Security-System Basics

Security-System Basics
Understanding components, choosing a vendor and bringing it all together

By Joe Burt

In the course of planning the perfect self-storage facility, there is one component common to top-shelf projects: security. This can be as simple as perimeter fencing with an automatic gate-entry system, or as complex as individual door alarms, complete video surveillance and high-security areas in the corridors. These days, there are multiple providers for every security option; and when the dollar is dangled, everybody becomes an expert. There are endless waves of distributors and consultants just dying to get your business. The key is to figure out what is best for your particular situation and facility.

Too often, owners end up with a blueprint and security-system spec from their architect. On paper, it may seem like a great application with all the bells and whistles. But usually, there is no specific manufacturer identified; and the design actually requires that several different systems be married into one. The result is a security solution that is very expensive and probably will not perform reliably. The architect did not take time to learn the intricacies of an average self-storage operation and the wide variety of systems designed specifically for the industry. That is where a self-storage security provider can help.

Understanding the Basics

To understand the basics of a security system, you need to define its components. Security can be overwhelming if you look at the system as a whole. Breaking things down will help you better decide what might be right for your application. There are many features that help protect a facility, such as good lighting, proper fencing and even the right door latch and lock. These are all very important considerations; but for our purposes, we will focus on electronic elements. The important thing is to make a distinction between the two types of electronic security devicesactive and passive.

An active security device is one that makes things happen. A keypad that signals a gate to open, a card reader that releases a magnetic door latch, or an alarm point that activates a siren when violated are all examples of active security. These are the devices with which managers and customers are going to have constant contact, since they are your frontline components.

Passive security devices are those used retroactively to determine the facts when an incident occurs. The most common example is a video-surveillance camera. An activity log in your security-control software or panel can also be a passive tool. Both, while displaying realtime information, do not actively do anything with that data. Mining the information is purely up to the operator.

Lets take a look at how a typical security system would operate at a moderately secured facility: A tenant drives up to the gate and enters his personal code at the entry keypad. The keypad processes the code and, if it is valid, the gate begins to open. At this time, there are a few things happening of which the tenant may not be aware. First, the video camera in the office is taking and saving a snapshot of the person who has entered the code. Second, the facilitys security/ management software is creating a log of who is entering, complete with a date and time. Third, and perhaps most important, the alarm contact on the tenants unit is being disabled.

Once the gate is fully opened, the tenant drives through the facility to his unit. All the while, his activity is being recorded by the video-surveillance system, with cameras placed at strategic locations throughout the facility. When he arrives at his unit, he uses his key to unlock it and opens the door. The computer in the main office is notified the door has been opened and, because the tenant entered his code at the entry, the control equipment knows this is OK; it does not, therefore, initiate any alarm.

When the tenant has finished his business, he closes the unit door. This is reported to the office computer and recorded in the systems activity log. On his way to the exit, the tenants actions are again recorded via camera. He reaches the exit keypad and again enters his code. If the code is valid, he is allowed egress and the alarm contact on his unit door is rearmed.

Choosing a Vendor

Once you have an idea what your basic security system should include, it is time to seek out industry vendors who provide what you need. There are many resources that can point you in the right direction. Industry publications such as this one are a great place to begin gathering company names and learning about suppliers. Industry-specific buyers guides, published annually, identify the product offerings of each company as well as provide detailed contact information (some will even tell you a providers tenure in the self-storage arena). Finally, there are always informative workshops and seminars at industry tradeshows.

The task of choosing a provider should not be taken lightly. A wrong decision could result in big headaches and lost revenue down the line. An informed consumer is an empowered consumer. When you first make contact with a self-storage security provider, there are several things to which you should pay attention.

First, look at the companys initial sales package. Does it contain information about all the items in which you are interested? There is no sense wasting time on a company that only does part of what you need when several companies provide complete packages. Understanding each companys offerings as presented in its printed collaterals can help you pare down your list of providers to a manageable level. While going through the different packages, write down a running list of questions for each company. This will help you stay focused and give you a clearer sense of what you want in a system.

Second, pay attention to how the company responds to your requests for more detailed information. Is it willing to share things like installation drawings and system documentation? These days, reliable vendors will be more than happy to provide you their documents in either printed or electronic formats. This can help you learn how their products work and all of the different options fit together.

Finally, inquire whether the security vendor offers professional engineering services. It should be able to take a blueprint or CAD file and edit it to show important items, such as conduit runs, keypad and camera locations, focus directions and anything else pertinent to your facilitys needs.

Bringing It All Together

Once you understand the security options and features available, the next logical step is to write the check and move on, right? Not in this writers opinion. The next step is to decide who will install the system for you. This can be a bit tricky, but finding the right company to properly install and set up your system is almost as important as the system itself.

Whenever possible, find an installer in your geographic area. Finding one might be easier than you think. Most established security providers have a network of factory-authorized dealers of their equipment. These dealers are familiar with the manufacturers proprietary equipment and how some of the ancillary devices are integrated into the system.

Having a local resource is a real benefit during the installation process. Inevitable construction delays and material-delivery problems are much easier to handle if the authorized dealer is local. It can help manage the process and head off any potential holdups. Another hidden benefit is you have somebody to whom to turn after the installation is complete. If you purchase your equipment from an authorized dealer, it is reasonable to expect it will extend the manufacturers warranty to you and be able to stand behind the system you purchased.

Too often, I see facility owners purchase systems and arrange for nonauthorized installation staff. These folks are usually familiar enough with the system to make it work initially, but they have no vested interest in making sure things run well for years to come. They were just hired as installation labor. A few months after the property opens, a problem arises, and the owner is left holding the bag. If he should call on the installer to fix the problem, he can be charged for a follow-up service call. What might have seemed like a bargain in the beginning becomes a system that is more expensive than if it had been installed by a factory-authorized dealer.

Do not hesitate to contact the factory if there are any questions about what an authorized dealer proposes to you in terms of options and/or labor. Remember, your vendors first responsibility is to ensure you understand what you are getting in a system.

Cashing In on Your Investment

While gathering and assimilating information about your security system, start thinking about how you are going to market it. You may be thinking, Market my security system? You have planned and are spending good money for quality security. That should be used as a primary feature of your facility when appealing to prospective and existing tenants, one that can be an advantage over your competition.

For example, many facilities display a bank of monitors behind their rental counter. These show the views from the facilitys video-surveillance cameras. They are usually coupled with a color-coded map of the facility that clearly identifies the status of each unit, updated in real time. This gives prospective tenants a strong impression of a secure facility as soon as they walk through the door. Similarly, as a facility manager tours the property with prospects, he should point out the locations of security keypads and video cameras and explain how they work. Describing the individual door-alarm system is also a good selling point.

There are many facets to self-storage security. It is up to you to decide what is truly important to you and your tenants. Find the company that best meets your needs, remembering your security system is more than just a purchase. It is a partnership that should serve you, your facility and your customers for many years.

Joe Burt is the director of international sales for Sentinel Systems Corp. of Lakewood, Colo., which has manufactured self-storage software and security systems since 1975. Mr. Burt has worked at Sentinel since 1990. He can be reached at 800.456.9955 or via email at [email protected]. For more information, visit

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