6 Security Pros Share Intercom Opportunities, Success Stories
A half-dozen pros serving various vertical markets tell how they are deploying intercoms to meet security and other communications needs.
Today’s intercoms have become the go-to tool for many security and communications needs. Both camera-equipped and audio-only models are providing entry control, emergency assistance and multiple facility communication. And IP-based models use corporate networks to share voice and video information around the world.
These easy-to-use and -install systems can provide a cost-effective solution, and they typically integrate well with existing access control and video surveillance systems.
So it’s not surprising they’re commonly installed in commercial, government and multitenant residential facilities, and are virtually universal on K-12 and higher-education campuses. Here’s a look at how and why six security professionals routinely specify and/or install intercoms.
Many end users are installing video intercoms primarily for their communications abilities. Rex Free, owner of Amber Video and Audio Services, Huntsville, Ala., says video intercoms make ideal communication devices. One of his major customers operates rock and asphalt quarries in Alabama and Mississippi.
After drivers load their trucks they’re expected to drive to a scale and check in with one of the company’s dispatch offices, which may or may not be onsite. Years ago, CB radios provided the communications link. But as the radios went the way of VCRs, the quarries switched to landline telephones.
“Some new drivers just didn’t see the phones and would sit there as trucks backed up behind them,” Free says. “The dispatchers wanted an intercom so they could talk with drivers and tell them to pick up the phone.”
But there were concerns about an intercom’s ability to survive in a rough environment. There were also worries about the units’ ability to be heard over diesel engines and excavation machinery.
An initial pilot program used a stainless-steel, networked-based IP video intercom along with an amplifier and horn to boost sound levels. The intercom was mounted so it would be about 3 feet from a driver’s window.
The unit worked well and quickly became popular with both drivers and dispatchers. The intercom allowed dispatchers to initiate conversations with drivers — even those 100 miles or more away. Units were soon installed at other quarry sites.
Free found the intercoms’ volume was sufficient without the added expense of amplifiers, speakers and horns. And the units have held up well to the environment, even to an occasional grazing by a truck’s sideview mirror.
“It wasn’t long before my client asked if the intercoms could link all company sites,” Free says. The intercoms were a hit with dispatchers and company officials. The system let dispatchers needing to leave their desks transfer incoming calls to another office. Seeing how well the networked system worked, Free came up with a real money-saving idea for his customer.
“The company was able to cut phone lines and just go with the intercoms to communicate between dispatch offices,” he adds. “Intercoms have helped our customer take care of a communications problem and they’re also saving money.”
After 1999’s shooting at Columbine High School, security experts recommended keeping exterior campus doors locked at all times. But that didn’t accommodate visitors — parents, volunteers and vendors — that needed access.
Video intercoms solved the problem. Patrick Fiel Sr., founder of PVF Security Consulting outside of Wilmington, N.C., was among the first to include video intercoms on a large scale when he served as executive director of security for the District of Columbia Public Schools from 1997 to 2002.
He says working with the assistance of an integrator he had 104 video intercoms — approved by the school superintendent and the school board — installed at all elementary schools during his first summer after taking the job.
“Success comes with controlling access,” he says. “That means limiting the number of doors that can be used for entry on any campus. Exterior doors need to be locked. And at a K-12 school, visitors should be limited to one door that is clearly marked.”
A video intercom at the front door allows campus staff to see and speak with visitors before unlocking the door to let them in. Fiel says faculty and staff often use secondary doors. Some video intercom models include built-in access control card readers that teachers can use to quickly enter the building. If they forget their card, they use the intercom the same way as a visitor.
Delivery doors are another entry where Fiel says he often places video intercoms. Multiple door stations can be linked to a single master station in the school office. Fiel says a typical college and university campus can’t limit and lock entries the same way a K-12 school can. But there are uses for video intercoms in higher education. In his job as a security consultant, he says he’s specified video intercoms at dormitory entries and outside doors to student rooms.
Statistics show up to half of campus crime occurs in or around dormitories. Fiel says the units can also protect interior doors, such as entries to offices of top campus administrators and laboratories. Emergency stations, with an embedded video intercom, provide an instant link between distressed students and campus police or security.
They’re easily recognizable with bright blue lights atop each unit — which can be wall mounted in a parking garage or installed as a free-standing tower along a pedestrian path.
“They are on and available 24/7, Fiel says. “A dispatcher immediately sees the precise location of the call, and the intercom’s cameras provide more information to help dispatchers determine how to best handle a call. A second nonemergency button lets visitors needing directions or any type of assistance.”
