How to Get What You Need from Your Security Systems Integrator

Four campus protection pros describe how they vet their electronic security contractors and the top challenges they must address.
Published: June 7, 2024

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in CS sister publication Security Sales and Integration. Although the article is intended for security systems integrators, the information is also valuable for school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management practitioners. 

Engaging your customers and taking action to solve their pain points and various challenges is an essential step to customer success. With the intention of better serving end users, you need to know as much as possible about them. Including what they most need from you.

In that spirit, SSI delivers the second annual Commercial Security End-User Forum, where we tap the perspectives of four security directors as well as an expert in corporate security risk mitigation solutions.

Hailing from the K-12, higher education, healthcare and entertainment industries, the participants weigh in on organizational safety and security challenges, what makes for a successful integrator partnership, COVID-19 impacts and more. 

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Vetting Security Systems Integrators

Ask an end user for their thoughts on how they go about selecting the right integrator partner and the responses might seem analogous to choosing a significant other. Finding just the right match boils down to aligning various compatibilities and attributes that ensure the relationship is built to last. Trust. Honesty. Commitment. These are not just slogans but bedrock elements to a fulfilling, successful business alliance.

“One of the reasons I believe that I’ve been successful in my career as a security director is having great relationships with integrators in a good, constructive way where we learn from each other,” says Guy Grace, who retired from Littleton (Colorado) Public Schools in August after more than 30 years and now works as a security consultant for K-12 schools in Wyoming.

Grace, a 2020 Director of the Year recipient awarded by SSI sister publication Campus Safety, emphasizes patience and the ability to evolve with an end user as necessary virtues, especially in the business of campus security. Money is tight for most school districts and significant expenditures may only come around every five to 10 years as bond measures are approved or other funding is appropriated.

“You need an integrator that is going to help you to constantly evolve, but you have to evolve based on, No. 1, financial resources. But you also need to be able to evolve based on the school district’s culture and what they want from you based on processes and procedures and things that you have to do before you implement these things.”

Scrutinizing an integrator’s core competencies is, of course, a key exercise for end users. CoxHealth System Director of Public Safety Eric Clay explains the level of qualifications of a potential integrator partner is often an unknown quantity. Before he commits to an integrator, Clay works to raise his comfort level by verifying their experience on projects with a similar scope. This necessarily includes a demonstrated ability to cyber-secure healthcare networks, which are a favorite target of criminal hackers.

“What I am hoping is they have a deep understanding, and as I talk with them I might have a vision for a solution. I’m also hoping they’re going to draw out information that perhaps I hadn’t even thought about,” says Clay, also a 2020 Director of the Year recipient. “They may ask, ‘Have you considered this? What is your long-term goal? You’re looking for an immediate solution, but you might be able to integrate this particular solution that will address these other issues.’” (Update: since contacted for this article, Clay now serves as vice president of security at Memorial Hermann, the largest not-for-profit healthcare system in Texas.)

Robert Carotenuto is director of security at The Shed, a new $475 million, 200,000-square-foot cultural arts center located in New York City’s Hudson Yards. As a nonprofit facility, Carotenuto looks for integrators who are willing to create a symbiotic collaboration based on the venue’s best interests. Sure, it’s a monetary relationship as well, but that should be secondary to the partnership, explains Carotenuto, an ASIS Professional Standards Board member.

“For me, it’s not about getting the very best product out there, but that I get the very best product out there for my institution. If I have top-of-the-line equipment that’s going to cost me a lot of overhead over the years, it’s hard for me to sustain that in terms of my budget,” he says. “Maybe that’s the best solution for a Fortune 500 company, but I don’t need their solution. I need a solution that fits The Shed.”

Top Safety and Security Challenges

Large end users may have generally similar safety and security missions in protecting buildings and occupants, but there can also be perils unique to the size and scope of any given facility and the nature of its purpose. A sobering example, the healthcare industry.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), serious workplace violence incidents are four times more likely to occur in healthcare environments than in private industry. In fact, healthcare accounts for nearly as many serious violent injuries as all other industries combined. Healthcare professionals in certain sectors of the industry are even more vulnerable to workplace violence than law enforcement officers and security guards, according to OSHA.

“Workplace violence is probably the thing that we work to address more than anything else,” says Clay. “We rely on a number of technologies to help protect our staffs.”

CoxHealth is a six-hospital, 1,050 bed not-for-profit healthcare system headquartered in Springfield, Mo. Clay’s security operations manage more than 900 security cameras across the facilities, plus robust visitor management and analytical software to ensure resources are deployed efficiently. Security personnel are equipped with body-worn cameras, handheld metal detectors and more.

