Smash and Grab

Smash and Grab

Industry projections may have placed a newfound emphasis on access control and security for government buildings in the wake of 9/11, but the markets available to electrical contractors will likely continue to be schools, hospitals, small businesses, and corporate and industrial facilities. One market virtually guaranteed to show significant gains will be residential installations, thanks to the rising popularity of home networking.

After government contractors get finished with it, the unprecedented amount of access control and security work predicted for 2003 could go faster than big-screen televisions in a downtown riot, so get in while you can. Looting etiquette applies.

“Big” is the only word you can use to describe the access control and security market in 2003. When a research firm like Deloitte Consulting and Aviation Week, a division of McGraw-Hill, estimates that it could cost more than $130 billion this year alone to secure the homeland against terrorist threats, those with an interest in security system installation would do well to consider how best to capitalize on this crush of new work. And with predictions like that, it might seem that there will be more than enough business to go around, but before electrical contractors involved in low-voltage work start rethinking their business strategies to incorporate the potential revenue spikes, those numbers should be qualified.

To be fair, a sizable portion of that work will be snatched up by larger government contractors that specialize in federal work. Projects to increase airport security, a hot-button item since September 11, are already well underway, and in some cases complete. Biometrics technologies like retinal scanning, fingerprint identification, and facial recognition that control airport personnel's access to restricted areas are already in place; biometrics manufacturer Identix, Minnetonka, Minn., has installed its fingerprint scanning technology in almost 150 airports nationwide. So what's left?

Industry projections may have placed a newfound emphasis on access control and security for government buildings in the wake of 9/11, but the markets available to electrical contractors will likely continue to be schools, hospitals, small businesses, and corporate and industrial facilities. One market virtually guaranteed to show significant gains will be residential installations, thanks to the rising popularity of home networking. Although security industry experts differ in opinion on whether electrical contractors are well-suited to the market, they do agree that understanding the changes in the technology, recognizing your own limitations and capabilities, and getting adequate training will determine how much success you have in stealing your piece of the security pie.

Casing the joint.

“The earlier that an electrical contractor gets in, the better because we're in a position right now in the security industry where everything is coming from computer technology,” says Joe Freeman, president and CEO of market research firm J.P. Freeman, Newtown, Conn. The firm's “U.S. Remote & Networked Video Surveillance Market Report” analyzes the advances in closed-circuit television (CCTV) that make it possible for users to keep tabs on their properties — be they residential or business-related — from remote locations. Digital video recorders, which replace standard VHS tape with digital files stored on a PC, make accessing and saving surveillance data easier for users but make at least an elementary knowledge of computer networking and system design a necessity for those contractors who wish to stay competitive in CCTV installation.

Freeman says the ability to combine remote surveillance with alarm monitoring is another key selling point that may convince end-users to try out the technology. In the absence of surveillance, burglar alarms do little more than inform of a security breach, so it's difficult to determine whether the threat is real. Having the option to see via remote surveillance what has caused the disturbance could substantially reduce false alarms and the costly penalty fees they lead to.

But as with any other technological advancement, remote surveillance bring with it an increasingly wide array of products to learn about. The continued popularity of CCTV also requires systems installers to stay abreast of the myriad cameras available. “You have to know what kind of camera applies to what kind of applications,” Freeman says. “You've got color cameras, black-and-white cameras, wedge cameras, dome cameras, hi-resolution cameras, low-light cameras, and night vision cameras. So you have to sit down when you're dealing with a customer and determine what you think he needs in order to write a proposal. And it all starts with the camera.”

While digital and remote monitoring are making inroads on the security side of the industry, biometrics is the technology to watch in 2003 for access control. Proximity cards and access codes have provided adequate means of limiting access to designated personnel up until now. Heightened security concerns brought about by 9/11, however, have prompted many in federal, industrial, and commercial facilities to search for an even stronger method for keeping tabs on who's going where. Biometrics technologies like facial recognition, iris scanning, and fingerprint identification are based upon the principle that people have their own unique pass codes built into their physical features (No Two Are Alike on page 30). Just as no two fingerprints are identical, neither are two irises — the colored, inner part of the eyeball. In fact, researchers in the biometrics field believe the variations in iris structure that differentiate one eye from another are so complex — devices employ a series of algorithms to check the eye being scanned against a database of known irises — that the scanning technique is more effective than fingerprint analysis. Stealing someone's proximity card or learning their access code may not be difficult for a common thief, but stealing their eyeball is another story entirely. (Going to such lengths would still prove worthless, biometrics developers say, because even if a surgical-minded criminal were to cut out an eye recognized by the system and hold it in front of a retinal scanner — a similar device that maps the blood vessels in the white, outer part of the eye — the loss of blood flow would alter the vessel structure in the eye and render it useless.)

