June 1, 2003

10 Min Read
Security Works in an Unwired World

Cartoon detective Dick Tracy relied on instantaneous wireless communication to stay in touch with headquarters in his endeavors to thwart criminals. Chester Gould, the cartoon's creator, had a penchant for innovative crime-fighting tools, the most famous of which was Tracy's wrist radio that later became a two-way TV, and still later a miniature computer. Not bad for a detective who got his start in 1931!

Fast forward to the year 2002 at the Self Storage Association annual fall conference in Las Vegas. Watch as management consultant Paul Darden whips a Compaq Computers iPaq out of his pocket and, with a few key clicks, focuses in on surveillance cameras showing live views of one of his managed stores in Fort Worth, Texas.

"It has come in handy already," says Darden, speaking of his Bluetooth cellular-telephone dial-up connection. "A couple of times we needed to confirm a problem on site, one of which was a reported fire. We were able to use the wireless connection to check out the situation right away by viewing our cameras in real time."

Security solutions have evolved to sophisticated levels for early adopters, those who are willing to step out and try new ways to manage day-to-day operations. Nonwired security tools can help, and they come in an interesting variety--most at surprisingly low costs. Multipoint alarm systems for individual units and pedestrian doors, surveillance cameras, audio channels and data networks can take advantage of newer uses of wireless technology to help owners and managers apply security and operations controls.

Man relies on variations of a few simple basics to move information from one place to another. We simply move more now than we ever have, and the demand continues to grow. You speak. Your neighbor listens. That's communication. However, add enough distance, and no matter how loudly you scream, your neighbor won't hear you. That is why we add a "carrier" to the mix. Technically, we transform speech or other data into a form of intelligence that can be carried over a medium such as a radiomagnetic wave.

Satellites, cell phones, boom boxes and hundreds of other devices share the methodology. A spectrum of radiowave frequencies, regulated in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission and governed by international treaties and standards, offers distinct opportunities to have a transmitter sending an intelligent signal to a matching receiver for decoding. Regulation guiding the use of the various frequencies, and controls on the maximum transmission power allowed for each, minimizes signal interference. That's why your favorite FM radio station fades as you drive from your hometown. Similarly, that's why you see so many cell towers dotting the landscape, with each signal limited by regulations on power output and signal strength.

Industry Solutions

A quick survey of the self-storage industry shows manufacturers continuously innovate systems to take full advantage of wireless technologies. Given the imposed limitations of the low-power signals available for general use, many devices have been developed to provide a variety of new security tools. For the owner of a typical self-storage business, wireless solutions offer new ways to solve old problems. In many cases, making the move to eliminate wiring can save money, gain efficiency and boost overall effectiveness of installed security systems.

As a prime example, wireless door alarms have gradually been gaining favor with owners and managers in the industry. According to industry and customer surveys, a facility's ability to protect individual units ranks high as a determining factor in the choice of where to store for prospective tenants. Using a wireless instead of a hardwired alarm system eliminates much of the hassle of pulling vast amounts of wire through a facility, significantly shortens the installation time, and provides an easy-to-maintain completed system.

The current equipment configuration offered by suppliers to the self-storage industry includes a remote transmitter case not much larger than a candy bar, a receiver about the size of a bedside clock radio, and usually one or more repeaters that receive and retransmit the low power signals from the hundreds of transmitters at each door.

"Taking the mystery out of the transmitters is not that difficult," says Jon Loftin, vice president and systems engineer for Digitech International, a security vendor to the self-storage industry. "Each transmitter case contains a circuit board containing a low-power transmitter, a battery for power, one or more switches, and a small internal antenna. Typically, the case attaches to the doorframe and a companion magnet attaches to the door curtain. Any attempt to open the door activates the magnetically controlled primary switch. If the unit has been properly disarmed by the entry of a PIN code, the software reports an event called 'Door Open.' Of course, if the proper PIN code has not been entered to disarm the unit, an alarm condition exists."

Loftin goes on to explain that the low-power transmitters are capable of sending a signal up to several hundred feet, depending on the surrounding environment. Operating in a frequency range similar to that of portable telephones, these low-power systems can actually benefit by using the metal building construction to help bounce signals along to the receiver. He cautions that the actual construction materials and the physical layout of the facility will determine the number of repeater devices necessary to have the system operate at peak efficiency.

In planning for implementation as a part of new construction, or as a retrofit for existing facilities, experts agree an onsite survey by a qualified technician will help define the system and an estimate of the costs involved. Given the variables that must be considered for each installation, the cost quoted is in a range that starts around $65 per door and can go as high as $85 or $90. Speaking generally, owners find the cost reasonable, considering that in most cases they will enjoy an increased competitiveness and marketability.

