access control

Understanding Access Control Challenges During the Pandemic

Keeping facilities safe and secure has meant revisiting all aspects of the access control strategy. Here's how some top-tier facility managers were successful.

By Maura Keller  

As the COVID-19 virus took hold of the world 18 months ago, many maintenance and engineering managers set their sights on having workers disinfect high-contact surfaces where the virus could linger and spread in institutional and commercial facilities — notably, drinking fountains, elevator buttons, and restroom fixtures. 

But for facilities across all markets, door hardware and security entrances were also top of mind and vital areas that demanded attention, since doors that are constantly being opened and closed posed a serious challenge to limiting the spread of the virus.

Michael Gips, an expert in security and access control, says that as the first point of contact in facilities, building entrances received a wealth of attention. 

“During the pandemic, the easiest way to deal with entry access was to prop a door open and have security personnel check IDs,” Gips says. “Very few people tended to go into offices so the burden on the officers wasn’t great.

Focus on essential facilities

Access control provided more challenges at facilities that didn’t slow down during the pandemic. Some facilities moved access control outside, where officers screened staff and took temperatures before directing them through an open door, where they would follow a designated path to their work area. 

“We’ve seen some (facilities) switch to mobile access, but that doesn’t relieve the need to touch a handle,” Gips says. “Lots of interior doors were propped open. Closed ones often had hand sanitizer stations on each side. Some (doors) had requests to exit devices that people could tap with their elbow. There were more jury-rigged fixes like this than major hardware overhauls. It’s the balance of minimizing touch points without abandoning security.”

Touchless door hardware and security of building entrance points certainly gained traction during the pandemic, though the uptake numbers aren’t significant yet. A lot of companies are still kicking the tires of touchless technology, Gips says. 

“Generally, staff prefer mobile technology because they rarely leave their phones behind but often lose or loan their access cards,” Gips says. “And they might be charged a hefty fee to replace a card, encouraging them to tailgate or otherwise avoid the fee. Also, some companies use facial recognition, which is effective, but many products can’t identify you if you are wearing a mask. And some employees opt out of facial recognition because of privacy concerns, so these systems should have mobile or less desirable cardkey backups.”

Officials in the Vernon Hills Park District in suburban Chicago chose not to alter their entrance doors to park buildings at the onset of the pandemic. Instead of altering the door entrance handles, and locks, doors were propped open as weather conditions dictated, and occupants had access to hand sanitizers. 

“We noticed early on, when we were allowed to be opened up again, that people were using hand sanitizer regardless of physically opening doors or if the doors were already open,” says James Kim, superintendent of parks for the district. “This was especially true as one of our facilities was a local voting site for the town.” 

In addition, one set of all the park’s entrance doors are equipped with Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant door openers, which are heavily used. Kim actually had Vernon Hills’ maintenance company service the openers regularly during this time.  

“Between camp kids punching the button and everyone else wanting to push the button with their butt, it has been used more than I have ever seen,” Kim says. Vernon Hills has contemplated installing a second set for public use, but the upfront cost and regular maintenance is worrisome.  

“With the uncertainty of where the pandemic was heading and constantly changing guidance from local and federal health departments, we felt that taking a proactive approach to entrances was not appropriate at the time,” Kim says. “In retrospect, I am happy with our decision.”  

As for internal doors, Vernon Hills kept as many doors propped open as much as possible. The district did add auxiliary devices to open doors, such as arm pull handles and foot handles. The arm pull handles have large U-shaped handles that a user can put an arm or elbow through to open a door.  

“We installed many more of the foot handles in our restroom doors especially,” Kim says. “It is a large enough piece of metal at the base of the door with a non-aggressive jagged edge to catch a shoe so that the door can be pulled open. We had to apply a decal with pictograph at eye level for people to see. This was a much less invasive and non-permanent solution for our interior doors.”

Installing card readers at entrances was not financially possible at Vernon Hills because the district would have had to revamp its key and security procedures.  

“With companies and supporting staff in and out all of 2020 and long lead times, we felt this was not a feasible solution to our situation,” Kim says, adding that  Vernon Hills facilities that already have this technology in place will continue to do so.  