Identix, a biometrics manufacturer specializing in facial and fingerprint identification, has its systems in most of the countries largest airports, including John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The company enjoyed a sizable bump in business after November 2001 when the Aviation and Transportation Security Act (ATSA) was signed into law. The ATSA made it mandatory for airports to conduct employee background checks that in most cases involved fingerprint identification.

Since then, however, federal budgetary constraints have slowed the implementation of such systems, and Frances Zelazny, director of corporate communications for Identix, says those budget cuts have also trickled down to local police departments, another of the company's biggest markets. “Right after 9/11 everyone thought that everybody was going to spend whatever money it was going to take [to increase security],” she says. “But as we've seen in the last several months, the economic situation has certainly changed and created significant budgetary turnaround on the state and local levels, particularly. Many of the local governments are facing deficits when just a year-and-a-half ago they had surpluses.”

Even after the money comes back, though, biometrics may face opposition from those who feel threatened by the storage and tracking of personal information via facial scanning and mass fingerprinting (Who's Watching the Watchers? below). Groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) have lobbied against the use of such technologies, calling them invasive and unreliable. Freeman believes privacy issues raised by biometrics will become a campaign platform in the 2004 presidential election and lead to a new body of law that could ultimately decide the future of the technology in security installations. “Congress, along with the judiciary, will face the need to create a whole new body of law that splits this hair as finely as possible so you can get the information you need to provide the security but at the same time prevent it from being used for certain other means,” he says.

Grab your piece of the pie.

Learning where the opportunities lie and what technologies are available is a good first step in taking advantage of the growing security market, but gaining access could prove difficult for contractors who may be interested in expanding their business but have little or no experience with low-voltage work. Both security and electrical installations require the pulling of cable, making the migration to security work seem like a logical step for electrical contractors, but it's not that simple, says Ivyl Todd, vice president of sales for Red Hawk Industries, a Denver-based security systems integrator.

Many electrical contractors have found that the easiest way to get involved with the security market is by doing the physical work in the field — chiefly cable pulling — and leaving the programming and finishing work to the security contractors and integrators. While Red Hawk subcontracts a large portion of such work to outside electrical contractors, Todd says that unless a contractor has experience working with the cable used for security installations — generally Cat. 3 and Cat. 5 unshielded twisted pair cable, and in some cases fiber optics — he won't feel comfortable giving them the job. “A typical electrical contractor — unless they're really into the low-voltage applications — doesn't usually turn out too well,” he says. “It's just a completely different technology. I've found with electricians that some of them are up to it, and some of them aren't.”

Ken Moore, vice president of Moore Systems Services, Berthoud, Colo., characterizes the transition to security work for electrical contractors as an issue of size. “It's a scenario of people with big hands and big screwdrivers and big wires vs. the little screwdrivers and little wires,” he says. “You've got to be more careful with pulling tensions and that type of thing. That's why I've always found it better for the electrical contractor to have people that they only use for security or fire alarms [installation]. It doesn't mean they can't do it, it just means that it's another skill they have to learn.”

The size of your screwdriver isn't the only thing to consider when packing your toolbox. Working with low-voltage cabling requires a different set of tools, particularly those of the connectorizing and punch-down variety. Moore says connector crimpers and strippers for coaxial cable, connector tools for putting S fittings on coax in structured cabling installations, and punch-down tools for data drops are all must-haves for anyone working with security systems.

Electrical contractors with little low-voltage experience but who still want to find a way on to the jobsite can take heart in the fact that security systems still need power. Moore has found electricians are better suited to running conduit and performing the general electrical work required. And while there they have the opportunity to learn a thing or two. “As that progresses they end up getting more familiar with what we do and can do more wiring of the devices in the field. Then all we have to do is come in at the end and do the programming of the system. We've progressed to that level with certain electrical contractors.”

Knowledge of the system pieces aside, Freeman believes electrical contractors are well equipped to grasp the basics of installing a security system, particularly monitoring devices. “They have an advantage here, because what you're dealing with is the logic of a signal,” he says. “It's just like you're dealing with the logic of a power path. It's the same basic logic path that simply transfers itself from power to a video signal.”

Training can open new doors.

Regardless of how much time you spend on the jobsite, though, you can't learn everything from hands-on experience. Moore and Freeman suggest enrolling in one of the training sessions or “boot camps” offered by manufacturers and trade associations. Some manufacturers may even require you to be factory-trained before you can sell and install their products.

Among the training options available to contractors new to the game is the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association's (NBFAA) National Training School (NTS). Since its inception in 1985, the NTS has taught more than 15,000 students. More than 3,800 students were enrolled in 2002, further illustrating that the market is experiencing sharp growth as of late. Courses begin with alarm installation basics, giving contractors the option to survey the industry and decide if they're up to the challenge before making a commitment. Those who decide to stick with it can move on to advanced programs to become certified. The courses can range from roughly $275 to $475, depending on your location and whether you're an NBFAA member, and are offered through each state's local chapter of the association.

