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Questions to Consider Before Upgrading Technology in Justice Security Systems


Dayroom at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa

Today’s technology makes it possible for a smart phone to control the security automation system for a courthouse or correctional facility. But just because a technology is available doesn’t mean it’s a smart strategy.

Our Justice facility design teams help clients make decisions about automating a facility’s security system based on how well a technology will support and enhance the capabilities of the facility’s security staff. Solutions should save time and accelerate emergency response times.

It’s also important to consider what the risks will be if a technology doesn’t function as intended. For example, if the building management, fire alarm and security automation systems are integrated within the same user interface, a technology failure could take down all the building systems. That’s why it often makes sense to maintain each system on a separate platform—regardless of whether the technology allows them to be integrated.

Our engineers rely on proven technology solutions, such as dedicated video surveillance displays, rather than pop-up video windows and other trendy strategies that can be a distraction and easily result in unintended operations.


Central control room at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa

Security technology should be easy to process, too. We recently toured a facility that had five 46” monitors each showing 5 x 6 displays for a total of 30 cameras per display. That’s 150 different surveillance videos on those five monitors. We refer to that as video wallpaper. There is far too much information there for a human being to process in real time. The facility operator even remarked that it often takes a day or two for the staff to realize that one of those 150 cameras has failed. One solution to that scenario is “video follow” technology, which, like any good technology, helps operators become more efficient. When an event or alarm occurs, the camera with field-of-view of the event automatically displays it on a monitor so the operator can immediately see it and react. Without this integration, the operator would have to determine which camera had the event in its field of view, then manually select the camera to be displayed on a monitor. By that time, the event would likely be over.

When considering a potential technology, first ask yourself these five questions:

1. Is the technology necessary?
2. Is it proven?
3. Is it appropriate?
4. Is it cost effective?
5. Is there a simpler solution?

Answers to these questions help guide decision-making and ensure that designers are maintaining a balance between maximizing efficiencies and optimizing a facility’s physical safety and security.


Master control console at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa


Figuring out the technology needs of a courthouse or correctional facility is just one part of the equation. Determining who provides the technology service is the other.

In recent years the IT and security worlds have collided. This convergence drastically changed the way systems communicate with each other. As the IT influence assimilated more systems into Ethernet applications and appliances, the process of producing the system took on a virtual component. Today the virtual element of security systems has become a sort of “black box” that enables third-party integrators to cut corners and circumvent specifications. Some integrators even refuse to provide the source code and software keys to the facility owner, claiming that they’re protecting trade secrets or intellectual property.

The main issue revolves around the delivery and cost of service. If a facility’s security system is installed as proprietary, there is only one source of technical expertise capable of servicing it. And that installing firm can charge whatever service rates and fees they choose. In essence, the facility is held hostage to that single provider.

Some integrators charge an annual fee of 10 percent of the value of the security system for a maintenance contract. Others require a substantial fee simply for the privilege of having access to telephone support. One client told us they were asked to pay an annual fee of $10,500 for access to telephone support and another $600 per hour for the actual support.

HOK’s design teams protect clients from these binding scenarios by helping them evaluate and select potential security system integrators. We conduct independent research and check references to ensure that a company is fully qualified and doesn’t present any risks to a project’s successful completion or operations.

During a project, we require the integrator to deliver what was in the specifications. We also mandate that the software be audited by the developer before anything is installed. This audit confirms that the software was properly developed and is built on an open architecture platform so it can be maintained and serviced by a third party.

Ultimately, the design of justice facilities requires a truly integrated approach to technology, with a focus on meeting and exceeding our clients’ needs and ensuring that buildings function as intended.

timothysmithsq100Based in Dallas, Timothy Smith, LEED GA, RCDD, RTPM, is HOK’s senior security and electronics systems specialist. More information: hok.com/engineering