building exterior with walkway bridge

Securing a Safer Campus

Security and access control upgrades at University of Tennessee Knoxville seek to enhance safety of students and staff

By Dan Hounsell, Senior Editor  

In one sense, recent upgrades at the University of Tennessee Knoxville have brought the campus’s access control and security systems and equipment into the 21st century, and they take advantage of advances in security technology. In another sense, however, the project sought to address what has become a very real threat to many institutional and commercial facilities: active shooters. 

“After recently going through our emergency management training, we went through some historic events,” says Ed Householder, architect and capital projects program manager with the university’s facilities services department. “It's been more than 10 years since the Virginia Tech incident, but that changed legislation. After that event, and I hate to say it, but the further we go in this world, the more we think of it when and not if.” 

The Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007, in which a gunman killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in a student dormitory and classroom building on the campus, have had an enormous impact on the security precautions and preparations made by many higher education facilities, including the University of Tennessee Knoxville. 

Goals and funding 

The University of Tennessee Knoxville campus features 257 buildings across 920 acres that host more than 36,000 students and 1,700 faculty members. Many of the facilities required attention to bring their security and access control systems up to date. 

"The upgrades were part of an initiative to help campus security,” Householder says of the projects, for which planning started in 2019. “We have a lot of buildings that before this project had no electronic access control or schedule blocking. We had some that did still have maglocks, which the fire marshal doesn't like at all. 

“It involved updating and upgrading facilities all across campus. What could we do to reach the biggest population of students?” 

The upgrades specifically sought to replace outmoded equipment and components with advanced security technology. 

"We were securing as many academic buildings as we could, upgrading the systems from antiquated maglocks to electrified hardware with electric strikes or electrified panics,” says Chris Webb, an electrician foreman with facilities services. “We’re working to get away from physical keys to have more card access so you can document who's coming and going in the building.” 

The outmoded equipment also included door operators. 

"We've had to upgrade some of our ADA operators with the new technology,” Householder says. “There've been added relays. Sometimes, it's an antiquated operator that our guys have somehow kept working well past its usable lifespan and you know, we've just had to replace it. Now we've got brand new operators, so that will help the future maintenance.” 

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The upgrades also aim to give campus security and facilities services expanded capability to monitor movements in and out of campus buildings. 

“We can automatically schedule doors to open so the maintenance staff doesn't have to go around in the mornings and unlock buildings or physically go back at in the evenings,” Webb says. “We can schedule control and monitoring for any non-entrances — stair exits — that would not have hardware on the outside. No one should be entering those doors, but if they were propped for any reason, central alarm or the police department would be notified that we have a door being propped open so they could go investigate.” 

Upgrades of about 40 campus buildings, which should be completed by the end of April, started with buildings around Neyland Stadium, where the university’s football team plays, due to the security measures taken leading up to game days. 

"We started around the stadium because you do a lockdown during? the pre-ballgame on Friday,” Webb says. “The stadium was our starting point. Then we worked around the perimeter.” 

Given the financial limitations many public universities face in funding such projects, Householder says the emphasis for the security upgrades was on maximizing the available funds. 

"We're trying to squeeze every last drop of money out of this project, so we're actually adding some buildings because we have some unused contingency and we're not piecemealing this,” he says. Financial considerations actually led the department to rethink priorities once the upgrades began. 

"In the beginning, we were putting readers on every door,” Webb says. “That cost us a lot of money, so we kind of backed up and decided to only put readers on the main access points for students and faculty. 

“We electrified the other doors with door contacts. They're on an access zone, so they'll lock and unlock on a timer, but you've only got certain main access points. You're saving about $500 to $600 at a time on the reader.” 

The upgrades also have allowed the facilities services department to better standardize the equipment and systems throughout campus buildings. 

"We've been through four different systems on campus as far as the hardware that runs it,” Webb says. “Now we've got a campus standard, and if it's a new building, that's what we ask the contractor to put in. We stock it, and if something breaks, we've got stock on hand to fix.” 

Performance and feedback 

As the security and access control upgrades wind down at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, the facilities services department is in the process of fine-tuning the equipment and systems that already have been installed. 

"You've got doors that haven’t been touched in 20 years and now you're trying to lock them down,” Webb says. “You may have to have new closures, so you adjust the door frames. You want them to shut all the way when you get done. We've got a punch list that the contractor will write down when he checks off the building. We send that to our zone maintenance people, and they go out and do the punch list.” 

Such efforts are routine components in many facility upgrades. 

“It was nothing we didn't expect,” says Derek Bailey, the university’s assistant vice chancellor of facilities operations. “The punch list is normal anytime you do a project like this. As far as the project, it went about as good as expected from my point of view.” 

Anytime technology changes, some resistance is expected, no matter how smoothly the actual work goes, and the university’s security upgrades were no exception. 

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"Some people are pleased, and some people will find fault with anything you do,” Householder says. “Some folks don't like change. They like their keys. They don't like to be tracked, and they feel like they're being tracked. If you're swiping in and out, perhaps, but now when the door automatically unlocks or locks, you don't have that concern. We've had a little pushback with some folks.” 

One campus group that is likely to benefit from the upgrades, at least in the long term, are the front-line technicians responsible for ensuring the performance of the newly installed equipment. 

"You're working on doors that haven't been touched in 20-30 years, and you're getting those working properly,” Bailey says. “But once you get through that punch list, it's definitely making the workload on the zone maintenance folks easier. 

"Now, they're going through checking their doors in the morning. If there’s an issue, they're spending time making adjustments. Once the punch list is done, that should be just a walk and check the door and move on to the next one.” 

Challenges and lessons 

As with any major upgrade project, the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s access control and security upgrades have presented challenges for the facilities services department overseeing them. Some of the challenges showed up during the planning stage. One involved getting a sense of the project’s scope. 

"You'd be surprised,” Householder says. “No matter how well you know a building, when you start to quantify ways into a building or access points, many things get missed that a whole team of people can walk past easily.” 

Another challenge in the preparation stage involved communication with building occupants. 

"Before you ever start a building, be sure to let your building occupants know who's going to be there, what's going to happen, where they're going to be,” Webb says. “We had a few issues in the start with that. ‘Who are these guys, and why are they here?’” 

The upgrades also ran into challenges related to the supply chain, specifically card readers. 

“The University of Tennessee card readers are programmed by a certain company,” Householder says. “They're manufactured by company A, and they go to Company B to be programmed, and it was more than a year of lead time. With every update the supplier was trying to get or subcontractor was trying to get, it was never getting any shorter. And then one day, the dam broke and they all showed up.” 

Finally, Webb points to an issue that any manager or technician working in existing facilities can empathize with, namely issues presented of challenging materials and the need to protect the appearance of the facility. 

“Getting from point A to B and some hard-ceiling areas, we had to do a lot of wire mold to try to make it look good,” Webb says. “We've got a lot of nice buildings here, and you want to make it look presentable.” 

Dan Hounsell is senior editor for the facilities market. He has more than 30 years of experience writing about facilities maintenance, engineering and management. 

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  posted on 3/7/2024   Article Use Policy

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