Can You Ever Be Too Safe? Tips on Security Systems for Condos and HOAs

At the outset, let me state that I am not a security expert.  I have, however, spent the past year working with my board of directors to design and implement a quarter-of-a-million dollar security system in our beachfront condominium.  So I thought it might be helpful to share our experiences, and to explain some of the decisions we’ve made and why we made them.

As we discuss in our book, New Neighborhoods, shared ownership communities (SOCs–condos, co-ops and HOAs) are microcosms of society–they have good people and bad people, considerate people and inconsiderate people, all living within a small geographic area–in a condominium, right on top of one another.  This can lead to a lot of uncomfortable conflicts, and, in some cases, even violence.  It’s imperative, therefore, that SOCs have at least SOME plan for protecting their residents and properly securing the property.  This is the first layer of risk management, and perhaps the most important–risk avoidance.

Of course, not every risk can be avoided, and not every crime can be prevented.  Take, for instance, domestic violence.  Can you imagine sitting in your living room and hearing shots and screaming coming from a nearby unit?  It may not be particularly common, but it happens, and it happened about a year ago at my own property.  After a four-hour lockdown of the 240 unit building, infiltration by a swat team and dozens of police officers, and after scouring hours of video camera footage, it was determined that a renter had shot and killed his wife and her adult son, and fled the property.  A terrible tragedy, but one that also illustrated a number of issues with our security system and procedures that the residents felt needed to be rectified.

The first obvious problem was with the system itself.  Like a lot of new properties that were finished at the end of the housing boom, our developer seems to have skimped on a few items towards the end of construction, and the security system was one of them.  As president at the time, I found myself as the main liaison between management and the police as they searched the building for the suspect.  Our security system, as described by one policeman, was a “big-box” special–13 cameras, a 48 hour DVR and an almost totally unintelligible interface for reviewing footage that required the user to squat under a counter pressing physical buttons with no labels.  I sat at that DVR searching for footage of the shooter for over two hours before finally finding a clip of him riding the elevator down to his car, wiping blood off of his face with his shirt.  Of course, at this point he was long, long gone.  The problem is that it was hard to determine whether he had left the property, or might be hiding in a staircase or the garage, which forced SWAT to continue to clear the building long after the incident.  Big fail for Mr. Security System.

In addition to the confusing user interface, the cameras, and their location, were both woefully inadequate.  Once we saw the suspect leave the elevator at the garage level, we had absolutely no idea where he went.  There were no cameras in the garage, and the single camera on the garage door was aimed in such a way that it was impossible to see who was inside cars that left the property.

The third issue that arose was with our building procedures.  When the shots first occurred, nearby residents immediately called the front desk.  An UNARMED security guard was then sent upstairs to investigate.  In retrospect, this decision was extremely dangerous for the guard, and in fact it appears that he arrived at the unit just after the suspect had fled.  If he had encountered the suspect in the elevator, it’s quite possible that there would have been another fatality.

At our next board meeting, it was widely agreed that it was worth a significant investment on the part of owners to improve building security.  This decision was hammered home only a couple of months later, when two extremely expensive cars were stolen from our garage within a 2 day period.  While it seemed to have been a planned and targeted event by professional thieves, that was the last straw for owners.  Time to take action.

Our first decision as a board, and in my opinion one of our best, was to agree that none of us knew enough about security to make such a significant decision without the advice of a professional.  One thing we did not want to do, however, was to simply bring in a security camera manufacturer and let them advise us on an appropriate system for our property, as we felt they would be unavoidably biased towards a particular solution.  Instead, the board decided to hire a security consultant, at a significant cost (5 figures) to prepare a detailed security analysis of our property, and to recommend not only electronics, but also rules and procedures that we needed to implement.  It was to be a comprehensive report, and we prepared a very detailed Specification of Work (SOW) for the consultant to follow.  After vetting the candidates we chose a consultant with experience in hotels, country clubs, and even prisons, one who was universally respected as an expert.

While the cost of hiring a consultant was significant, I feel the decision was absolutely mandatory.  The consultant’s report identified dozens and dozens of small flaws within our procedures that could be rectified at little or no cost and would greatly contribute to our risk management.  For example, he pointed out that the flowers on a table in front of the welcome desk were too thick, and significantly blocked the view of visitors entered the building.  So we simply instructed our florist to stick to tall, skinny arrangements.  He also noted that the white parking bumpers in the garage blended into the concrete and were easy to trip over–we painted them all bright yellow.  Again, these are small things, and some of them were obvious, and yet to have a report detailing all of them, and how to remediate them, was invaluable.