“Portable duress alarms are a big thing for us right now. We’re testing those alarms in some of our more high-risk areas, such as emergency rooms and psych units, which allow us to triangulate exactly where someone is in the space and respond directly to that location,” Clay explains.

As with many commercial and public venues, Carotenuto contends with the challenge of deploying security and life-safety technologies while maintaining a sense of openness and welcoming aesthetics. Cultural institutions, he says, should maintain spaces where people can feel free to express themselves, unencumbered by intrusive electronics or personnel.

“People are understanding that there is technology, including video surveillance and screening. But that is to keep everybody safe. The challenge is to be present, but sort of in the background so we can keep that open environment,” he says. “The Shed is not about security, it’s about artwork and performances and that always must shine through. The security has to become an afterthought for visitors and even sometimes for the staff.”

In his years as a school safety professional, Grace says the biggest challenges have always centered around the balancing act between good technology and emergency preparedness. You can also add to that mental health processes and procedures that school districts have implemented in more recent time.

“So the major challenge was bringing in programs that holistically work together, and work together in a multihazard facet,” he says. “[In the context of] school safety, if you put one bad apple in the cart — one bad piece of technology or one bad mental health practice or one bad emergency preparedness practice — it could upset the holistic processes of school safety.”

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for any school district in the United States, thereby complicating the balancing act, Grace adds. One common goal that must be established, he believes, is to avoid turning schools into prison-like environments in a pursuit to deploy all-encompassing security and emergency preparedness measures.

“Security can be very complicated, but it can also be in the background. And I think that that’s very important in K-12,” he says. “It is very important for us to work together with our integrators and for all sides to be open minded. And that’s not just our integrators, but our school district, our community and our manufacturers.”

Security in the Age of COVID-19

You would be hard pressed to conjure a more impactful event to have instantaneously altered workplace and campus environments than the coronavirus pandemic. As the new normal continues to form in the months ahead and beyond, end users — with assistance from reseller partners — are hastily trialing thermal skin temperature cameras, frictionless access control, among other tech-based COVID-19 mitigations.

Yet some end users are taking a pass on these tools and relying on other mitigations. The University of Florida is scheduled to welcome students back to the campus in Gainesville for the fall semester beginning Aug. 31. Joseph Souza, director of security at the University of Florida, explains the decision was made not to deploy additional technologies as part of the campus’s COVID-19 reopening plan. Thermal temperature detection was considered and evaluated; however, the devices were deemed cost prohibitive due the quantity needed. It’s also a new technology that isn’t fully proven to its successfulness, Souza says.

“UF has done a great job as a university bringing our emergency operations team together to address all aspects of COVID-19 response. We also have a comprehensive screen, test and protect program which all staff, faculty and students are going through as they have returned to campus,” he says.

That doesn’t mean the university won’t be leveraging technology as part of its coronavirus response. Existing electronic security systems are being called into action.

“We will have more use of line crossing-people counting to limit the number of occupants in buildings. Also, robust access control reports will track unique accesses, time of access to help look for unauthorized activity or to tailor cleaning activities based on pedestrian traffic,” he says.

Souza adds, “In a university setting, public safety is paramount. It’s a little more challenging to keep an open campus secure, so we rely more on technology to augment and enhance security, like during the COVID-19 crisis.”

The pandemic has created a corporate imperative to reimagine risk and security, as well as strengthen collaboration across the business, explains Bob Hayes, managing director of the Security Executive Council, a research and advisory firm that specializes in corporate security risk mitigation solutions. What worked pre-COVID — or what may have been in planning and design stages — is irrelevant in a post-COVID word, he says.

“People ask, ‘Why do I have to reimagine it?’ Because all your conditions just changed. Your culture changed. Your circumstances have changed. You absolutely have to rethink what you are doing and why,” Hayes stresses. “If you had a physical security installation at a big headquarters getting ready to go in, I would say put it on hold. Too much has changed. That project might not be relevant in three months.”

To Hayes’s point: Consider a facility that was forced to permanently close 50% of its offices following the lockdown; managers are now going to have very different risks and issues than they did prior to the closures. Moving forward a seamless alignment between security practitioners and security vendors will be imperative in the new normal, he says.

“At the end of the day you have got to go back and you start with a new reality assessment. What is the new normal going to look like? Define the risks and the desired outcomes,” Hayes advises. “Combine that with research and look at the collective knowledge and examine and align for unified risks, and make sure that you are in line with your executives and their sponsorship and everybody understands what you are doing.”

Rodney Bosch is Security Sales & Integration’s senior editor. This article was originally published in 2020 and still is applicable today.

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