Colorado School’s Access Control Upgrade Delivers a Mountain of Benefits

This private school’s new access control system addresses the challenges it previously had with managing its keys, as well as other issues.
Published: July 4, 2022

Vail Christian High School (VCHS) is a leading private Christian school in Colorado. About 160 students in grades 9-12 learn, play, and pray in state-of-the-art facilities on a scenic, sprawling campus. VCHS is also home to a new, state-of-the-art security system that combines electronic access control with integrated universal threat detection technology.

“Security is at the top of our list, says Luke Vlaar, the school’s IT director and himself a VCHS alumnus. “If students aren’t safe when they’re here, it doesn’t matter if we have the best AP classes.”

However, access control and the management of the school’s keys were concerns that needed to be addressed, says Mike McClinton, VCHS’ director of facilities and campus safety.

“Our school was built in 2006 with brass keys to lock all the doors,” he explains. “Over time, those keys have ended up all over the place, creating a security concern. Last year, we looked into having all the brass key locks refitted, and it became apparent that we could install an electronic system for close to the same price and gain a lot more features and control.”

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Tom Kapala, CRL (Certified Registered Locksmith) and founder of Mountain Top Lock, was contracted to handle the project. The installed system combines ProdataKey’s PDK Mobile-First Access Control with AmberBox Universal Threat Detection to create an integrated, highly-effective technology solution.

VCHS Officials Can Control Access from Anywhere, Anytime, on Any Device 

There are two main structures on campus. VCHS’s West Building houses academics. The East Building is home to the school’s arts and athletic programs and includes an art studio, classrooms for art and music, a gym, a weight room, and an auditorium. Students move between the buildings throughout each day. The East Building is also shared with others in the community. The auditorium is used by a local church several times each week, and part of the building is leased to an independent grade school.

The school is located directly off Highway 6, the major thoroughfare throughout Vail Valley.

“We’ve been concerned about what might happen if there were some sort of crime in town, which is located only about two miles away,” McClinton says. “If the perpetrator fled and headed our way, we needed a faster method to get into a lockdown mode. Especially in emergencies, we shouldn’t be running around checking doors to make sure they aren’t propped open.”

The new PDK system monitors the status of 31 doors on campus and secures 14 of them with PDK Red high-security, OSDP hardware. The majority are exterior doorways, although a few readers are mounted at internal doors that experience significant traffic and for which McClinton and Vlaar sought better control. The readers support PIN codes and proximity cards. Six are equipped with the PDK Bluetooth solution that allows users to open doors using mobile credentials stored on their phones. The system is hardwired and equipped with many hours of self-charging battery backup for maximum reliability and power redundancy.

All students, faculty, and tenants have been issued credentials in the form of prox cards. Each group has permissions set based on need. For example, students on an athletic team have access during the school day and during practice and game times.

Vlaar says it’s nearly effortless to issue cards, disable cards, and change permissions. He can also give temporary credentials to service providers or authorized visitors who need access for a limited timeframe.

“Because our readers feature keypads, I can issue a temporary PIN code that will stop working after a specified period,” Vlaar says.

The PIN keypads serve other purposes as well. Administrators can type in a code to initiate a lockdown, and first responders can then use a different code to override the lockdown to enter the building.

According to Vlaar, the mobile-first design of the PDK software is one of the most valued aspects of the new system.

“We’ve had other technologies in the past that were difficult to manage or difficult to use,” he adds. “We ended up not using them. Learning from our mistakes, we knew that any system that required us to be in one specific place, on one specific computer, would not suit our needs.”

Kapala recommended the PDK solution to VCHS because it could address these challenges.

“Not being able to program the system, make updates, or initiate a facility lockdown from a phone would have been a deal-breaker for the school,” he says. “PDK’s system can do all that and more. Mike and Luke can see if any doors are propped open and monitor traffic flow as students enter the building in the morning. If anyone gets locked out, they can remotely unlock the door for them just by pushing a button on their phone. They receive an alert if a device is offline or running on battery backup. The solution is packed with robust features, all available through the phone interface, accessible from anywhere.”

New System Automates Threat Detection and Response

In today’s schools, lockdown drills are as routine as fire drills. The threat of an active shooter is something for which all schools plan and prepare. VCHS’s new access control system provides a means to immediately identify the status of all doorways and lock down the facility with the push of a button. However, the integration between PDK and an AmberBox Universal Threat Detection system brings their security posture to the next level, dramatically speeding up and improving the efficacy of their emergency response.

“The AmberBox system uses sensors mounted throughout the building and artificial intelligence to detect and report on certain sounds that shouldn’t be occurring – things like gunshots, breaking glass, explosions, and aggressive voices,” Vlaar explains. “In the case of gunfire, it can even tell us what sort of weapon was used, and where the shot or shots occurred.”

McClinton elaborates, “As soon as the system detects audio that it determines represents a threat, several things happen immediately and automatically. A pre-recorded announcement comes over the PA system informing everyone onsite that the facility is in lockdown and that they should take cover. The PDK system is engaged to create a lockdown state to limit the aggressor’s movement throughout the building. 911 is notified, and emergency responders are dispatched, each with access to full reporting from the AmberBox system. And, via the AmberBox app, a conference call is established between designated individuals responsible for managing the crisis – including VCHS administrators, law enforcement, medical teams, and other first responders. The result is a faster, more well-informed response in which nobody is going into the situation blind. In fact, those arriving on the scene to help probably have a better understanding of what’s happening than the people inside.”

While Mountain Top Lock drove the selection of the PDK access control solution, the AmberBox technology was researched and ultimately specified by McClinton, Vlaar, and fellow VCHS administrators.

“We did our homework, looking at a few different vendors, and it seemed as though AmberBox offered the strongest capabilities,” McClinton says. “We had representatives come to school several times to perform live demonstrations, including for law enforcement, and we were all impressed. The decision to go with AmberBox was unanimous.”

Vlaar adds that they were particularly influenced by how seamlessly the platform integrates with PDK and establishes a connection with dispatch, as well as the many tools it provides to assist with response.

“The quality of information it provides is superior to other systems we looked at,” he says.

Technology Strengthens Relationships with Law Enforcement

An unexpected benefit for the school resulting from its technology upgrade is a closer relationship with the County Sheriff, paramedics, the fire department, and other community emergency services.

“We’ve offered to host the County’s active shooter drills this summer,” McClinton says. “They can use our campus and technology to stage an active shooter event; our new systems can enhance the quality of the simulation. They benefit from better training, and we benefit because it familiarizes them with our facility, its layout, and how our technology works. In the case of a real emergency, we’ll be in better shape.”

Vlaar is quick to point out that VCHS is a private school.

“We don’t have the resources, like public schools, to employ our own campus police or have security guards monitoring the hallways,” he says. “We do the best we can, but having this tighter connection with local law enforcement is very much appreciated.”

Access Control Upgrades Get Rave Reviews All Around

The PDK and AmberBox systems have been a game-changer for the school. Parents, teachers, students, tenants, and community members who use the building all appreciate the newfound convenience of electronic access. They know that their campus is safer and more secure than ever before.

“The investment has already proven its worth,” Vlaar says. “It’s absolutely revolutionized the way we control our campus. We’re looking forward to continuing to expand on it as budgets permit.”

Margie Gurwin is owner and principal of Content Creation Partners.

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