In addition to identifying hazards, the report corrected many of our basic security procedures (i.e., don’t send an unarmed guard to investigate a shooting), and a separate technical report made very detailed recommendations about cameras and the type of system we needed on the property.  In short, his report was comprehensive, and invaluable to our board.  Well worth the cost of hiring an expert.

So our next step, in addition to simply implementing changes to procedure and working on small projects (fixing doors and locks, correcting line of sight issues, etc), was to determine how exactly to solicit bids for a security system that we knew could easily cost six-figures.  We chose to use a strict, closed and blind bidding procedure, implemented by one of our board members who happens to be an expert in bidding and contracts from his line of work.  Eight companies were invited to bid based on their reputation, and four chose to bid on the project.  They were all presented with a very detailed SOW that contained not only camera locations but storage requirements and even suggestions on technology.

It took several months for this part of the process to move forward, and eventually all four bidders were brought in for a traditional “dog and pony” show where they were invited to demonstrate their technology and proposal for the board.  This included live demonstrations of their operating systems (user interfaces) as well as the cameras they would be using.  As with all of our board meetings, residents were invited to not only attend but to walk with us, room to room, as we visited the presentations.  After 2 hours of live demos the board convened again and decided that two of the bidders were clearly superior to the others, with preferable technology (a modern, IP based camera system with a host of “megapixel” high resolution cameras) and easy-to-use user interfaces.  We voted to request best-and-final proposals from both companies.  Througout this entire procedure, no company was allowed to know what the others were bidding, or even the systems they were proposing.  For these final bids we made sure that they were based on an apples-to-apples, exact technical specification so that all variables could be removed from the bidding process.  Next week, we will be making our final choice.  It will be over a year since the incident that sparked our review, but I honestly believe that our detailed and deliberate approach to solving our problem will dramatically improve security in our building, and was clearly the way to proceed.

So, as SOC owners or board members, what can you learn from our process, and even our mistakes?  Let me point out a few of what I believe were the most important lessons we learned:

First, whether you are in a building with four residents or four hundred, make sure that you have clear, written security procedures for your staff to follow, and that those procedures cover all conceivable events.  Have written procedures for disasters, crimes, accidents, fire, flood, etc.  No one should ever have to wonder what they need to do in an emergency.  It should all be on paper, in detail, ideally in a security manual.

Next, don’t be afraid to hire an expert to help your community to make difficult decisions, especially those that involve technology or a particular expertise.  In our case, the security consultant added only a small percentage to the total cost of the project, but his report and advice made it dramatically easier to improve our security and to select an appropriate camera system.  I strongly believe that any system we would have solicited from a security installer, absent the expert’s advice, would have been functionally inferior.

Third, consider strict bidding procedures for large projects, whether security or otherwise.  Large corporations use detailed bidding procedures for a reason–it ensures that the corporations are getting the best value for their money, and the best product.  The same procedures can be used to excellent effect in the smaller arena of an SOC.

Fourth, post-event analysis is an important function of a security system for residential communities.  Now, this is a point that I know some would argue, but I feel that the most important value of a camera system is not preventing crimes–it’s allowing police, insurance companies and others to properly analyze crimes and accidents after they occur.  Management of a condominium or HOA carries with it a lot of liability, and associations can be responsible for bad acts that occur on their property, even if committed by third parties, depending on their procedures.  The association should not only try to protect owners, but also needs to protect itself in the event of a dispute over the cause of an incident.  Liability for personal injury, and especially a wrongful death, can total millions of dollars.  In addition, SOCs need to protect against petty crimes, like vandalism, trespassing, and even improper use of common areas, and a good security system makes it much easier to enforce the rules of the community.  Of course, your first responsibility as a board member is to try to protect residents and their property.  But it’s unreasonable to assume that ANY security system is going to prevent crimes and accidents.  Post-event analysis is therefore an important function of a security system.

Last, don’t underestimate the importance of user interfaces.  Many SOCs have an unavoidably-revolving door of employees that might work for the property in different areas, especially security.  For a camera system to be effective, it needs to be easy to use–ideally idiot-proof.  Any new employee should, with a minimum of training, be able to access camera views and review archived footage.  If the system in your community is so complex that only one or two employees or residents know how to use it, and if even the police can’t figure out how to work it, then you have a significant problem.

I hope you find my experiences helpful, and good luck protecting your own community!  I’m confident that my own community will be far safer for residents because of the diligent, deliberate way that we pursued this very important capital upgrade.

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