Big IP Module on Campus

Davidson College, the nationally-respected liberal arts school located near Charlotte, N.C., is a case-in-point of how IP-based alarm signal communications is hastening the evolution of traditional security and fire/life-safety systems.

Strapped with excessive recurring cost to operate its legacy solution, the college turned to its long-time systems integration partner to engineer a way to shift the primary monitoring infrastructure to its campus fiber network. CRS Building Automation Systems Inc., based in Charlotte, recommended the installation of IP communications modules to greatly reduce dependency on plain old telephone service (POTS) lines and allow the college to continue using its existing fire and intrusion control panels.

The recently completed project resulted in an immediate 50-percent operational cost savings. While saving money was the primary motivator for going IP, Davidson College, like other IP adopters, is realizing substantial added benefits as well, such as improved system functionality.

Security contractors exploring the potential for adding IP-based alarm solutions to their arsenal can look to the college as fertile ground for learning a wide scope of topics involved in this networked arena. Among the considerations: T1 and DSL (digital subscriber line) pathways; system reliability; speed and bandwidth issues; and obstacles that are slowing the adoption of IP alarm solutions.

Cost Savings Boon

More than 70 fire alarm systems from a variety of manufacturers protect residence halls, classrooms and administrative buildings throughout Davidson’s 450-acre campus. Previously, two phone lines connected each panel to the public switched telephone network (PSTN) for communications, requiring 140 dedicated phone lines to communicate with National Monitoring Center (NMC), a central monitoring station in California.

All of these systems now communicate to the central station using Bosch Conettix C900V2 dialer capture Ethernet modules, which work universally with the   college’s existing Bosch D6412 control panels and those from other manufacturers. The modules use IP as the primary communication method to the central station. If the network should ever fail, phone lines connecting the panels to the college’s private branch exchange (PBX) switch serve as the back-up.

“We were looking for a product that would work with any panel and be able to send our signals rather than us having to purchase proprietary brand equipment to work with each individual manufacturer,” says Phillip (Skip) Cashion Jr., president and director of field operations for CRS. Cashion, who graduated from Davidson College in 1985, founded the company with CEO Darryl Roy about 20 years ago. “The C900V2 will work with virtually any digital communicator.”

The panel’s existing dialer plugs into the module, which essentially fools the dialer into thinking it is talking to a central station and then transmits the information across the Internet to the central station.

By eliminating the direct connections to the PSTN for each panel, the system’s operations costs have reduced significantly: each line had cost the college about $30 per month, and savings to date are estimated at about $90,000. The IT department, which was responsible for footing the hefty phone line bill, has calculated that the upgraded system is resulting in an impressive return on investment.

“We have already experienced a 50-percent cost savings now and expect that number to increase to 75 percent in the near future,” says Brent Babb, an IT project manager at Davidson College.

To accommodate the installation of the IP modules — which are placed in the panel or mounted directly adjacent to it — the IT department provided a network drop at each location. Because   every building was already connected to the campus’s fiber-optic network, the college is now truly leveraging its existing infrastructure, says Tom Mechler, a Bosch Security Systems product marketing manager.

“You are finding another way to get value out of that infrastructure that you already maintain. In the case of Davidson College, they already had a data network,” Mechler says. “Why not find other ways to get value out of that? Especially when that value gives you higher security and all of the other benefits they derive from going to network.”

 

IP Offers Increased Functionality

IP communications between the control panels and the receiver offer the college greater protection; the panels send supervisory messages every 90 seconds to the receiver at the central station to ensure the system is functioning properly. If the central station receiver does not receive an acknowledgement message, the central station operator is alerted.  IP communications are also received faster by the central station than those previously transmitted via a phone line, which in turn, improves response time to an alarm.

“In the past, the [legacy system] had to pick up the phone, dial the receiver, wait for the receiver to answer, which probably took [90 seconds] for all of that to happen, and pop up on the screen at the central station,” Cashion says. “Now it’s on the screen in seconds.”

The upgrade has also helped the college reduce the amount of time required to fix any issues impacting the system. “It is definitely more reliable. If anything on the network goes down, we know about it instantly,” Babb says.

In the past, the college sometimes waited up to two days for service from the phone company. Now the IT staff is alerted automatically in the event of a problem, in which case they can send one of their own internal staff members to fix the problem right away rather than having to wait on the phone company.

Alarms Are Easy on Bandwidth

Unlike IP-based video surveillance data transmission — which can otherwise be referred to conservatively as a bandwidth hog — a fire alarm event initiates a negligible amount of transmitted data. Existing network infrastructure, such as Davidson College’s T1 line, can easily absorb the additional security and fire alarm panel traffic.

“The bandwidth that is used for alarm transmissions is very small and will not contribute significantly to the total usage,” Mechler says.

However, security contractors can expect IT personnel, especially those new to the realm of electronic security, will pointedly inquire about the amount of additional data load.

“It definitely crossed our minds and we did ask those questions,” Babb says. “However, our backbone bandwidth was more than capable of handling anything it needed for this alarm system.”

Even if the college had required additional capital investment in bandwidth, the benefit from going IP, and saving $30 per month on about 80 POTS lines, still would have justified the expenditure. “No matter how we looked at it, it was a positive,” Babb says.

T1, DSL and Beyond

A DSL can also provide another means of Internet connectivity for IP alarm transmission. Cost and reliability will have to be weighed.

“A T1 line can run a $1,000 a month, and a DSL is closer to $100. But both are perfectly acceptable,” says Roy.

DSL, for instance, can be implemented to replace a POTS line as a backup to the primary T1 pathway. T1 lines do come with an additional reliability assurance not available with DSL: “A T1 provider guarantee you a certain amount of uptime,” says Steve Payne, a veteran network/security system s
ales engineer and SSI’s “Convergence Channel” columnist. “What you get with a T1 is a service guarantee and by contract they have to keep that l

About the Author

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Although Bosch’s name is quite familiar to those in the security industry, his previous experience has been in daily newspaper journalism. Prior to joining SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION in 2006, he spent 15 years with the Los Angeles Times, where he performed a wide assortment of editorial responsibilities, including feature and metro department assignments as well as content producing for latimes.com. Bosch is a graduate of California State University, Fresno with a degree in Mass Communication & Journalism. In 2007, he successfully completed the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association’s National Training School coursework to become a Certified Level I Alarm Technician.

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