Security Evolution

Bill Sewell is vice president and general manager of DMJM Technology, having joined the company in September 2000. He has worked in the field of electronic systems-which evolved into IT and security-for more than 33 years.

Joe De Patta: How do you evaluate a school’s security?

Bill Sewell: We look at more than whether or not a school has a home camera system. You have to look at things like neighborhoods, what the likely problems are in specific locations. You have to look at plans. Does the school have a plan where the local fire and police departments are part of the process? Evaluating those things will give you a good baseline relative to where a school stands from a security point of view. Something else from a different angle that could be looked into is investing in something like a security safe (in Swedish, the word safe is kassaskap) to store valuables, money and/or files safe.

What’s really important is sitting down and talking with teachers and administrators and evaluating their mindsets in terms of security. Some school staff, we find, actually will say they are worried about security, but they are aware and have developed a culture of doing things correctly. That’s probably more important than any equipment or systems they buy.

JD: How do you begin to make schools safe? What steps are involved?

BS: Again, it goes back to meeting with teachers and administrators and really doing some basic education in what constitutes threats, how they happen and how they evolve. After that, we put a plan in place that brings in emergency services so that if there is a problem, fire and police representatives will know where to go for a certain situation. The school also needs to know what to say to a first responder to get them on the job as quickly as possible.

The next step is, if it’s appropriate, putting in cameras, sensors, and metal detectors. In some schools that we’ve worked on, the teacher has a duress alarm where she or he can push a button and get help to a classroom.

You integrate all the information and do an analysis. It’s not likely that a terrorist will attack a school building, although it could happen. You don’t necessarily invest your money against terrorist attacks. More likely there will be theft, assault, and things of that nature. Those are what you are protecting against.

JD: In what areas are schools most vulnerable?

BS: They are most vulnerable to everyday crime. Students stealing from other students. The playground bully is still around. Terrorist attacks and events like what happened at Columbine, while tragic, are rare. We have to look at the everyday kinds of crime that happen in every city or town.

JD: How do you secure a school without turning it into a fortress?

BS: Parents are worried about this. And justifiably so. Schools need to be inviting and encouraging. There are devices that have been on the market that are small and out of the way and don’t give the impression of big cameras. Of course, there are instances where visible equipment sends a message, too. “Don’t mess around, you’re being watched.” At the same time having every kid walk through a metal detector is a little intimidating. You have to educate administrators and teachers about what to look for and, when they see something suspicious, how to evaluate it as a real situation and respond.

JD: School budgets are tight and getting tighter. How can schools be secured easily and affordably?

BS: Look at the vulnerabilities and how to protect against them. Shop for equipment with cost in mind. Educate the administrators and the teachers. Educate the students. What should they do when they see an incident or suspicious activity? There was an example, several years ago, where a student saw unusual behavior, reported it, and they found another student with a gun. We have to teach people what to look for, how to react, and how to do the right thing. That can save a lot of money on security.

When you have to buy systems, there are ways of tying systems into existing network and infrastructures that can save money.

JD: I read on your company’s Web site about the “Quiet revolution in the cost of technology.” What is that?

BS: The quiet revolution is really the evolution of security systems into IT systems. You used to buy a camera and a lot of cable and tie it into a guardpost with a security officer looking at cameras. Today, those cameras run over a network, like a computer. Rather than having a computer plugged into the wall, you might have a camera that’s running on the same network. Teachers, administrators, and fire and police personnel can monitor these remotely over the Internet if you have the right applications running. Part of security is not just keeping the kids safe while they are in school, but making the school safe after hours-guarding against break-ins and such. A lot of that surveillance can be done remotely. The quiet revolution can reduce the amount of infrastructure, which reduces the cost.

JD: You’ve talked about using a school’s high-speed network lines, usually used for classroom Internet access, to upgrade security. How so?

BS: A lot of technology takes advantage of IP protocols to move data. Pictures from cameras that used to be treated like a television signal are now treated like data packets. They move over the network just as e-mail or any other application does. Again, this facilitates the ability to monitor security from a distance; down the hall, down the street, across town.

