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Dealer/installer brings cutting-edge system to Niagara College

An Ontario post-secondary institution where security was practically an afterthought has, in a few short years, become a showcase of ingenuity.


August 4, 2010
By Neil Sutton

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Niagara College, which has campuses in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Welland, was using isolated analogue cameras that weren’t actively monitored. The college didn’t have a dedicated security director to speak of, either.

But everything changed following a security incident that resulted in a lockdown and a manhunt.

An apparently impaired police foundation student dropped a replica gun which was tucked into his waistband, as he was getting off a bus on campus. The incident was reported by student witnesses, and the college immediately went into lockdown mode. Niagara Police were also called onto the scene.

It took some time to locate the individual, however, due to the vagueness of the description that was circulated: a six-foot white male carrying a backpack. Eventually, the person was literally caught napping — he was discovered asleep on a bench. And lucky for him that he was, says John Levay, director of Information Technology Services for Niagara College. Had he been awake and brandishing a weapon, police could easily have shot and killed him.

The incident sparked an immediate review of security procedures on campus — a process that involved Human Resources, Health and Safety, Facilities Management Services and the IT department.

An action plan was developed, and a Request For Proposal was issued in 2007 to install IP-based cameras and an access control system.

The contract was won by Pinder’s Security Products, a St. Catherines, Ont.-based dealer and installer familiar with the education market. Having worked with McMaster, Queens and Guelph universities, the company was in a position to understand Niagara College’s requirements, says Brandon Pinder.

“We have a tendency to target the universities and the colleges a lot heavier than anybody else in our industry, and we’ve had very, very good success with that. We know the politics that are involved (in education), we know how they have to operate and what rules they have to follow,” he says.

In Niagara’s case, they were starting with bare bones.



“They had nothing. They had maybe one DVR with a total of under 20 cameras,” he says. “This was a little bit of a unique situation. This was essentially a brand new install. They took a leap and bound in security. For one reason or another, they moved their priorities so security was high on the list.”

“The solution we ended up going with was the Genetec solution,” says Pinder. “Genetec has three platforms that they currently offer — a video access control and a licence plate recognition platform. Along with Genetec, we also partnered up with Axis, which provided all the cameras.”

Pinder’s worked closely with Levay and his IT team to roll out the cameras and access control system. Pinder suggested that Genetec was the appropriate platform since it’s an open architecture system. “The hardware restrictions are very, very minimal. One of the big things with Genetec, it doesn’t matter whether you’re using Dell or HP (equipment), we can utilize it. We basically take the cameras and point them to whatever storage array they have set up.”

Open architecture is key to the success of Niagara’s deployment, says Levay. Operating everything on an IP network gives the security infrastructure a flexibility it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Prior to the upgrade, “we had individual old analogue cameras,” explains Levay. “They were not digital. They were independent systems that were tied into individual departments, so there was no cohesive system tied back to one location. If you did have a problem in any one location, you had to look at the tapes of the incident and play those back. In many cases, they weren’t being actively monitored in any way.”

The advantages of IP are legion, says Levay. Prior to the install, Niagara’s cameras were isolated and sluggish; now they are networked and freely accessible from almost any location. Niagara College operates two campuses — one in Welland and one in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Both can effectively communicate and share video data over the network.

“We wanted to have a network-based camera system that would allow for expandability and be able to be viewed across both campuses and data-collected in one location that also wouldn’t kill our network. Those were our big, fundamental building blocks,” he says.

Niagara College hired manager of campus security services John Trevisonn — the first person to hold such a title at the college — in 2009. Trevisonn, formerly a security administrator at Brock University and a 32-year veteran of the Niagara police force, worked with IT services and the college’s facilities management department to draft more comprehensive security policies, like lockdown procedures. Trevisionn also advised on camera placement.



There are PTZ cameras around the perimeter of the institution, as well as cameras covering entrances and exits, hallways, any area deemed high security/high risk (like computer labs containing expensive equipment) and areas where there may have been security incidents in the past.

Each campus is equipped with three servers for video storage; each server can handle about 150 cameras. If it becomes necessary, another server can be added to the mix to share the load.

Pinder estimates the initial project took about three months to complete “from the time we got the go ahead to the time the product was ordered to the time that the IT got their servers in place.

“We still work with them — three cameras here, two cameras there, 10 here. If they have new buildings going up, we work with them to make sure the cameras get specified in the right location, along with the right equipment.”

Under the direction of Levay and Trevisonn, Niagara College has significantly expanded the scope of what was laid out in the original contract. For example, Niagara has developed a mass notification system by using video screens in campus common areas.

The screens can be used to display messages from official campus sources, like the student union. They are generally used for informational purposes during the school year to provide students and faculty with updates. But in the event of a security situation, the security department can override the system.

“Security at either one of the campuses can take over the signage at the push of a button,” says Levay. “It will switch over and say we’re in lockdown. They can flash up any message that we want to have out there. Because it’s IP-based, you can control it from either institution, as long as you have the proper authorization. The same thing with the phone system for paging; it can happen from a multitude of phones from each one of the campuses.”

The system was programmed by two third-year college students, who completed the work as part of their graduating thesis. They were hired on by the college after graduation to implement the design in order to give them real-world skills, says Levay.

Another project currently under way is tying the alarm system into a recently acquired Motorola radio system being used by the security department.

“These radios have the capability where we can actually have alarms go through them,” says Trevisonn. The first two alarms are being installed at the college’s wine education centre, and the wireless architecture is being set up by Pinder’s and St. Catharines-based wireless solutions provider Talk Wireless.



“We have both motion detectors and door contacts at our wine education centre,” explains Levay. “There still is copper going back to a network collecting device, but it is an IP-based device, and depending on what gets closed, it sends a message back to a centralized unit.

“That unit sits in our security offices, so over the network it basically sends an alarm and tells you which pair of contacts has been closed. That then triggers an alarm system that will page our digital radios or make a phone call or send an email. It will do whatever you need it to do.”

Levay’s vision is to tie more and more functionality into the network, making it easy to control different campus functions over IP — everything from alarm systems to light switches. It’s just a matter of amassing all the necessary funding to make it possible.

He estimates the cost of the initial rollout for the phone system, network upgrades and some enterprise software was about $600,000. But that was three years ago, when large-scale IP security rollouts where considerably rarer than they are today. If he were to take on the same project again, the cost could easily reach $1 million.

“I very much doubt it will be possible to come up with the same budget again,” he says.

But the work done so far as been a tremendous boon to Niagara College, he says. The college has gone from a security backwater to a cutting-edge facility that may be used as the model for other post-secondary institutions. “We’re right up there with the bigger colleges and universities.”

More importantly, everyone on campus feels safe, says Levay. “Faculty, staff and students realize we are putting our efforts and funds into making this a safer place for them. Every time they see new equipment going in, they talk about feeling safer.”

 


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