Nov 15, 2018 Last Updated 11:32 AM, Nov 13, 2018

The Master Locksmith Association offers its top security advice to education establishments

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Safety in schools and education facilities is a highly emotive subject and one that is never far from the minds of parents, teaching staff, estate managers, caretakers and local education authorities. Here Justin Freeman, Technical Manager of the Master Locksmith Association, offers expert advice on ensuring optimum safety and security of education facilities.

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Learning environments are meant to be welcoming and accessible, capable of inspiring and motivating pupils. They also have a wealth of facilities – be they educational, recreational or sporting – that can be used for the benefit of the communities surrounding them.

However, the inherent challenge in designing and managing a building of this nature is in ensuring that it is open and accessible whilst still prioritising the safety of pupils, staff and visitors, and deterring theft, unauthorised access and vandalism.

Set yourself up for success

From the outset, it is vital that a building is designed for security success. Decisions taken during the design and construction phase will have a significant impact on the way in which occupants use and secure the space into the future.

Schools typically have a significant amount of valuable equipment – items like computers and smartboards, for instance, require a huge outlay and are therefore highly-prized targets for any would-be thieves. Where possible, designing these facilities to be on upper floors or away from windows is a good start. Practical storage options are also a must and you should consider options for securing equipment together, or to desks.

Be aware that many schools now ask visitors to leave communication devices and technology such as mobiles and laptops in reception when they arrive – therefore, plentiful storage options for staff and visitors is also key.

Taking simple steps such as ensuring doors and windows have high-quality locks that conform to security standards is a must. Similarly, any gates should be fitted with high-quality locks, and you should ensure that fencing is substantial.

Look out for deterioration and breakages to doors, windows, roofs (missing tiles, slates and broken rooflights), wall cladding and exterior skirts to the base of temporary classrooms. Review the perimeter of the property and ensure bin stores, bike sheds or other such structures are kept away from perimeters or fence lines where they can easily be climbed onto and unwittingly provide easy points of access. Similarly, planting and landscaping should be considered carefully, and any trees or large plants that create black spots or could help intruders to access the site should be cut down.

The problem of accessibility is always a crucial point for the security of schools and knowing who has access in an organisation like a school can be difficult. Installing a patented lock system ensures keys cannot be copied without proof of ownership. While initial investment tends to be higher than ‘off-the-shelf’ locks, in the long-run this could potentially save money and is a worthwhile investment in a building of this nature.

Communication is key

Once occupied, it is important to establish an effective strategy to ensure that issues relating to security and safety management of the building are addressed and maintained systematically and logically. Critically; all staff, and in some cases students, should be aware of this strategy and understand their role within it.

Schools and universities are complex buildings. They are required to have adequate escape routes and doors that operate effectively in the event of an emergency, with the correct signage, emergency exit lighting and panic hardware fitted. Determining this can be a complicated and time-consuming matter, and those with responsibility should receive relevant and frequent training.

However, it is all too easy for another member of the team to take on security and safeguarding responsibilities without realising inadvertently. An example we frequently see when visiting schools and universities is a staff member having placed a padlock on an emergency exit door to prevent people from opening it unnecessarily and causing a nuisance; without realising, they are making themselves legally responsible if people are unable to exit a building in the event of an emergency.

Safe security

Emergency routes and exits must lead as directly as possible to a place of safety so that in the event of danger, premises can be evacuated as quickly and as safely as possible.

The number, distribution and dimensions of emergency routes and exits required are determined according to the use, equipment and dimensions of the premises and the maximum number of people who may be present at any one time. Importantly, emergency doors must always open in the direction of escape to aid those evacuating the building.

By their very nature, escape doors may also be vulnerable during break-ins. For this reason, it is acceptable to have extra locks on escape doors – as long as they are fully operational and can still act as escape doors when the building is occupied. If they are bolted, deadlocked or chained, the person responsible for these doors could be prosecuted in the event of a tragedy. However, emergency exits should not be confused with fire doors. Fire doors are designed to hold back fire away from emergency exits for a set amount of time. Adding additional locks to fire doors will compromise how the fire door performs and could also lead to prosecution.

Harness the power of technology – safely

Technology can be a significant help in securing sites, especially in areas with high footfall. For example, electronic door openers and closers are a reasonably low-cost but useful way to enhance building security. Meanwhile, investing in electronic access control can help caretakers and estate managers to monitor and regulate access to various areas of the site.

Access control systems can range from a very simplistic form of digital code lock (mechanically operated push button locksets) operated by a simple code, right the way through to complex ‘smart security systems’ that enable managers to add or delete users from a central location. Whether operated by fingerprint, swipe card, smartphone or facial recognition, many facilities managers, estate managers and caretakers we speak to have already introduced smart security and it’s easy to see the appeal.

With ever-more sophisticated operating systems, smart security can increasingly be integrated with existing CCTV and alarm systems, and can also be integrated with ‘time and attendance’ systems. Perhaps most useful of all, smart locks are highly configurable. Digital locks can be changed in an instant and records stored of when a lock has been activated and by who. In short, smart security is promising optimum convenience, enhanced security and access to valuable, real-time information.

But be careful to distinguish between access control and primary security measures. Put simply, the role of an access control system is to limit access to certain parts of a building or site to specific individuals. However, access control products are not tested to security or attack standards and should not be relied upon as primary security products. In the case of smart security, it’s the ‘key’ element of a smart lock that is particularly problematic. This is because whether it’s voice, card, tag, smartphone or biometric data that is used to activate the lock, this data is difficult to safeguard. Not least as it is usually stored within web-based storage, such as the cloud, which presents its own risks.

Whilst the UK has for a long time had excellent security standards for mechanical security – including BS 3621, 8621, 10621, BS EN 1303, BS EN 12209 and PAS 24 for complete windows and doors – the first security standards for smart locks have only just been published. As a result, the smart security industry as it is today has developed without this guidance. None of the smart locks currently on the market have yet been tested against the new security standards, and the standards are yet to be recognised by insurers and police forces.

MLA advice

The Master Locksmiths Association has to date considered smart security to be a secondary security measure or the equivalent of ‘access control’. Whilst the newly-developed security standards come into effect, we would continue to recommend caution and advise against using smart security as a primary security measure. If you are thinking of using smart security for access control, it is also vital that as with any access control equipment you ensure this is used in a manner that complies with the fire safety regulations – it is also vital that the correct fail-safe procedures are in place. If the system were to ever ‘go down’, then there needs to be procedures and products in place that ensure no one is trapped inside and that the system doesn’t put your school out of action due to a fault.

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