Is a Security Control Center Right for You?

05/31/2011 | By Michael Fickes

Monitor security and fire suppression technologies from one location

A dedicated modern security control center can improve building security by enabling officers to respond faster to alarms and equip them with better information when handling an incident. A security control center also provides a selling point for potential tenants and enhances your relationship with existing ones. If you’re in the market for a control center, you should consider the costs of designing, building and operating a center from scratch. If that’s out of your budget, there are cost-control strategies and viable alternatives that can help bring a center within reach.

Building From Scratch
“You can build a good security center for most buildings for about $250,000,” says Don Greenwood, Sr., president of Houston-based Don Greenwood & Associates, Inc., a full-service security consultancy experienced in security center design.

If that sounds practical to you, remember that you also have to pay to staff a center around the clock with at least one officer per shift. “That’s the real cost driver,” Greenwood says. “If you contract with a guard service for one officer per shift, you’ll probably pay around $250,000 per year.”

You might also need two officers on the day shift, which would add approximately $85,000 to the annual tab.

The point is that the cost of designing and building a security control center is low compared to the annual labor expenses. Think of it also as a continuing expense that you may find difficult, if not impossible, to cut after you have marketed a certain level of security to tenants.

“A number of our clients have concluded that the long-term costs aren’t worth it,” Greenwood says. “There are alternatives. You can contract out to a qualified central station or hire a guard service that offers control center services. Be careful here, though. Only a handful of national services can monitor access control, video, and alarms effectively because of the staffing requirements. Most of these services only handle alarms.”

Combine Fire and Life Safety
Greenwood also notes that fire and life safety codes in some jurisdictions require a fire control center staffed around the clock. In such a case, you could consolidate the fire and security functions in one facility and amortize the cost.

There are several other ways to amortize the cost of a security control center. “A control center can do more than monitor security,” Greenwood says.

Suppose your building has a trash compactor used by the tenants. Your safety director probably trains new tenants in the safe operation of the compactor. You could train a camera on the compactor and use motion detection to activate the camera when someone uses the compactor. Every couple of days, the safety director could visit the control center, review the video, and determine which tenants need refresher training.

On any given day, contractors might be carrying out renovations in various parts of the building. You could put up temporary cameras to enable the project manager to keep an eye on all of the projects.

What problems beyond security could the watchful eye of a video camera solve for your building? The more good uses there are, the more justifiable the cost.

One Center, Multiple Locations
You can also build a control center that monitors security operations in other buildings. Suppose you own several properties. Today’s technologies enable you to monitor security alarms, cameras, and access control activity in all of your buildings from a single security control center.

A Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) with many office buildings might handle large numbers of buildings from a single large security control center.

Since 1995, Mike Fickes has contributed over 200 security articles to publications covering hotel, industrial, office, retail, critical infrastructure, and education. His interests include security management, policies, strategies, and technologies.

If you don’t have multiple buildings, Greenwood suggests forming a guard and monitoring station co-op with neighboring owners. You would share the cost of building, staffing, and operating a single center, including the patrolling guards required for each individual building in the co-op.

Some owners turn security centers into profit centers by providing monitoring services to tenants willing to pay higher rents. “If you want to do this, you have to qualify under a UL standard, which will raise the cost of the center,” Greenwood says. “Then again, tenants will pay for the service.”

Greenwood advises against over-selling your capabilities to tenants. “While you have to provide good security, be careful not to oversell by making promises you can’t keep,” he says. Problems can also arise if you don’t price the services so that the fees cover the costs and if a sour economy causes tenants to stop buying the security services.

If you decide to build a new security center, the design process begins with an analysis of your needs. This enables you to specify equipment, furnishings, and infrastructure the room will require and to estimate how much square footage to allocate for the project.

More on this next month in Part II: Designing a Dedicated Security Control Room.

Author’s note: Many thanks to ASIS, the association for security professions, for assisting in the research for this column.

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