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SALES & MARKETING — Solving the School Security Equation

It’s not always easy for a traditional security contractor or start-up systems integrator to break into the new school market. However, there are tricks of the trade that can shorten your time to market while positioning your firm at the forefront of technology in this most lucrative marketplace.




Gone are the days when schools would operate in an open door manner, where perimeter entrances were left unlocked and accessible to anyone who chose to enter. Instead, schools now commonly employ electronic access control, elaborate video surveillance systems and intrusion security. This is now the norm, not the exception.

Such security precautions have become necessary because, according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation of Los Angeles, more than two million students are injured or killed each year in acts of violence that take place in our nation’s schools. Not only is this grievous because of the deaths and injuries, it adds liability to school systems and an atmosphere of dread where students find it difficult to learn.

According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation’s 1995 study, 34 percent of middle school students and 20 percent of high school students admitted they feared becoming victims of school violence. The study also said 8 percent of teachers are threatened with violence at school an average of once a month. Two percent report being physically attacked each year. In a single school year in New York City, 3,984 teachers reported violent crimes against them.

The solution involves a combination of physical and electronic precautions, which is why electronic security matters in the safe-schools equation.

Access control, for example, is used to secure parking lots and doors. Cameras are used to keep an eye on locations where criminal acts are likely to occur. General intrusion systems assure that people cannot enter after hours.

Traditional security companies and system integrators can break through the barriers that so often prevent them from enjoying a piece of the pie. Partnering with other contractors can open doors, while there are several tools at one’s diposal to secure campus installation jobs.

Security Firms Wedge a Foot in the Schoolhouse Door
Security companies and independent consultants are key to the use of security technology in public schools. Where the job involves maintenance or a small add-on — with an estimated cost under a predetermined dollar amount — the security contractor may be able to go directly to the school system. Where the job involves new work and large price tags, a traditional security firm may have to resort to whom they know. The other option is a partnership with a company that already has a foot wedged in the schoolhouse door.

Going it on your own can be difficult, but one way to do this is to ferret out bid opportunities and contact the appropriate parties. Architects, general contractors (GCs), school boards and electrical contractors (ECs) are good sources of possible contracts. Newspapers often carry legal notices that tell of upcoming government projects, including schools. There are also clipping services that seek out legal notices, sending them to those who subscribe.

Some of the tools available also include online services like SSI’s LeadTracker (found at www.ssileadtracker.com). In this case, E-mail is sent to the security firm that provides all necessary information for construction projects within those areas of interest designated by the subscriber.

Search terms and coverage areas are defined early on to assure that the subscriber does not waste time reading material that doesn’t apply to his or her firm. You can also specify certain kinds of projects, such as fire and burglar alarm installations. A brief summary of each project is provided with a hyperlink that leads to a more detailed description. Another way to gain access to bid opportunities requires a security dealer to pay a visit to a plan room, where all proposed construction documents, including bid results, are held for review. Security contractors can join an organization like F.W. Dodge or Associated General Contractors, or get involved with a Builders Exchange plan room.

“Rather than putting a deposit down to buy the plans, we do all of that here as we actively recruit [architects and others] to send us their plans for our plan room. The contractor can come in and estimate the job here or they can make copies of whatever they need and take it with them,” says Krystal Arvay, plan room coordinator with The Builders Exchange of Akron Inc. in Akron, Ohio.

Such a plan room comes equipped with drafting tables on which security dealers can place blueprints and specification books for close examination (see photo on page 48 of March issue). A dealer can do the take-off there or copy the relevant material using an on-site copy machine.

Arvay’s organization also offers a virtual plan room where member contractors can view blueprints and specification books online. In addition, they can print out any of the online plans using an ordinary printer as well as a blueprint copy machine.

Some local BXs do not specialize in an on- or off-site plan room. In some cases they offer other contractor-related services, such as negotiations. In addition to the plan room, Arvay’s 100-year-old organization provides educational programs, as well as healthcare benefits and workers compensation programs.

Architects, EEs and GCs Can Open School Doors for Security Firms
Another avenue open to security contractors is direct contact with architects, electrical engineers (EEs) and GCs.