Fiel says the towers can be assembled by a two-man crew without the need of a crane. The embedded IP-based video intercoms connect to the campus network, drawing power over the Ethernet using Cat-5e/6 cable. Intercom stations require no POTS line, saving monthly phone bills.
Mathew Amerman, president and CEO of Phoenix-based Intelligrated Communications, says his firm is in the process of updating intercoms for a network of charter schools in Arizona and Nevada.
Each campus uses a video intercom as an entry control device and also as a way for teachers and office administrators to communicate. He says they’re great for making morning announcements or letting a student know her parents are in the office waiting to take her to a dentist’s appointment.
The intercoms also handle two bell schedules — one for the elementary school students and another for those in middle school. According to Amerman, they can also play a role in emergency communication.
“We’ve added amplifiers and speakers in the hallways, so the system can be used to provide information throughout the building in case of a manmade or natural emergency.”
Healthcare facilities often use Intercoms as a security and communications tool. David Gaines, director of healthcare business development for Dayton, Ohio-based Copp Integrated Systems, says acute care hospitals install intercom stations at remote doors, including shipping docks.
Typically, they choose audio-only models as most have extensive surveillance camera systems monitoring exterior doors. Video intercoms are more likely to be used by specialty clinics, such as an urgent care facility, to identify visitors after dark. Gaines recalls a recent senior living community using video intercoms to link resident stations with a master station monitored by nurses.
“We set up an aerial wireless nurse call system so when the intercom button is pushed the nurse sees a photo of the resident, room number and background health information,” he says. “We’ll soon add the ability to transfer calls to a network phone being carried by nurses while on their daily rounds.”
Gaines says memory care facilities often use video intercoms much like a school. All doors are locked to prevent unwanted visitors from entering and patients from leaving. An intercom is placed at the entry to the unit. Visitors request entry by calling the nurse’s station.
Academy Mailbox of Hicksville, N.Y., began installing audio-only intercoms on multitenant residential buildings throughout the New York City area in 1948. Company president Matthew Arnold says video intercoms came along in the 1980s.
He refers to them as a “gateway” letting tenants make informed decisions about who they allow into their building. Arnold says many of his customers are creating vestibules just inside main entries to control tailgating — people coming into the building along with an approved visitor.
By mounting a second video intercom inside the locked vestibule, tenants have another chance to see who’s coming in. “The second intercom may be a minor inconvenience, but it can greatly improve building security.”
He says his team frequently places an audio intercom on the desk of a doorman who uses the system to check with residents before letting a visitor in. When the doorman is away, master video intercom stations in each apartment let residents make the decision about who enters.
Many of Academy’s jobs are in buildings with previous intercom systems. Arnold says he’s able to keep projects more affordable by often reusing existing cabling — typically copper in a PVC sheath that should still last for decades. Running new cable would double the cost of a project and add weeks to the completion time.
He says updating tenant names and dialing numbers for an IP-based system can now be more convenient using an NFC-equipped phone or tablet. Also, integrators can gain a source of recurring revenue by offering remote updating services to their customers.
During the past few years, dealers and integrators have gained a new partner for intercom installation. Scott Werner, a sales executive for The Flying Locksmiths, a 70-year-old franchise locksmith firm, says a new generation in his profession now routinely installs intercoms and other low-voltage security equipment.
“If it’s on the door, we handle it,” he says. “The public opinion when it comes to locksmiths is they open cars or take care of lock-outs — that’s maybe 1% of our business. We’re commercial locksmiths and physical security experts moving into intercoms so we can provide our customers with the latest cutting-edge technology to make them feel safe and secure.”
Werner says intercoms are easy to install and his company takes advantage of factory training classes. He says he realizes locksmiths are getting into a segment of business typically thought of being reserved for security dealers and integrators.
“Integrators leverage us as a resource,” Werner says. “They need someone from a craftsman’s standpoint to install these systems while securing doors with electric strikes or mag locks. This has turned out to be a mutually beneficial partnership.”
The Flying Locksmiths will handle the installation of equipment on up to 10 doors with dealers or integrators still handling larger projects.
An Integrated Layer
No matter if it’s a dealer, integrator or locksmith doing the installation, video intercoms are being used more frequently as a vital integrated layer of an overall security or communications plan.
The units provide valuable video, as well as intelligible voice communications to meet security and communications needs.
They’ve come a long way from the days of being a voice-only communications device for a single building.
Technical Sales and Support Engineer Paul Hefty is a 32-year veteran of Redmond, Wash.-based Aiphone Corp.
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