Hardwired vs. Wireless

Installation offers flexibility in a couple of ways. With all the popular systems, wireless alarms can easily mix to expand or supplement existing hardwired systems. In addition, the ease of installation makes adding wireless door alarms appropriate in phases of progressive construction or as a one-time build out. One determining factor among early adopters of the wireless-alarm technology seems to be the perception that the systems offer a high degree of maintainability.

"Owners have been concerned about the battery life and cost of replacements," says Loftin. "First, battery technology has improved greatly. The lithium-type batteries available now offer an average life of 10 years or more. When the time comes, replacement is a simple plug-in anyone can do; and since the transmitters are external to the unit, they are easy to get to and work with."

Hardwired or wireless? The most popular question among owners must be answered simply by saying, "It depends." The answer may revolve around the ultimate cost for each, but the cost may be determined by the nature of the proposed installation site itself. Loftin says, "The best way to know is to get an expert involved in your planning process. Evaluate the requirements for each solution, and the answer should pop out of those discussions and calculations." Rather than cut up concrete and asphalt to bury wiring, many owners of existing facilities dream of using wireless video signals to add an up-to-date surveillance system.

"Anything can be done if you want to bounce signals off a satellite, but that becomes extremely expensive," says Mark Glanz of Glanz Technologies Inc., a Miami-based supplier of security and video systems. "Video signals contain so much more intelligence than simple radio signals, it changes the requirements for the transmitters and receivers. Getting a clean signal from one place to another can be quite restrictive, but we can do it successfully in most situations."

Glanz points out most video-transmission systems operate at low power in frequency ranges shared by other business and personal users--the same frequency bands as cell phones, for example. Generally, the systems can operate only across short distances and require absolute line-of-sight communication from a transmitting to a receiving antenna. More expensive options are available to provide a "private" frequency or to use ultra-high frequency equipment in ranges similar to radar. "Most owners in self-storage aren't interested in getting into that level of sophistication and expense, but it's out there for them to consider," Glanz says.

"Given the right situation, wireless video can be very cost-effective and a great way to add camera views that would otherwise not be practical," comments Frank Fletcher of Access Controls, a Southern California security provider. "While it is true the signals are subject to some interference, the quality provided by the new generation of equipment can be just as spectacular as any other camera setup."

In consideration of an overall security plan, evaluations include systems that can put good use to other wireless devices. First-stage security calls for intrusion systems that let you know when spaces are violated. Motion sensors, glass-break sensors and similar devices work well as wired systems and equally as well when employing wireless counterparts.


Especially for larger facilities, adequate on-site communications adds significantly to the feeling of well-being for customers and personnel. Many owners employ wireless telephones as a way to keep tenants and customer-service staff in touch. When building environments of too much distance, or too much concrete and steel, interfere with off-the-shelf portable phones, models are available with external antennas capable of transmitting for thousands of yards, even miles. Strategically placed call buttons, integrated to a telephone switching device or autodial assembly, can keep a customer and manager only a key press apart. With the proper wireless gear, the manager becomes mobile and is no longer tied to the counter in the office.

In like measure, the facility itself may be freed from a wire connection, given the right circumstances. Billy Briggs of United Fence and Construction in Little Rock, Ark., recently finished installation of an access-control system with a few new wireless wrinkles. An owner purchased an older, smaller site across the street. For the sake of convenience, rather than connecting a remote site to the telephone line, the choice was made to send signals across the busy street via a wireless modem. The choice effectively created an expansion to the existing system rather than the addition of a second remote system.

In addition, in this particular location, part of the operation accommodates recurring truck traffic throughout the day. To make it easy on the drivers, each has been issued a coded transmitter that works similarly to a garage-door opener. As they approach the gate, a single click of the button sends a signal to the system, and if the code checks as valid, the gate-open signal is returned to the operator. The owner can easily supply the trucking company with a complete record of the drivers' activities through the gate just as he would with a wired system.

Darden says, "We have to be careful. These devices help us create that perception of high security tenants and prospects like to see, but when we get too many wireless devices going on the same site, we can create our own opportunities for interference in the signals. Some of it is exciting technology though."

Wireless signals bring new solutions, but can also cause fresh frustrations. The key is understanding the limitations of the systems involved and working within those restrictions. In such cases, successful, efficient, effective results can add greatly to your day-to-day operations and security protection. It is very much like the now-famous Verizon commercials, "Can you hear me now?" The answer is, "Yes!"

Steve Cooper is marketing director for Digitech International Inc., a supplier of crime-proofing access-control and security systems manufactured for the self-storage industry. For more information, call 800.523.9504; www.digitech-intl.com.

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