THE MAGAZINE

Smart Solutions to Security Problems

By Teresa Anderson

A Lock on Student Safety
Though St. Lawrence is one of the oldest schools in New York, there’s nothing old-fashioned about the locks on its new dorms.

St. Lawrence University, located in the St. Lawrence River Valley in Canton, New York, is one of the oldest educational institutions in the state. Established in 1856, the university has continued to update its campus to meet the needs of its growing student body, currently around 2,200 students. Most recently, the university added more housing; Patrick W. Gagnon, deputy chief of security for the university, wanted to ensure that locks on the new doors would provide adequate security and be cost effective to maintain.

The plan was to build a townhouse complex comprising six buildings, with four apartments in each building. Gagnon knew that the old-fashioned locks used on other campus doors would not be sufficient. These older units were mechanical pushbutton locks.

To change the old locks required that a maintenance person go to each location, take the back off of the lock, and change the combination. This exercise cost the university $30 to $50 in labor charges each time a lock had to be changed. For the new building, Gagnon wanted an electronic lock that could be easily changed for routine reasons—such as the end of semester—and in any emergency situation.

He also needed a sturdy lock that could weather the harsh northern winters. This eliminated many electronic locking devices, which have plastic or rubber faces.

Gagnon turned to Kaba Ilco, headquartered in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Gagnon had been a customer of the company since the early 1990s and had a history of testing its beta products. He asked whether the company had a new locking device. He was in luck.

Kaba Ilco was ready to beta-test the Oracode locking system, an electronic pushbutton system that is opened using a PIN number. The system met both of Gagnon’s specifications. The lock combinations could be remotely changed, and the lock face was made of weather-resistant metal plating. Gagnon purchased the units and offered to serve as a beta test site.

The system consists of three parts: the lock, which has a keypad and internal software; the E-code software, which is operated by the lock company itself on its Web site; and a personal digital assistant (PDA). The E-code software is accessed remotely by clients, meaning that end users do not have to install it on their own networks. Access to the site is protected by encryption. The software has two uses: First, it is used to set up the lock. Then, end users access the site again to generate user access codes.

The locks were installed in the townhouse complex. Each apartment has a lock on both the front and back doors for a total of 48 locks. The complex also has six laundry rooms that required locks.

The locks, which are powered by AA batteries and require no wiring, were installed on each door. Then security personnel completed the initial setup using a PDA. Security pulled up Kaba’s Web site on the PDA and wirelessly uploaded the unique digital key that is specific to each lock.

The lock setup does not need to be repeated unless the batteries run out or are changed. (The batteries are supposed to run for approximately five years. Gagnon has had the locks for almost two years now and has been forced to change the batteries on only a handful of units.)

Once this step was completed, security accessed the E-code software again to program the lock’s access code. The Web site generates a six-digit code (or PIN) that matches one of the digital keys already programmed into the lock during the first part of the process. To access the door, the user punches the six-digit code into the keypad.

Once the lock is connected via the Web with the system’s E-code software, security can remotely set the PIN. The software generates codes mathematically and each lock can handle up to 128 users.

Each person who lives in a given townhouse has his or her own six-digit PIN. Also, the front and back doors of a single townhouse can be given the same PIN.

The six locks installed on the laundry room doors all have the same PIN, which is given to all townhouse residents. The laundry rooms are located within the townhouse community, so residents must first access their townhomes to get to the laundry facility. The university chose to give all the laundry rooms the same code for the sake of convenience; this way, if one laundry facility is full, residents can easily use a different one within the same complex.

If necessary in case of an emergency or a lock malfunction, security has an override key. Though it has not yet been needed, the override is a physical key that can be used to enter any of the doors secured by an Oracode lock.

The lock itself stores an audit trail that security can download using the PDA. The lock stores up to 1,000 logins including the use of override keys. According to Gagnon, security has not needed to use the audit function yet.

While assigning PINs, security sets the numbers to expire at a specific time, such as the end of the semester, for example. Because PINs can be generated weeks before they need to be used, security can easily configure the locks, and send out PINs to the upcoming semester’s residents, avoiding any last-minute hassles.

To change a PIN, security can just log into the Web site and reset it. (The numbers are generated by the Kaba Ilco site using an algorithm, so they are always random.) Security can then tell the student the new PIN. To reset the lock, the student enters the PIN once and then immediately enters the number again.

According to Gagnon, the new lock system is much improved over the old one for two reasons. The first is ease of use from a student perspective. “They are not dealing with the frustration of waiting for a locksmith to arrive and change the combination,” he says.

The other issue is cost. The Oracode units cost between $400 and $500 each but there is no cost to change the PIN and no need to physically visit the lock to reset it. “The locks have already paid for themselves,” says Gagnon.

Because the beta test on the townhouse complex went so smoothly, Gagnon decided to replace old locks on other parts of campus as they wore out. Currently, more than 300 Oracode locks have been installed. Gagnon intends to replace the locks on all of the university’s 1,100 doors eventually.

The ease with which PINs can be altered has resulted in peace of mind for university students. For example, security has received numerous calls from female students who have had an argument with a friend or boyfriend and feel threatened. “The student can call and request that we change the PIN number. It only affects her so no one else has to be notified, and we can change it in five minutes,” says Gagnon. “By the time she hangs up the phone, she has a new PIN number.”

(For more information: Mark Shellberg, product manager, Kaba Access Control; 336/725-1331, Ext 319; e-mail: mshellberg@kaa.kaba.com)

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