Security in Automated Buildings

07/01/2009 | By Michael Fickes

The benefits of integrating building-automation systems are many, but did you know that integrated building automation also offers security benefits?

Building automation works like this: At 6 p.m. every weekday (or earlier or later, depending on tenant preferences), a building-automation system will shut a building down, turning off the lights, setting the temperature up in the summer or down in the winter, and locking the doors. If a few employees return after dinner to put in a few more hours, they’ll card in at the front door, and the integrated building system will turn on the lights and the HVAC in their offices – but nowhere else.

In terms of the security benefits: Suppose a criminal forces an exterior door. An integrated building-automation system would pan a security camera to the door, turn on the lights to ensure a good view of the intruder, lock interior doors as necessary, and notify the security staff.

Integrations like this are being done now. “Is it possible? Yes, absolutely,” says Charles LeBlanc, a managing associate with Kroll Security Group in Bastrop, TX. “Right now, however, it can come with a lot of heartache. Getting the players – the security system, the fire-alarm system, the elevators, the lighting, the HVAC system, and other building systems – to work together is difficult.”

How difficult can it be? Buildings throughout Europe and Asia – particularly Asia – make use of integrated building systems.

“True,” says LeBlanc. “But, those markets are different from the United States. In Asia, for example, security, fire alarm, lighting, and HVAC manufacturers focus on designing systems for ease of integration. But, U.S. manufacturers market systems by designing and promoting sophisticated features.”

LeBlanc went on to note that sophisticated features in a security system, for example, require complex technology that cannot easily communicate with the different complex technology powering the sophisticated features in the HVAC system.

Don’t misunderstand: U.S. building systems can be integrated to communicate with each other and automate building operations. It can be done, and it is being done. It remains difficult, however.

By comparison, the technological concept that makes it possible to integrate different systems is simple. Each building system is given a software agent or a hardware device that figuratively reads all of the transactions being carried by its particular system.

For instance, an integrated access-control system contains a reader. As people arrive at a building and card in, the reader makes note of who comes in and at what time. Programming tells the reader to look for transactions like an employee carding in after 6 p.m. When that happens, the programming tells the HVAC and lighting systems to check a main database for the location of the person’s office and to turn on the lights and the heating or cooling as necessary.

Controlling the lighting and heating with the help of the security system can control utility costs in a building.

The same concept helps make a building more secure. Suppose a video camera watching a door in the building sees two people enter a door at the same time. The reader in the video system would note the time of day and notify the access-control system of a possible tailgating infraction. The access-control reader would see the notification and check the log to find out how many people carded in at the specified door at the specified time. If two people carded in, the system would return to monitoring.

But, if just one person carded in, the access-control system would tell the video system to save the video and send it to security along with a message about a tailgating infraction.

Integrated building systems give rise to many possibilities. More and more consulting businesses, for instance, use a concept called hoteling, where the company leases only enough space to accommodate the consultants working in the office. Those working on the road don’t need an office. As a result, consultants work in different offices every time they return home. Integrated building systems can be programmed to prepare an office for a returning consultant by turning on the HVAC and lighting systems, programming the consultant’s phone number into the office, and enabling the network connection to access the consultant’s data.

A plain English software language called extensible markup language (XML) and hardware/software combinations called application programming interfaces (APIs) and a software development kit (SDKs) carry out these reading and communicating tasks.

How long will it take for integration to become easily available? “Not too horribly long,” LeBlanc says. “More and more users are demanding integration. A number of security and building-system contractors have begun to specialize in integration. It’s coming soon.”

Michael Fickes is a freelance writer and owner of Fickes & Co. Inc., a Baltimore publishing firm with experience in the security industry.

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