THE MAGAZINE

Access Emergency

By Tom Chronister, CPP

Emergency Access System Types

There are eight basic methodologies that emergency personnel can employ to gain entry into gated areas. Each has its own strengths and drawbacks. The categories are:

  • Keypads
  • Third Party
  • Locks
  • Cards
  • Light
  • Sound
  • Radio Signals, and
  • Forced Entry

Keypads. Some gates come with combination locks or keypads that accept a numerical pass code assigned to emergency crews. The code is entered by hand and entry is made.

Many keypad systems lack any real audit control as all emergency crews typically use only one code collectively. It is not uncommon for officers to find themselves completely locked out of a call for service when the code changes and no one bothers to inform the police department about it. There is usually some delay encountered in getting to the keypad and inputting the proper combination.

If your communications center has an up-to-date pass code that is not known to the responding officer, dispatchers will typically broadcast it over an unsecured police or fire frequency. A common police scanner can pick-up all such transmissions. If a pass code was to fall into the wrong hands because of a broadcast such as this, who would be liable and what would be the potential ramifications?

Third Party. By requesting access from a third party through a dispatch callback procedure, telephone or intercom system, residents, guards, or employees can remotely grant access into the gated area. Officers may be successful in getting in by hailing a passerby or by following a vehicle with access through the gate. During off-hours, no one may be present to provide said access or, in some situations, officers may prefer not to alert people inside the complex of their arrival. Another concern with “telephone entry” type systems is when an emergency 911 call emanates from a residence in a gated compound or a multi-unit apartment building, police/fire dispatch locks or holds the line open pending emergency responder arrival upon the scene. This creates a problem because the telephone entry control system can’t be activated by the person who actually called for assistance.

Locks. Personnel can gain access by using a key that opens a lock or activates an electric switch. If the facility has only manually operated gates, the key and lock is probably the only option in providing site protection while allowing emergency access.

Some jurisdictions mandate lock boxes, but this solution is used almost exclusively by fire departments although some marketing campaigns are now targeting police. Within the lock box is either a switch to activate the gate mechanism, another key, or an access card that can be used to open the barrier.

The downside to keys is accountability and the sheer number required to equip each police vehicle or officer that may be dispatched to a particular location. A lost key might require the re-keying of all matching locks, switches, lock boxes, and the replacement of all existing keys—a costly proposition.

Cards. Access credentials offer an audit trail of activity as each device is associated to individual users or vehicles by the access control system. Common technologies include touch-plate, embedded chip, magnetic stripe and barcode. Many card types require the insertion into, or the touching of, a card reader. Another reader scans a barcode tag affixed to the side of vehicles as it approaches the gate. Proximity cards are best categorized radio devices and increase the pass-through speed of emergency vehicles because actual contact with the reader is not required.

If a card is lost, the permissions associated with it can be quickly removed from the system. Cards are relatively inexpensive and replacements can be put into use quickly. But just like keys, the management of a card for each piece of potential response equipment or officer can be an expensive proposition and a audit control nightmare.

Light. Some cities use the patented Opticom™ traffic priority control system manufactured by 3M™. Each emergency vehicle in the jurisdiction is equipped with a strobe light that contains a proprietary and coded infrared component that preempts traffic signals during emergency responses so that the fire truck or police car gets a green light at controlled intersections. Similar to those found on traffic lights, a compatible receiver can be attached to gate operators that will provide emergency access to vehicles flashing the special strobe.

This solution requires that each emergency vehicle be equipped with an appropriate strobe emitter. Unless your city already uses Opticom™ to control traffic lighting, this system may prove to be cost prohibitive and impractical for this limited use. Another important point for law enforcement to consider is that using visible light systems may compromise the covert entry of responding units.

Sound. A popular solution to the emergency access conundrum is sound activated entry systems. When an emergency vehicle gets within range of the proprietary audio sensor, the gate opens after detecting the sound of a siren for 2.5 to 4.5 seconds. Such systems are fairly inexpensive to purchase, are compatible with most gate operators, and are popular with fire departments.

While fire equipment rolls to calls with lights and sirens all the time, this is not the case with police nor is it even an option for security vehicles. Even if it was, the last thing security may want to do is to tip-off their arrival by blasting a siren.

Radio Signal. Once a gate operator is equipped with a compatible radio receiver, any authorized vehicle can open a security gate in one of several ways:

  • Activating a manual transmitter
  • Equipping a vehicle with an active or passive RFID device                                                                                                              
  • Use of a radio frequency identifier

Manually-activated transmitters require users push a button to open a gate. This proven technology is used to activate garage door openers in most American homes.

Active RFID transmitters require no user action. Similar to those mounted on the windshields of vehicles using automated toll roads, it continuously emits a radio signal. Upon approach to a gate, the receiver detects the signal and activates the gate operator. Another type of transmitter is mounted on the underside of a vehicle and its signal is detected by a roadway loop similar to those used to detect cars at traffic signals. Passive RFID devices typically require manual presentation within close reader proximity.

There are a number of manufacturers for each of these technologies. Although each offers rapid emergency access, every response vehicle must be equipped with a compatible device and the device must be maintained in an operable condition. The likelihood of each gated facility in a jurisdiction using the same access frequency or technology is unlikely creating the need for each piece of rolling stock to carry any number of gadgets to gain emergency access. Of course, the loss or theft of a transmitter or transponder poses particular concerns for facilities with matching frequencies. In the case of the always on transmitter, simply driving past a gated complex may inadvertently activate the gate operator.

Another newer technology takes advantage of the common thread that ties all public safety agencies together. This newer system operates by way of the public safety agencies own radio transceiver. Radio frequency identification is the latest technology being marketed in the access control field. A patented receiver monitors fifty different frequencies programmed into memory by the user or installer. Coordinating radio clicks with a visible light, the possibility that spurious radio traffic may inadvertently activate the gate operator is nearly eliminated.

Radio signal identification is quick (less than four seconds) and secure. Receiver range can be set from within inches to about one-quarter mile away and handheld or vehicle-mounted radios can be used to open the gate. An internal log in the receiver maintains details on what agency gained access and when, retaining 50 of the most recent transactions. A significant feature that this system offers over others is that it supports mutual aid operations for multiple public safety agencies.

Forced Entry. More of a method than a system—and certainly last on the list of emergency access options—is forced entry. Crashing fences, cutting locks, and breaching gates are proven means for public safety uses to get where they need to go, but such tactics usually result in collateral damage to facility equipment and/or vehicles. Jumping fences puts responders at significant risk of injury and leaves them without vehicle-mounted equipment. As such, brute force and scaling barriers are considered options of last resort.

System Override. Although outside the scope of this article, security gates should also include the ability to override the gate operator in case of a power or mechanical failure. Such systems include manually operated mechanisms and backup power supplies. In the case of a power failure, the battery backup system automatically opens the gate then shuts down the gate operator until the primary power supply is restored. If the battery backup and primary power both fail, the gate operator should go into a fail-safe mode.

“Fail-safe” is an industry recognized standard that allows a malfunctioning gate to be manually pushed open so that vehicles or people are neither locked-in nor locked-out. Fail-safe overrides are mandatory in many jurisdictions across the country.

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