They Can See Clearly Now

By Ron Stevens | Aug 15, 2010
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While students of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) hurried to classes or walked to their favorite nearby coffee shop last fall, their college was adding a new, highly visible security system as well as expanding much-needed parking areas.

The new call-box system, according to Steve McLaughlin, assistant director of public safety for MCAD, was an initiative by the Department of Public Safety.

“We wanted to bring something to campus because we heard comments during orientation from parents asking things like, ‘Oh, you don’t have the blue phones or call boxes.’ I came from a campus where they had these, so we knew it was something that could be used and would help us give the community the ability to communicate with us quicker,” McLaughlin said. “There will be five, with the last one installed in spring,” he said.

MCAD president Jay Coogan pointed out that the installation of the new devices showed the school is providing a security option not only for the students, but for the community, too.

MCAD occupies an area of a few city blocks, not far south of the downtown hub. It employs a 24/7 security force that is visible in the neighborhood because of its blue-and-white vehicles that circulate constantly.

Coogan referred to campus security as a balancing act.

“We have no ‘Private Property’ signs, but we’re very aware of our surrounding community and its concerns,” he said.

For this project, the school turned to Collins Electrical Construction Co. The St. Paul, Minn.-based firm has done work for the college before.

“We’ve been doing security work for MCAD’s security department for a number of years now, so we’re kind of their contractor of choice for [closed-circuit TV] and other security measures,” said Phil Myers, vice president of Collins Electrical.

“We typically add a camera or two a year for them,” he said. “We also did cameras along with the emergency towers and an intercom at the back door tied to a door lock, so they could buzz people in.”

“It was a successful project for us and the client because MCAD is very focused on what they wanted. They always are when it comes to security. The security department takes that role seriously. They know what they want,” Myers said.

“It was also successful because the general contractor they selected, JE Dunn, did a very good job of managing the project, doing the schedules, in spite of some challenges they had with the weather,” Myers said. “They did a wonderful job of coordinating things and keeping them moving, and then MCAD’s always a great customer because they know what they want; they’re not indecisive.”

“Collins works directly for MCAD, outside of the general contractor structure, so there was extra effort for me in coordinating and making sure that we’re staying in the loop and also not getting in the way of the rest of the process,” he said.

The call-box placement addressed some security issues. Even on MCAD’s small campus, that placement is important. McLaughlin said the location was determined through a selection of recommendations made by MCAD’s safety committee. McLaughlin and his boss sit on that committee.

“We discussed placement among the members there and came to a committee decision,” he said.

The key decision-making point in choosing the final placements was to base call-box location on traffic areas, with preference to the most highly traveled areas, rather than the least traveled or most remote locations.

“The call boxes are tied into our security system through our intercampus phone line,” McLaughlin said. “The phone lines run into the main building, into our phone switchboard, and when they’re activated at an individual location, [they call] our emergency line phone, a separate phone number that we have at our public safety desk. We answer it and identify if the situation is an emergency.”

Myers added that the surveillance/alarm system is also integrated with various pan-tilt-zoom cameras, so when the security staff pushes a button, the appropriate camera can automatically position itself and zoom in on the location.

“When the guard is getting the call, he’s got a heads-up display [CCTV] that’s showing him a visual of that station, so he can see what’s going on,” he said.

“The phones are now in service,” McLaughlin said, “and the reaction has been—they’ve been noticed, of course—people ask, ‘Do those call the police?’”

“We’ve had our first ‘ding-dong-ditch’ [false alarm], where some students came up to [a call box] and pushed the button and went running off,” McLaughlin said.

The bad news for security is that, although they have the entire incident recorded on camera, they were unable to identify the perpetrators. But there is good news from having the cameras properly positioned, too.

“Although we didn’t know who they were, we knew that it was a joke,” McLaughlin said.

Security was able to stand down from a possibly distracting false alarm, save an equipment roll and devote the department’s attention elsewhere.

“There are only cameras on two of the towers, and there will be one in our new sculpture garden,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a nice backup. We have cameras in other areas we can see these call boxes from, so they give us an ability to see areas of the buildings we haven’t been able to reach before.

“We think the call boxes look good, and they answer an area of concern, giving the sense that we’re aware of our neighborhood and we have these out here to help people. Our staff likes them,” McLaughlin said, “[although] they’re one more means to be pranked. But in my experience, that doesn’t happen as often as you may think. In a way, it helps make sure that they work!”

Call boxes meet many needs
Myers recalled that the MCAD installation was the first time the company had used that particular Talk-A-Phone, Niles, Ill., product line.

“We had looked at them for MCAD a few years ago but MCAD mothballed [the idea] at the time,” he said.

“They brought the idea back to life with their parking lot expansion project; it’s been a couple-year process. We had a factory rep bring one of their demo trucks on-site,” he said.

That demo, he felt, was of great value to the college in the selection process.

“We like this version of the Talk-A-Phone,” McLaughlin said, “because it is tall and looks more beefy. It is a definite presence, and it allows for the ‘Emergency’ wording, which is very clear.

“I think they answer an area of concern and give the impression that we’re aware of our neighborhood, and we have these out here to help people,” McLaughlin said. “I think they give a better idea of what their purpose is, especially with the light on top. They’re weather- and waterproof and designed to last. We haven’t had any problems with them. And we test them monthly.”

Collins Electrical bid and installed the system on a design/build basis, using technicians primarily from IBEW Local 110, along with some from Local 292 who pulled cable for the hardwired system, Myers said. In addition to the cabling, the company did all of the technical integration and behind-the-scenes programming.

“They made all of the bells and whistles work,” he said.

The result is an expanded presence that not only improves campus security, but further demonstrates the college’s commitment to its surrounding community, as Coogan pointed out. It makes the security department that much more effective, too, McLaughlin concluded.

STEVENS is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who covers various fields including construction, retailing and marketing. He can be reached at 612.871.3698. HARLER, a frequent contributor to SECURITY + LIFE SAFETY SYSTEMS, is based in Strongsville, Ohio. He can be reached at 440.238.4556 and [email protected].

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