multiple functions and additional applications.

Cellular and global positioning systems will also continue to emerge as strong players in security and safety as an adjunct to wireless systems—to locate people or protect assets. Cellular is being used to alert users of alarm status, view video feeds or as a backup to traditional alarm signals monitored over telephone lines.

Blurring the lines

It isn’t just one contractor, electrician, builder or other working alone. Every entity is working together as a team to make integrated building solutions happen—because they know that it is in the best interests of the company and the installer. No longer does security, energy management or lighting stand alone. Most electrical systems in a facility are tied to or integrated with more than a single function and control. Necessity is the mother of invention, and as end-users have sought to access their facilities with greater ease, integrated systems and components have become paramount in the quest for greater operating control. It’s not enough for an electrical contractor to just pull wires and cables—success waits for those who take systems solutions a step further, into the computer age. EC

O’MARA is the president of DLO Communications in Park Ridge, Ill., specializing in low-voltage. She can be reached at 847.384.1916 or domara@earthlink.net