The Three "D"s of Integration

Let’s name some hot topics in school security. Certainly “violence” is and will always be a hot topic. Whether considering local incidents, national tragedies, or increasingly more common technology-based bullying, people tend to allow fear and, sometimes morbid curiosity, to arouse high levels of interest. Of course, “funding” is always a hot topic. Grants, foundations, and the on-again-off-again flow of government monies quite often determine decisions regarding potential security initiatives. A more recent hot topic in the school security is “integration.” Just consult Google, and you will find that the term “security integration” brings approximately 19,700,000 results! Why such a popular topic? Integration seeks to bridge the gap between fire safety and security. Integration attempts to address years of the disconnected accumulation of products. Integration also holds the hope of making life less complicated for everyone involved with security.

How can a topic so broad and important be handled properly in the finite space of a magazine article? In order to keep things manageable, let’s make use of the literary tool of alliteration and tackle three areas of integration: definition, difficulty, and demand.    

What does integration mean? The definition I like best comes from Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary and reads, “the combining and coordinating of separate parts or elements into a unified whole.” The very concept of making things work together is appealing. After all, there is something special about watching individuals, no matter how talented, coordinate efforts to achieve team goals. That is exactly what integration attempts to do.

Let’s move from a general definition of integration to a more targeted definition of security integration. The security integrator strives to combine systems, information, procedures, and response into one seamless solution. That’s a pretty tall order! Obviously, obtaining this goal requires a collaborative effort. In the school arena, stakeholders who should be involved include, at minimum, the business manager, IT director, principal, facility manager, local emergency responders, and the security expert.

These stakeholders must take some time to evaluate existing security measures, develop an overall strategy, and agree on the steps necessary to achieve their goals. 

If you think that this mission sounds impossible, you are right on track with this article as we segue into our second “D” – difficulty. Let’s face it, collaboration is difficult. Who has the time or interest to participate in another committee or another project? Developing strategy is also difficult. Who has the foresight and resources to put together a Microsoft-style, long-range, solutions plan? And, agreement is difficult. In a day of specialization and budgetary turf wars, how can any real cooperation between stakeholders be realized?

Collaboration aside, there are a few more issues of difficulty to consider. Always a factor in school improvement endeavors, for example, is funding. Imagine possessing $10 to address a $50 project. Now, let’s move from imagination to illustration. Recently, Sales Consultant Nate Spitz, of Ingersoll Rand Security Technologies, conducted a preliminary equipment survey of an urban elementary school. While attempting to assess a hodgepodge of physical security devices that had been installed independently over the course of many years, the principal pulled him aside. Spitz recounted the message that the principal shared with him, “He told me that he had $30K in his budget and wanted to integrate everything together for that amount.” Never mind the fact that in order to reach the ideal solution, his school’s situation required the principal’s budget number to be multiplied by almost three. In the end, however, Spitz came through with good news, “Through technology and value engineering, a solution was engineered within budget in order to best meet the principal’s expectations.”

That illustration leads us to yet another difficulty — ignorance. The principal, through no real fault of his own, lacked knowledge. He did not know what kind of systems he had in place or if they could be improved. He just knew that his systems were probably outdated. To make matters worse, he was willing to settle for any solution at all, as long as it met his budget. In other words, if an integrated solution was not possible for $30K, some type of “Band-Aid” equipment purchase from one of Spitz’s competitors might have to do. Is there a remedy for this lack-of-knowledge approach?

One final difficulty that is often encountered stems from the fact that an integrated solution is almost always a customized solution. In other words, there is no cookie cutter integration solution in school security. Security systems account representative Randy Knepper, of Reliable Fire Equipment Company, asserts, “I have not encountered two identical applications of electronic security in 20 years of industry experience, so the term integration is absolutely client-driven at the individual application level.” As a result, integrators must possess more than simple sales skills, they must be able to offer tailored solutions. They must also be willing to forgo the quick sale in an effort to implement a long-term solution. It’s no surprise, then, that integrators often employ a team approach by including technical and installation specialists from the outset. 

If the very prospect of integration can be so complicated and require so much effort, one might begin to wonder if the pursuit is even worthwhile. Ah, but the real factor that drives the pursuit can be found in the Economics 101 term of demand. Many school security programs across the country are failing to provide an effective program of both proactive and response components. Perhaps your school has a state-of-the-art video surveillance system, but visitor management is ineffective. Maybe you recently installed an entry control system that uses employee fobs, but the person given oversight of the system has too many other duties to review audit reports or implement anything more than basic features. Schools that have implemented a balanced and comprehensive security program are difficult to find.

Can your school stakeholders identify with the following issues?
•    Administrators have inherited systems they neither purchased nor understand.
•    Those operating the existing security systems at the school level often experience frustration due to a lack of capabilities and coordination.
•    School boards sometimes call for “fix-it-now” urgency in the security improvement process as they feel the pressure to provide a safer learning environment.
Taken separately or all grouped together, these situations can create a tremendous interest in integrated solutions that can only be described as demand.

How can this demand be effectively addressed? Knepper describes his approach to the demand for integration, “I try to educate my individual clients about the trend towards managing and viewing electronic security applications utilizing network communications; both local (company intranet) and global (web-based high speed internet). Much of the "integration" we have seen comes at the software or browser level, but also can occur at the hardware level depending on the needs and wishes of the client.” This approach mirrors our aforementioned process of evaluating existing measures, developing an overall strategy, and agreeing on the steps necessary to achieve goals.

Demand is also fueled by the need for efficiency. High profile school security incidents have proven that contacting parents during emergencies via phone trees is inadequate, if not archaic. We have also learned that notifying school staff and faculty during emergencies primarily through desktop computer messaging is not sufficient. Even when considering routine school operations, it becomes obvious that personnel overseeing visitor management should also be utilizing video surveillance. Common sense tells us that these systems should not only be tied together, but should be working together. We are rapidly approaching a time where anything less than an integrated approach is simply unacceptable.

Today’s hot topics in school security will not be changing anytime soon. Unfortunately, school violence will continue to be front page news and, often times, too close to home. Funding issues and sources will also continue to hold our collective attention as they play a determining factor in initiatives we pursue. And the relative new-comer in the school security hot topics crowd, integration, will be heard from more and more. The need for a collaborative approach that unifies existing and prospective security elements cannot be denied. The time to begin the process of coordinating of security measures is now. The goal of combining systems, information, procedures, and response into one, seamless solution is within reach. In summary, the future of integrated solutions is not just bright, it is nothing less than vital.

Paul Timm, PSP (Physical Security Professional) is president of RETA Security, Inc. He can be reached at [email protected]