Elevator Security Part I: Access Control

Feb. 28, 2011
Elevators take people to and from every floor in a high-rise building, but how do you control who gets on the elevators? Tracking only visitors is no longer sufficient. Many security directors are electing to monitor elevator access for all building occupants with optical turnstiles, proximity cards, and video surveillance.

In the past decade, elevator access control has risen to a new level. Owners and managers used to station security officers in lobbies to sign visitors in and out. After 9/11, many buildings elected to monitor elevator access for all building occupants. Technology like optical turnstiles, proximity cards, and video surveillance can ensure only authorized individuals board your elevators.   

Beef Up Elevator Security
When the Willis Tower in Chicago redid its security plan to control access to the main lobby and elevators, it was a major undertaking. Approximately 13,000 people use the tower’s 104 elevators 30,000 to 40,000 times per day. Another 1,000 visitors enter the building daily.

Keith Kambic, director of security and life safety with U.S. Equities Asset Management, which manages Willis Tower, literally closed the lobby to anyone without an authorization to be there. The policy is that no one, not even a visitor, gets into an elevator without presenting a proximity access card to a turnstile.

To monitor elevator traffic, Kambic installed optical turnstiles equipped with proximity card readers, video cameras to watch the turnstile transactions, and an online visitor management system.

A stand of 8 optical turnstiles were placed in front of each of the 4 elevator banks. The 32 turnstiles ensure traffic moves briskly. Two security officers are also stationed in the lobby to assist with any card troubles and monitor for additional problems.  

Kambic’s security group issues cards to everyone working in the building. Some tenants have their own access control systems and issue additional cards to employees. Kambic has configured the building system to recognize those cards to eliminate multiple access cards.

Visitors must card in too. “Most Class-A high rise buildings are moving to online visitor management systems,” Kambic says. “We want tenants to pre-register visitors by logging into the system and arranging for passes — before they arrive.”

When visitors arrive, continues Kambic, they swipe their driver’s licenses through a reader and receive badges with barcodes. To gain access to the elevators, they present their badges to barcode readers built into several of the turnstiles.

Eliminate Tailgaters
In addition to elevator and lobby management, a messenger center was added to a separate entrance to reroute delivery services. “Delivery people drop off at the message center,” Kambic says. “We hired a bonded company that does background checks on employees to make deliveries inside the building.”

These security precautions make it difficult, but not impossible, for an unauthorized person to board an elevator. Security officers in the lobby and the video cameras that back them up observe a low but still objectionable level of tailgating — unauthorized people slipping through turnstiles behind an authorized card user.

To curb this potential breach, Kambric began charging fees to tenants whose employees let tailgaters through the lobby turnstiles. Security officers investigate tailgating when they see it, either in person or while reviewing video. By matching the access control records with time-stamped video, they can find the name of the person who permitted someone to piggyback.

Security notifies the tenant about the employee and sends an invoice with a fee. “The tenant usually speaks to the employee about the incident,” Kambic says. “After two months, we’ve seen a decrease in tailgating. So it’s working.”

Options for Any Building
Not every building needs to control access to its elevators as securely as Willis Tower. Most facilities will benefit by having security officers patrol the lobbies. If possible, an officer should be in the lobby most of the day. Video cameras with signs announcing their presence can also support the officers.

Some buildings have video cameras inside the elevators. “In new construction, this is always discussed,” says James Holden, senior sales executive in Security Solutions with Buffalo Grove, IL-based Siemens Industry. “The time to install cameras is during construction because of the cabling requirements. But we’ve also done retro-fits with wireless cameras.”

While it is possible to put card readers inside the elevators and restrict access to certain floors, security professionals say it is too easy for tailgaters to beat the system. “Someone can stay in the car and wait for a person with a card for a certain floor,” cautions Geoff Craighead, CPP, vice president of Santa Ana, CA-based Universal Protection Service.

Not many buildings need more security than what Willis Tower provides for its elevator core. “However, there are additional steps that some security directors might want to take,” Kambic says. “There is a technology that uses optical beams to read cards as people walk into the elevator. The card will contain an authorization for a certain floor. If you get off the elevator at a different floor, the system will alarm. Combining the optical beam with optical turnstiles is maximum security.”

Elevator and lobby security is a proactive approach that curbs unauthorized access to your building. Look for next month’s newsletter, “Elevator Security Part II: Smarter, Safer Elevators.”

Since 1995, Mike Fickes has contributed more than 200 articles about security to publications covering critical infrastructure, hotels, manufacturing plants, office buildings, retail shopping centers, schools and universities. His interests include security management, policies, procedures, strategies and technologies.

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