The Facility Technologist: Who

By Tom Condon, RPA, FMA

Published in the May 2010 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

One of the unfortunate realities that facilities managers (fms) are faced with today is the host of security threats that have cropped up in the last decade or so. While terrorism has emerged as the most frightening development in recent years, it is not the only threat fms face; workplace violence, stalking, theft, and vandalism cause plenty of lost sleep for managers. While security systems, video surveillance, and access control are mainstays of most facilities, many organizations neglect one of the most important facets of security: visitor management.

Facilities handle visitor management in various ways. Some do not screen visitors at all, but let them enter and move around the building at will. Other facilities require visitors to sign in, while some just ask for identification. At the lowest end of the spectrum, a signature is all that’s needed for anyone to enter the facility. A higher security level requires guests to have their visit and identification recorded and a badge issued.

While these approaches are commonplace, they all have inherent flaws. Facilities that allow anyone to enter clearly have no concerns about security and are wide open to a host of problems. We’ll skip these places for the purposes of this discussion.

The facilities that require sign-in without ID are only slightly better; they at least have a guard to screen who’s coming in. (That’s great for spotting chainsaw wielding maniacs, but it doesn’t really track who is in the facility and doesn’t spot people who shouldn’t be allowed inside.) Requiring IDs and recording that information is a major benefit to security, since it provides both deterrence and valuable data for forensic investigation.

But even the facility that requires visitors to show IDs and records the information is missing the benefits of a computerized Visitor Management System (VMS). If they are recording this data in books, it is extremely difficult to analyze or search. And if they are issuing temporary access cards within their access control system (ACS), they are only getting a fraction of the capabilities of a VMS.

Let’s walk through what happens with a state of the art visitor management system. This little exercise will demonstrate why it’s a valuable technology tool for the fm.

Pretend I am a building occupant, and I am expecting visitors. I log in to the facility’s VMS, which recognizes me and automatically knows what privileges I have in the system. I click on “add a visitor” and provide the details that the system is configured to require, such as: name, company, date, and time of visit; who they are visiting; and what area of the building they will be given access.

When the visitor arrives, there are two ways he or she can be accepted into the facility. Some facilities have a guard to check the visitor’s ID, look it up in the system, and print an access badge. Other facilities allow visitors to check themselves in at a kiosk. The visitors swipe their driver’s license or state ID through a scanner, and the system reads their information.

Once the system has recognized the visitor and found my authorization to enter, the system prints a visitor badge. Now this is where the best VMS can really shine. It will e-mail, text, or even call my phone and tell me that my guest has arrived. And, if the VMS is integrated with the ACS, the visitor’s badge will allow him or her to proceed through approved access points to come directly to my office area.

The benefits of VMS for security are significant. For example, VMS allows fms to know exactly who entered the facility and when. And looking up visitors is as easy as searching for a name, date, or other information.

This can be extremely useful for forensic purposes, since it gives managers proof that a specific person was in the facility. (It has even been successfully used to prosecute criminals.)

Knowing who is in the facility is also extremely valuable if there is a fire. A good VMS knows who has entered the building that day—both visitors and employees—and can print an occupant list for emergency responders to check off as they search the building. Also, the VMS will screen out dangerous or unwanted people who are included in a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) list. If these people attempt entry, the VMS will not issue a badge, but instead, it will alert guards and send e-mails or text messages to people on an alert list.

The operational efficiency gained from a VMS is also significant. By shifting the data entry to the occupants, guards don’t have to spend time on the phone with occupants scheduling visitors. And letting visitors check themselves in through a VMS kiosk requires no human intervention and takes only a few seconds.

Before fms purchase a VMS, beware: all are not the same. There are still many “dinosaur” products on the market that were designed back in the pre-cloud era. These products have real limitations, so fms should watch out.

Here are some key requirements for a best of breed VMS:

Get a Web based visitor management system. Web based systems are available from any Web browser, which means fms do not have to deal with loading client software on occupants’ computers, and employees can use the system from anywhere. I sometimes book my visitors from home the night before (or from airports or other locations on the road), which is extremely convenient.

Also, in case of a fire, a Web based system that is hosted remotely will still be usable, because it is not inside the building. Consequently, it will still be able to tell the fire department which visitors have entered the building that day.

In today’s Web-centric, cloud computing world, not having Web access to VMS simply does not make sense.

Use scanners that read the bar code on the license, not the face of the license. This is more accurate (and faster) than scanners that look at the printed letters on the face of the license and use optical character recognition to translate the letters into data. An added benefit is that the bar code is more difficult to fake than the face of the license, because it has coded information that allows the VMS to detect a fake license.

Make sure the VMS can integrate with the larger ACS. Rather than have two separate, non-integrated systems, fms should make sure the VMS can talk to whatever ACS tools are in place. This allows the VMS to recognize building occupants, which is very useful if they have forgotten their ACS badge. They can simply register in the VMS using their ID and get a temporary badge, eliminating the effort of providing temporary badges for those forgetful occupants.

Condon, a Facility Technologist and former facility manager, is a contributing author for BOMI Institute’s revised Technologies in Facility Management textbook. He works for System Development Integration, a Chicago, IL-based firm committed to improving the performance, quality, and reliability of client business through technology.