“A letter of introduction that describes the nature of the firm, its services, its capabilities, is important. At the very least it could get a contracting firm on a notification list that the architectural or engineering firm sends out for new projects,” says Jim Hiller, Security Systems Specialist with Swanson Rink of Denver. “While not guaranteed, the letter of introduction can help ensure that your firm is included on the bid notifications.”

A letter of introduction paves the way for future dialogue and the information that you provide will be placed in a file for future reference. Follow-up mailings, telephone calls, company newsletters and informative brochures will further increase the likelihood that your services will one day be needed. This is especially true if your firm handles a brand that is required on a bid specification.

“Frequently, school districts have an established brand of security equipment that they use. Being a factory-authorized dealer of these brands can improve the opportunities of working with the district,” adds Hiller.

There will be times when no matter what you do, your firm will not get the job. In this regard, the keys to winning a school contract lie more in who you know than what you know.

“Even as a 50-plus-year-old engineering firm, we still witness this phenomena — not only with our newer technology group, but with our core MEP business,” says Hiller.

Electrical Contractors Overlooked for Campus Work
One overlooked source of work in the security industry is the EC. Most sizable ECs have a plan room of their own where security dealers can view upcoming school projects to bid on. Many times, the best way to gain access to bid opportunities in schools is to partner with an EC.

“Typically, in new construction [and major remodels], the electrician does the majority of the installation work. They will install the infrastructure — such as the conduit and cable — and then the security contractor will do the trim-out, meaning they furnish, install and terminate the devices,” says Hiller.

The reason for this is two-fold. First, ECs operate in this venue on a daily basis, which means they know the system. Second, these firms have developed a close relationship with architectural firms, EEs, GCs and school boards.

“Some of the low-voltage specialty subsidiaries of larger electrical contractors have done quite well here locally, but not in bidding against nonunion security contactors,” says Fred Zagurski, principal owner of Fred Zagurski Consultants of Edmond, Wash. (see sidebar on page 52). “The average electrical contractor usually is not acquainted with security systems.”

For this reason, it’s important an able and knowledgeable security company be employed for the more highly technical aspects of the job. This is because the security firm has practical know-how and specialized knowledge that the EC may not.

A good example of this involves a handful of fire-alarm equipment companies that - knowing the profit potential associated with doing business with electrical firms - assembled a technical field component to perform the trimouts, programming, commissioning and end-user training. In addition, they offer comprehensive maintenance agreements.

There is no reason why determined, technically astute security contractors cannot do the same in the school market.

“It is the security company that programs and tests the system, which is also termed commissioning the system,” Hiller says. “Acceptance testing and owner training is included at this level. Operation and maintenance [O&M] documents are also delivered by the security contractor and maintenance agreements are finalized.”

Since a working partnership is in the best interest of all concerned, it behooves security companies to routinely contact sizable ECs in their locale. When doing so, they should acquaint the EC with the various services they offer, the products they sell and other details that may prove helpful.

Bid Process Requires Diligence, Foresight and Accuracy

The bid process is not complicated but there are procedures that must be followed or the bid could be disqualified.

In most cases, those parties who expect to bid on a project are required, or strongly encouraged, to attend a pre-bid meeting. Security firms should take advantage of this because it will give them a good idea what the job is all about. It can provide details that might otherwise not be known.

A pre-bid meeting also enables a security contractor to find out who is the competition. This can be a big help in winning school contracts, as the bidder comes to better know the practices and profit margins used by each competitor in their locale.

A pre-bid information form, usually drawn up by the bidder, is also handy as it acts as a central depository of all information collected during the prebid phase. The physical characteristics of the job can be listed, as well as names of competitors, various team players and details regarding the job that would not have been known had the bidder not attended.

A pre-bid meeting usually includes a walkthrough, which reveals helpful details related to construction and the mounting of detection devices, cameras, card readers and other items. If any one of these elements goes awry, it can adversely affect profit margins as well as the level of protection for the school.

The pre-bid meeting also helps the security contractor formulate a comprehensive security plan. Planning is essential to good security, and doing it right the first time is integral to the mission of protecting school property, students and staff.