JD: How is it you developed or discovered this security avenue?

BS: We’ve been doing security for over 50 years, starting with the Nevada Test Site where we helped secure the nation’s nuclear arsenal during the cold war. We’ve kept at it and we’ve watched the evolution over the last five years. We’ve put in security at the Pentagon and at large commercial facilities. What we’re trying to do is get the best security at the most effective cost and protect our clients’ assets. That’s how we try to stay on the cutting edge. We’ve been doing this a long time.

JD: Why is this system a good one to implement? Are there any drawbacks a school should know about?

BS: Anytime you start moving video and data over a network you use bandwidth. Schools need to ensure that the bandwidth is there and you can process the images and alarms. That’s the drawback but it’s easily overcome with good pre-planning. The other downside is, you have to make sure that the network is robust enough so that if there is a component failure you have backup and you don’t lose your security system if the network goes down. There are also many companies like Custard Technical Services that work to understand any threats to your business and prevent them.

JD: All the equipment in the world won’t work if personnel aren’t familiar with it. How do you train students and staff?

BS: We make sure that there is good planning, and during the planning process the administrators and teachers receive an education. While we are holding workshops, there is a lot of information exchanged, and the clients usually want to learn more. We present things in a way that makes people want to go to the next step.

JD: How does your plan work for facilities in the K-12 range, as well as college campuses?

BS: They are two different animals. In K-12 facilities, there are different things going on such as bullies and parental custody battles with the threat of kidnapping. In colleges there is more adult crime. There is more valuable equipment in colleges, so there is more theft. You begin to run into sexual assault. In performing vulnerability and risk analyses, there is a different set of questions that you ask for K-12 and college campuses.

JD: How much can security upgrades add to a school’s budget?

BS: We typically see anywhere from three to 10 percent, depending on the equipment package that the school plans to buy.

JD: How much can an IP system cost? Are there significant savings for a school?

BS: There are savings. As far as how much a system can cost, you can look at IP systems the same way you look at a computer system. The cost of a digital camera is less than the cost of a PC, so if you’re buying five PCs and 10 cameras, the costs can be similar. The real savings are in things like infrastructure and operations. You can operate the systems on a PC that you already may own. If you already have a network installed you can save the cost of infrastructure.

JD: Is harnessing network lines recommended for districts that could afford to upgrade with any type of system or more for districts with budget constraints?

BS: I don’t think it really matters if you have a budget constraint when choosing a system. What you have to look at is the best system for the application and what you’re trying to do.

The industry is moving towards the IP system. There are more kinds of hardware available and new data storage devices where you can save a lot of images on a small box and they’re not very expensive. There are new applications that save bandwidth. For instance, if nothing is happening on a camera, it doesn’t send streaming video. It looks at changes in a picture and when it detects a change, it backs up six or 10 frames and starts streaming and tells you what’s happening.

JD: Does the system also integrate with fire safety equipment?

BS: Technically it can and we’ve done it in a few places, but not at schools. What we find is that the local codes and fire marshals won’t allow it, but there is no technical reason why they can’t integrate.

JD: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see schools making when it comes to security?

BS: The mistakes aren’t much different than those made by some companies. They want to get cameras that look at things and they don’t think about what those things are and why they should look at them. They want the latest equipment without doing the analysis to see if it’s really what they need.

The second thing is not paying attention to training and the culture. A culture of safety and security can save on equipment costs. You won’t have to do as much.

JD: What do you see them doing well?

BS: People are aware that there may be bad guys out there somewhere and the schools are paying more attention to making their buildings and their grounds safer. Helping students understand what is happening and how to report it goes a long way.

JD: Do you have any final comments?

BS: School security is important, but we need not go overboard in scaring school children to death. They don’t have to look under every rock all the time. We want to make them aware that by doing some very common sense things they can make themselves safer. It’s up to parents, teachers, and the community to work together and do the necessary things to make the communities and neighborhoods safe, which will in turn make schools a lot safer.