Technology Impacts Parking Safety

Like other tragedies, last year’s events at Virginia Tech taught many valuable lessons, lessons that would have preferably and ideally been learned in other ways. While campus security has always been a concern for college and university administrators and facility and security personnel, the situation at Virginia Tech and other events around the country resulted in an even greater focus and commitment to making campuses as safe and secure as possible.

Parking has been and will continue to be one of the most challenging areas to address. Preventing criminal acts both within parking garages and on surface lots, and communicating with individuals using these facilities, requires diligence and the successful convergence of numerous design measures and technologies.

An article in last month’s issue of College Planning & Management focused on the principles of CPTED, crime prevention through environmental design, for parking lots and structures. In this article, we’ll focus on technology options for safety in campus parking facilities.

A New Focus

Rick Strawn, design principal and associate vice president for HNTB Corporation, a nationwide engineering, architecture, and planning firm, says that there has been a monumental change in parking design. “Security previously related to light levels, manned points of entry, closed-circuit televisions, and emergency call stations, among other measures. These components historically functioned independently and, in some cases, students may not have been very familiar with security measures, such as the locations of emergency call stations. The lessons learned from the tragedy at Virginia Tech have and will continue to impact the design of all types of campus facilities, including parking structures.”

The college and university security and facility personnel that Strawn works with are doing all that they can to maximize security. While no parking structure is crime proof, he says that they are becoming more time preventative. This means that help can be dispatched more quickly to an area when a criminal act occurs and that preventative security measures may make someone think twice, or it may take them longer to engage in inappropriate actions.

“Security is an important and extensive part of every design discussion that we have with our college and university clients,” Strawn said. “Existing and new technologies are making this effort much easier and more comprehensive. Integrating many of the new and existing systems within a parking facility with other campus resources is vital. Both top-down and bottom-up communication is required, and establishing security zones is necessary. The same attention given to aesthetics and long-term use must be given to parking security.”

While not a design issue, Strawn also notes that increasing security within a parking facility may not involve technology or any additional cost. Thoroughly educating users regarding security features may serve as a deterrent to a criminal as the individual, unfortunately, may be a student on the campus. If he believes he is likely to be caught he, again, may think twice about engaging in criminal activity.

The Role of Technology

Samuel Shanes, chairman and chief executive officer of Talk-A-Phone Co., agrees with Strawn’s comments regarding system integration, two-way communication, and establishing zones. “Requests for assistance were formerly user initiated or bottom-up,” he said. “Colleges and universities must be able to broadcast targeted alert messages to specific areas within a facility or campus zone when a dangerous event occurs. The approach must be comprehensive.”

Events requiring communication with multiple individuals relate to more than criminal activity. Shanes points to environmental situations — such as a major chemical spill or an accident — as information that dozens, perhaps hundreds, of individuals may need to receive. “When security personnel have information to communicate, they may need different messages for different zones or areas within the campus,” Shanes said. “Another challenge involves updating messages and reaching people regardless of their function on campus.”

Shanes points to the relatively inexpensive approach of having students, faculty, and staff register their cell phones to receive emergency notices. While this can be part of an institution’s approach, it is limited. “Visitors and those who have left their cell phones at home or who have them turned off obviously aren’t going to receive emergency messages. In addition, the same message may not be appropriate for all areas of the campus. Cell phone broadcasts alone are not the answer.”

Talk-A-Phone and other companies have and are developing technologies that enable security personnel to target their messages, to update them as easily and as frequently as required, and to deliver them to as wide an audience as possible. Shanes said that Internet Protocol (IP) backbones installed on college and university campuses and the continued broadening of bandwidths is facilitating advances in communication. One of the company’s products enables users to integrate technology to broadcast messages over an institution’s existing siren system. Information can be updated and changed based on evolving conditions and can be segmented by zones. Within a parking garage, all components — lights, horns, and speakers — can be managed to broadcast a different message to individual floors if required.

According to Shanes, advances in technology require security and parking professionals to work differently than before. He advocates establishing protocols for what is announced within a garage based on the situation, as well as extensively detailing how messages are updated and assistance provided. “Training is very important when it comes to technology, and the staff must think differently. Personnel must be able to quickly determine what they will say, the order of magnitude, and how messages will be updated.”

Points for Emergency Notification Requirements

Shanes advocates several key points when it comes to emergency notification requirements on a campus or within a parking facility. Keep in mind the following:

  • The system(s) must have both back-up power and phone capabilities in the event that a power outage or other damaging event occurs. Determine the location of the command center.
  • The system must be able to reach and inform a large population of students, faculty, and staff in numerous campus geographic zones.
  • The capability for delivering site-specific information is vital, as is the ability to quickly change and distribute messages.
  • Both current and potential future technologies and uses should be considered when selecting a system. Thoroughly evaluate IP installations.
  • The size of the parking structure and its design, including materials, must be thoroughly evaluated to determine their impact on the facility’s security technology, especially broadcast systems.
  • All system components within a facility, such as emergency call stations, must be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • System components should enable all users to see and talk in real time.
  • Think defensively!