Canadian Consulting Engineer


Specifying Security Systems

Keeping intruders out of buildings is just a small part of what building designers have to think about when it comes to security systems these days. In many projects, access control on doors must be paired with video surveillance, intercoms,...

Keeping intruders out of buildings is just a small part of what building designers have to think about when it comes to security systems these days. In many projects, access control on doors must be paired with video surveillance, intercoms, paging, panic buttons and emergency stations outside in the parking lot. These are likely to be all linked to a monitoring station via an IP (internet protocol) network, using Power over Ethernet (PoE) cable that conducts both power and communications data. Often the security systems are tied in with the fire detection and alarm systems and even the lighting, HVAC and building automation systems. It’s a booming industry requiring a complex infrastructure.

Usually the design of these systems is overseen by the architects and electrical engineers, but consultants are increasingly dependent on the specialized technical knowledge of experts in the security industry, whether they are product manufacturers or independent system “integrators.”

How can consulting engineers work more effectively with these industry specialists? The engineers want to ensure that their building owners get a system that meets the project’s precise needs at the best affordable price. But the consultants’ ability to meet those requirements depends on their ability to receive sound advice from the technical specialists in the industry – and on how carefully both sides are willing to listen.

What can go wrong?

David Ito, product manager with the Mircom Group of Companies in Vaughan north of Toronto, says that as manufacturers of security and fire systems, they are often approached by consulting engineers for advice. “We’re providing the technical knowledge and the expertise to assist in the project management. We’re focusing on understanding what their requirements are.”

Asked how the relationship between security system suppliers and consulting engineers can improve, Ito consulted with his team.

“One of the things that can go wrong is that changes are done in the design that we are not consulted about,” Ito says. “Then near the end of the project we find there are gaps in the compliance of the final design. That usually translates into project delays.” The manufacturer can sometimes offer a new solution, he says, such as a wireless technology, which will reduce the period of the delay.

“Another thing that can go wrong,” Ito says, “is when the design consultants don’t do a field review, whether it’s due to cost restraints or time restraints.” Then when it’s time for the installation, the security system specialists find that the system can’t fulfil the owner’s requirements. Perhaps a beam is blocking the view of a camera, for example. “So we always say that it is very essential that we have an integration of the architectural environment and the security systems.”

“Communication is essential,” Ito explains. A lack of dialogue between the designers and the security experts can lead to a misinterpretation of the requirements. While some engineers spend a lot of time consulting with the manufacturers and integrators, others are aloof and inaccessible “and that’s where we find problems developing,” says Ito. His team has found that the problem occurs with individual engineers, rather than broadly across entire firms.

Specifications – brand names or not?

Depending on who you speak to, there are various opinions about what kind of details the engineer should include in the specifications. David Trudel is president of Marcomm Systems Group in Ottawa, which is a systems integrator. They do a lot of work for high security public sector projects, including in buildings across Parliament Hill. Marcomm also manufactures its own software for integrating systems and equipment from different manufacturers, so they are not tied to one proprietary technology.

Trudel is adamant that consulting engineers should avoid specifying particular manufacturer products. At least during a design-build project he thinks they should provide only a broad brush description of the client’s performance needs.

“When the engineers put out their specifications, they really should not be listing manufacturers or models,” he says. Instead, “We’re showing them the benefit of giving us output performance specifications because it frees our hands two years later to look at the current technology that is going to meet the client’s needs.”

Trudel’s point is that technology changes so quickly these days it doesn’t make sense to specify a particular XYZ piece of equipment by manufacturer XYZ, because by the time the project goes to tender, it could be three or four years later and the technology will be outdated.

The other problem according to Trudel is that specifying particular brands limits the options available for the project. In contrast, by mixing and matching different equipment integrators can ensure the client gets the best system for each function and thereby has the best overall solution for the building.

Having different equipment manufacturers involved, he says, also ensures that the bid prices are competitive.

Others, however, think slightly differently. Kim Kornmaier, whose title is “security in design program leader” with Honeywell in the U.S., is often told that consulting engineers aren’t particular enough about the client’s or the project’s needs. In some cases, the specification ends up “so vague nobody knows what the client is really looking for.”

Ideally, Kornmaier says, the specification will be detailed enough that it ensures the client’s needs are met and also allows for competitive bids from different sources. Kornmaier cites a recent airport project. It was using public funding so the design consultant needed to write a specification that would be more open and competitively bid. Instead of writing the document with vague wording such as “dealers are to provide a perimeter protection system,” or writing it for a proprietary product, Honeywell eventually helped the design firm generate a detailed specification around a particular capability and an open product.

“We also helped them understand and describe the functionality in the software and configuration options so that it would help achieve their clients’ objectives. In this way we were able to help them be specific in the design, while at the same time they could most likely get three qualified bids,” says Kornmaier.

Interoperability – not yet

The problem with mixing and matching different proprietary systems is that they are not 100% compatible. David Ito explains that with so called intelligent buildings, the security systems are networked with other low-voltage communications systems. “And that’s where some of the challenges are, because you have a variety of brands of equipment and they may not be fully integrated. So we’re finding that people are challenged with some of the larger and more complex systems.”

Mircom is a company that carries both fire protection and security systems, but if a consultant is dealing with smaller companies that don’t do both fire and security, tying the two systems to work together can be difficult, says Ito.

“There are access control manufacturers out there who don’t make fire systems so they have to integrate into another manufacturer panel. All they are doing is mounting a switch – an approach that typically does not provide the level of visibility and control that clients require for truly intelligent building applications,” Ito explains.

Although the large manufacturers make sure their products will work with other brands to a large degree, they don’t provide 100% compatibility becaus
e they want to keep their own share of the market. “That’s the way the industry works,” says Ito.

So for consultants: “It’s really important to know the various system types and the different brands and what level of compatibility they have,” says Ito.

Kornmaier says the same: “If I were giving consultants some advice, especially if they are working on an integrated system, I would tell them to spend more time investigating to check that the systems we’re trying to integrate are 100% compatible.”

For Trudel, on the other hand, the obvious solution is to use a third-party integrating software system: “By using a third party software solution, you can pick the best camera, and pick another card access system, and pick another manufacturer’s intercom. It doesn’t matter. You can tailor the systems to meet the client’s needs much further. Your hands are not tied.cce