“With so much financial uncertainty, I feel that smaller commercial facilities that do not have this infrastructure in place will need to evaluate a cost versus benefit analysis for their specific situation and have a warranted need for this technology,” Kim says. “Prior to the pandemic, we discussed this route in our two major community centers but decided not to pursue it.”  

However, because of staffing issues, Vernon Hills has implemented security and timed locking mechanisms for many of its outdoor restroom facilities in its parks. They utilized lock sets to open and close the restrooms at certain times. 

“In the past, we have had to hire staff to close them at night or contract the local police or community service officers to assist, but even they are having trouble with staffing,” Kim says. 

Long-term impact

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) includes a hospital and research institution in addition to a hospital. Once the pandemic began, safely securing the site became a top priority.

“When COVID began, we had a fairly open environment, but then we really started locking stuff down,” says Gregg Sprowl, access control and security systems program manager, at campus life services, facilities. “We did a lot of assessment of the buildings in terms of the high-touch areas and entries gained. A lot of doors that were swinging doors previously were turned into sliders, and we reduced the amount of entry points in the buildings so now many buildings now only have a single point of entry.”

As another layer of security, UCSF also relies heavily on card readers and will have nearly 5,000 card readers by year’s end.

“Prior to COVID, we were already in the position of having automatic door openers at most building entrances,” Sprowl says. “But as we were evaluating our doors during COVID, those that needed to be replaced anyway were replaced with automatic sliding doors, which was particularly important in our infectious disease program.”

As a result of UCSF’s efforts, not only are there fewer touch points to enter and exit buildings on the campus, but the incidents of vandalism and vagrants in buildings have gone down.

“Because of this, we are going to stick with things this way because they are far more secure buildings,” Sprowl says. “We do have some buildings that were designed years ago as a thoroughfare, which we still have to manage, but overall it’s much better.”

Gips says it remains to be seen what long-term effect COVID has on the door hardware and security protocol. 

"I think we may see fewer doors,” he says. “Of course, doors will protect sensitive areas, such as HR, server rooms, and finance, but you may see unnecessary doors between departments go away, and bathroom entrances with a maze entrance instead of a door. 

Specification challenges

Safety and security are always in balance. Gips says managers must decide whether doors will be fail-safe or fail-secure. Fail-safe should be used on stairwell doors requiring re-entry, as well as other doors critical for evacuation or safety. Fail-secure is best for sensitive areas, such as server rooms and places where HR files are kept. 

“In any case, fail-secure devices should be accessible by a mechanical key,” Gips says. “If facilities managers install automatic doors at main entrances to minimize touching, piggybacking or tailgating becomes a bigger threat as doors take longer to close.”

With so much uncertainty surrounding the ongoing pandemic, Kim says Vernon Hills will continue to install door hardware based on local regulations, as well as the ADA guidelines.  

“I would also ask manufacturers to comment on the durability of the product finishes based on continuous cleaning habits,” Kim says. “We had coatings and finishes on hardware and handles that started to change color and texture due to the harsh constant cleaning. I would imagine that the constant use is not good for the metal finish.”

One of the biggest areas of focus now and in the future for Kim is on continued door security and monitoring of entrances. Vernon Hills upgraded security cameras right before the pandemic with higher-quality cameras and DVR systems.  

“This helped immensely when working with the police department during the early part of the pandemic,” Kim says. “I had also recently implemented a strict key policy. People cannot just ask for a new key without some scrutiny. Constant, diligent, and vigilant monitoring and maintenance is vital. You really need to pay attention to use and alter maintenance or operational procedures to accommodate. Let’s be real, people don’t change and will continue to fall into the same habits and misuse facility amenities.”  

Many managers have learned that policies established during the pandemic will likely result in a new normal for facilities.

“COVID brought to the forefront issues that we simply didn’t have plans for but, in the end, many of these changes were needed and will continue to enhance our buildings into the future,” Sprowl says. 

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  posted on 9/9/2021   Article Use Policy

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