The Center For The Prevention Of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C., says such a plan tends to focus on controlling access to school property as well as maintaining control on it. When appropriate, the plan may include some application of technology, such as use of metal detectors or surveillance cameras.

Scope Letters Minimize Adverse Effect of Slanted Bid Packages

Perhaps one of the most important aspects related to the school project bid process is that architects and electrical engineers who put the bid packages together must have the financial well being and best interest of those who hired them. This means that the specifications they write are ultimately slanted in favor of the school system.

There is a way to minimize the effects of a slanted specification. The security company can write a scope letter and include it with the quotation.

A scope letter spells out exactly what the security firm intends to do, regardless of the written specification. It should spell out in simple terms the conditions under which the alarm company agrees to provide product, technical assistance and other issues related to the work at hand. Above all, it should not promise more than is already included in the bid specs.

In this letter, you can describe the project as you see it, as well as any concerns you may have concerning the specification or job itself. Make no mistake; the purpose of the scope letter is to negate the unfair and slanted conditions called for in the specification, which is part of the bid package. Do not mention the slanted requirements as stated in the bid package spec.

Your scope letter should cross reference the original specification, citing the date of issue and the originating entity’s name. It should state that the scope letter is the result of your review of the specifications and blueprints. It also should name the architect( s) with the date of issuance or some other method of reference so there is no doubt to which set of documents you are referring to.

In order for the scope letter to be successful, send it to all relevant parties as soon as possible. In other words, timing is everything. The entity of concern must receive your scope letter well enough ahead of any deadline so they can act on the information you provide. It may come to pass that they take some of your suggestions and create an addendum, at which point they will send it to all bidders. Not only would a delay be unfair to all concerned, it could go count against the alarm company if submitted at the last minute.

If you are aware of the various types of contracts, your scope letter might even include a specification as to which one you will or will not accept. ECs, for example, commonly accept the contract offered by the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

One of the problems often associated with a scope letter is perception. The client may perceive your firm as being difficult to work with. Because of this, put your public relations hat on when writing the letter. Be sure to give examples of where your firm was successful in helping others on similar projects.

Be Aware of Subtle Conditions That Can Kill a Potential Job

There are a few other aspects of the bid process of which security firms need to be aware. For example, one of the most common slants to a bid spec involves the use of security guards during the construction of the new school project.

The overwhelming question should be: Who is responsible for paying for security guards? If the bid spec states that the security contractor must pay, then you need to find out whether other subcontractors will be required to “chip in” and help pay for this service. Again, there are many tricks that architects play when endeavoring to protect their clients.

Another ploy you will encounter from time to time is of the fire watch. Because the security firm is responsible for the fire alarm detection system in the building, the question to ask is: Will we be responsible for paying for fire watches until the fire alarm system is complete? This issue could come up when there is welding being done inside the structure.

Also note the possible need for special tools, ladders and other paraphernalia as required by contract or Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) mandates. There are other considerations that must be taken into account before you can come up with a fair number for your quotation. For example, will you have full access to the grounds or will you, as a company, be limited to certain areas during certain phases of the job?

A good example of this is a new gym floor. Once the new floor goes down, technicians will likely not have another opportunity to use a motorized lift for aerial work. Such work includes running cables and mounting cameras, fire alarm notification appliances, fire pulls, motion detectors and protective device covers.

Power can also be a problem. Will there be temporary power on-site or will you have to rent or purchase one or more portable generators?

Tom Shreves, executive president of the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), says retainage should also be a concern for security firms. “Let’s say I have a job and the customer intends to hold 10 percent of my money. I can either pay my subs - which includes the security contractor - everything I owe them or I can hold back some percentage of his money,” he says.

Not every electrical company will hold back a percentage of their subcontractor’s money, but it’s been known to happen. Perhaps it is wise that security contractors keep this and all the other possibilities cited in mind and price the job accordingly.


Article Topics
Intrusion · Constitutional Rights Foundation of Los Angeles · Features · School Security · All Topics
Constitutional Rights Foundation of Los Angeles, Features, School Security


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