Access control from an electrical engineer's perspective

March 2006 Access Control & Identity Management

Ken Gafner is a director at Rawlins Wales and Partners, a firm of consulting electrical engineers who undertake the full range of building services including safety and security systems, building automation, electrical reticulation and specialised building systems.

The Rawlins Wales engineers play an advisory role in the building process, for the purposes of this article Gafner focuses on the company's role in the security aspect of buildings.

"We start with the proverbial blank sheet and make sure the building is security-friendly," is how he describes it. The first step is to create a report on how we visualise the security principles will work in practice. More often than not clients want high security but they do not want it to be intrusive. Sometimes the clients have seen articles on security systems in place in buildings overseas and they want a similar implementation, but it must be appropriate for a specific project.

"During the days of isolation, South Africans had to develop their own solutions but now that we are, so to speak, part of the world again we can use and adapt the technologies and solutions used elsewhere. South Africans are very good at implementing leading-edge technology as soon as it has been proved to work effectively, we tend to keep a close watch on international trends and implement them accordingly. Our needs are not unique and having the world class equipment available locally helps in providing the optimum solution.

The basic principles of security have not changed much at all - the external perimeter is secured and provides early warning of intrusion, the building perimeter is typically the next level followed by high security areas, such as data centres contained within the perimeter. Each shell is nested and protected to a progressively higher level.

The key to effective protection is providing a consistent level of protection everywhere on each shell together with a balance of physical security, systems security and operating procedures.

Clients are made aware of any holes in potential 'shallow protection' areas, for example it is no use controlling the access through the reception area of a building if there is an unguarded entrance granting access through the car park. This is a typical example of not having balance or equivalent protection in every layer of the 'shell'.

Twenty years ago a card reader and pin code were adequate forms of access control. In the last five years the trend has been towards card readers coupled with some form of biometrics, fingerprint readers being the most common form.

Higher-technology access control started in places like the computer rooms of companies, where the people involved understood the need for the protection of assets. Now there is an increasing need to control the access of everyone entering a building and there is still a reticence from a few people. There have been huge developments in the technology involved in access control and this has been driven by the use of biometrics for purposes other than access control, for example driver's licences and immigration.

Gradually the general population is becoming more accepting of the use of fingerprints for purposes other than identifying criminals. Coupled with this are the massive advancements in computing abilities, which have added to the effectiveness of more acceptable and quicker forms of biometric access control. This has also driven the increased use of biometric time and attendance solutions linked to the access control systems in use within a company. Time delays in recognising fingerprints have reduced dramatically.

Video recognition technology where individuals are recognised as they pass through entrances has found applications in preventing known hooligans from entering football stadia overseas and has the potential for interesting applications in non-intrusive access control to buildings. It unfortunately still has a way to go and it is not really at a level where it is commercially available yet, but it has the potential to take over from conventional access control in the future.

The last 10 years have also seen enormous advances being made in the technology of CCTV cameras, particularly in the capability of the chips. The cameras have greater intelligence now, add this to the increased computing power available and you have vastly improved facial recognition ability, even remotely or 'on the move'.

The secret to successful access control in buildings is to treat everyone who enters the building in the same way. Behind the scenes more control can be obtained with the use of software programs that can be set to allow only certain people access to certain areas, but at face value it is important not to make any particular person entering a building feel any different to the rest.

Biometrics will be here for a very long time and it will gain more general acceptance as the positive aspects of it become more apparent to the general public."

For more information contact Ken Gafner, Rawlin Wales and Partners, 011 608 5000,

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