Merlin Guilbeau, executive director of NBFAA, echoes Freeman's assertion that electrical contractors have an advantage coming into the program because of their knowledge of power systems, but he wouldn't advise skipping over any of the classes, even if you think you've “been there, done that” with low-voltage installations. “We've had people take [the Level 1 certification course] that range from just entering the industry to being in the industry for 20 years,” he says. “The advantage of the course is that they're not necessarily going to get through higher levels is an overview of the industry itself — where it started and how it evolved.”

Aside from teaching you how to install a security system, however, the courses offer alarm installation certification, which is required by electrical and contractors boards in more than 30 states. The NBFAA's program is recognized by almost two-thirds of those states that require certification.

And although he stands by the quality of the information taught in the association's courses, Guilbeau wouldn't suggest that a graduate of the program go right out into the field and tackle a security installation on his own. “Technically, they could take the class and potentially go out and try to install a security system,” he says. “Practically speaking, I think they would need some hands-on experience before trying it first. If you go into an existing home and start drilling holes and pulling cable and crawling in attics without knowing what you're doing, you could really damage somebody's house.”

NBFAA also offers private classes for companies that prefer not to intermingle their employees with those of potential competitors. In such cases, an instructor will visit a company and conduct the training on-site. “Some people get intimidated,” Guilbeau says. “They think their employees may get solicited by other companies. So if a company calls up the state they're in, they will arrange for a private class.”

There's no question the access control and security market is dominated by security contractors with years of experience in the industry, but as it continues to grow, niches will become available to the industrious electrical contractor looking to break into the business — even if it means doing the work that big players in the industry don't have time for. “I've used a lot of electrical contractors as subs,” Moore says. “And as a systems integrator, I've kept smaller electrical contractors just getting themselves established 100% busy, and their business consisted of just doing work for us.” And in this economy, that kind of job security isn't something to scoff at.

Sidebar:Who's Watching the Watchers?

The proliferation of monitoring devices and biometrics technologies capable of storing large amounts of information on the public is enough to have civil liberties groups crying “Big Brother.” The question for the security and electrical contractors who install these systems is, Will future regulation of biometrics technologies limit their use and minimize a potentially lucrative industry? Biometrics manufacturers like Identix are doing their part to make sure the watchers are being watched.

“The privacy issues lie with who has access to the data and what they are doing with it,” says Frances Velazny of Identix. “We need to make sure that there are penalties and oversight for people that misuse these systems.”

Velazny says Identix doesn't have access to the database of information its products create. “The vendor community has worked very hard to put technical controls in place to make it that much harder to misuse the system,” she says.

Regardless of how responsible manufacturers and users are of biometrics technology, Joe Freeman of J.P. Freeman says the public has to ask itself a question: Do I want to be protected and have information made public that perhaps I don't care for, or do I want all of my information to remain private at all times and place myself in a somewhat vulnerable position?

Sidebar: No Two Are Alike

The old analogy says that fingerprints are like snowflakes — no two are alike. And while mathematicians still debate whether snowflake patterns repeat, the theory about fingerprints has yet to be proven wrong. Fingerprint identification is still the most common form of forensic evidence in police investigations. But when it comes to access control methods, biometrics technology has taken advantage of the uniqueness of human features to present several other options.

Iris scanning.

Patterns in the iris — the colored part of the eye that circles the pupil — contain more than 200 unique spots that differentiate one eye from another. Iris scanners take a high-resolution photograph of the eye with an infrared imager and map those unique spots using a series of complex algorithms. The false acceptance rate — a measure of how frequently an unknown person is incorrectly recognized by a biometrics device — for iris scanning is better than fingerprint identification.

Retinal scanning.

Based upon the same principle that makes iris scanning work, this form of biometrics instead focuses on the blood vessels that originate at the optic nerve and appear in the white, outer part of the eye. Retinal scans also use a light to illuminate the patterns created by these blood vessels and compare them against a known database. Although considered more accurate than iris scanning, it isn't foolproof because retinal vein patterns can change over the course of a lifetime.

Hand scanning.

Finger thickness and length, the height and width of the back of the hand, the distances between joints, and bone structure create a unique geometry for each human hand. Using a flatbed scanner-like device, hand scan imagers create a 3D image that can later be verified in less than a second. However, swelling of the hand and injury can cause the image to change, creating the possibility for false rejections.

Face recognition.

Facial scanning takes an approach similar to hand scanning, mapping the geometry of a face. Like hands, though, the human face can change with weight gain or loss and in extreme cases, with plastic surgery. The technology has been used with video surveillance in high-profile applications, most notably at Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans. Accurate scanning requires a subject to pause and stand still in front of a camera, making it more obtrusive and less likely to see widespread adoption.

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