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Armed With the Basics

Security-related challenges abound in educational facilities across the country. And, today's security-technology market is filled with new advances that are helping to deter crime in schools. Although the types of security products for which K-12 administrators are shopping may differ from those at the college and university level, both markets have a common thread linking their situations-selecting a security system requires following some basic steps.

Available options The majority of school and university security systems revolve around photo ID cards. Regardless of the specific needs of K-12 schools and college campuses, the primary interest from both revolves around the question: What else can we do with our ID cards?

Clearly, college and university purchasing trends signal an ever-growing shift over to the all-campus-card concept; one multifunctional card doing it all.

"Using the same card for vending, dormitory access, cafeteria, library services and more brings administrative efficiencies that are hard to ignore," says Lyn White, executive director at the National Association of Campus Card Users (NACCU).

Although the options are more numerous than ever, so are the possibilities that a wrong decision will be made. Fairly recent advances in digital-imaging technology now allow for security manufacturers to design custom systems that fit virtually any organization's requirements. No longer should a school or university have to adapt their specific needs to whatever choices a vendor may offer.

Some of the more popular security products for schools and universities are:

-Digital-imaging technology. Computer-based photo ID systems store all photo and data information on each student or staff member. A clear, sharp image is captured with a digital camera, thereby eliminating the need for film and film storage. Since most systems can store mountains of data, a vast security management reporting system can be created for the entire organization.

Taking the photo should be a one-time event, especially with the digital image capture feature that allows an image to be previewed before printed. Also, once it is taken, the photo is permanently stored in the system for future reissues and updates.

Photo IDs can be designed directly on the screen with wide-ranging possibilities. Using different card designs or colors allows for quick and easy differentiation of any group or grade level.

-The multifunctional photo ID. Photo IDs can include magnetic stripes, bar codes or other special features that make them compatible with an access-control system, data collection, campus food service, library checkout, computer lab check-in and a host of other options. Once the data is entered, it can be shared by all of a school's systems with no need to re-enter the data. The technology making much of this possible is the smart card. In its purest sense, a smart card is a computer. It is a device equipped with an embedded microprocessor, operating system and a few types of memory.

Because the technology exists to print bar codes, encode magnetic stripes or personalize smart cards, the student ID card is rapidly turning into a highly desirable, multifunctional tool for schools and universities. It can be used in the cafeteria to track important items, such as how many free lunches, reduced lunches or full-paid lunches were served on any given day. This is key since student attendance and cafeteria tracking relate directly to financial reimbursement from federal and state governments, which helps to justify the investment.

School property signout is another key feature of the multifunctional photo ID. Automated systems also are the obvious choice when it comes to tracking a variety of materials. For many years, library books, music CDs, videos, sports equipment and musical instruments have ended up lost, stolen or damaged because checkout procedures of the past were confined to the honor system or an optional signout sheet. Photo ID-based tracking systems already have shown measurable reductions in theft, damage and loss of materials in many schools.

Hiring an expert Clearly it is not enough to do thorough research on educational security systems. When purchasing new security products or services, the most critical decision will come when it is time to hire the best expert for the job. NACCU's White emphasizes the importance of covering this ground if the technical expertise of school personnel is anything less than outstanding. When an educational organization moves forward with an investment of this magnitude, no allowances should be made when it comes to expertise.

How can vendor expertise be defined when it comes to purchasing such an all-encompassing system? The real key is flexibility. It begins with a company tha t will fit its product packages to your organization's requirements, offering different product lines from which to choose. No two educational organizations are exactly alike, which means they probably do not require the same security program.

Also, it is critical to hire a vendor with strong experience in the area of educational security. Since digital imaging plays such an important role in today's security market, administrators would be shortchanging themselves to consider working with a company that doesn't have a security and/or card-manufacturing background.

Almost no decision is more important than one that guarantees an industry expert will spearhead the security program, and oversee the selection and implementation process. By relying on an individual and supplier that has a proven track record, a school can be assured of getting the right kind of ID equipment and card material to have the multiple applications required by a specific organization.

Outlining a security action plan Before selections are made, it is critical to have a plan of action that includes objectives, how those objectives will be accomplished, the timetable, budget, responsibilities, training, communications and checkpoints along the way. After defining the objectives, determine what features, capabilities and capacities will be required in the campuswide access and security system. One of the biggest security-related challenges faced by administrators deals with their approach to implementing any access-control system.

"It's important to have a security expert involved to assess the organization's needs before bringing in the card-system manufacturer," says White.

>From there, deal with the operational issues. Determine what technical >specifications seem to be most appropriate for the particular campus. >Establish budget parameters and get estimates. These include initial >installation costs as well as ongoing and support costs. This investment >is one reason why it is then important to research the potential impact >that security automation will have on the spirit and atmosphere of the >campus. Do the benefits seem to outweigh the cost and effort necessary to >implement and manage such a system? If the answer is "yes," continue by >determining the most appropriate implementation strategy.

Although technical specifications will vary from organization to organization, some of the key criteria for security system selection include:

-Adaptability. A system should be selected based on an organization's unique needs. Therefore, it is important to have a couple of different product lines from a manufacturer from which to choose.

-Compatibility. A system should offer a high level of compatibility in order to connect with other institutionalized databases and hardware platforms to accommodate direct electronic transfers of student security access-control cards.

-Expandability. A system should be expandable for future growth.

-Longevity. To accommodate an institution for several years, a system should exhibit the best technical features, speed and flexibility possible. Although software upgrades will be required, there should be no substantial need for hardware procurements.

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