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Airport security to school safety – effective access control measures

Safety and security professionals must consider all the elements involved in life safety when developing best practices for school and airport access control systems

Airport security has tightened ever since the September 9/11 catastrophic event. Post-incident investigation of such events often brings to light a particular weakness in security. As a result, security and safety protocols are developed in reaction to such traumatic events. Similar to the security measures adopted by airlines, school safety systems have also undergone major changes with a variety of electronic and mechanical access control products that prevent assailants from entering classrooms.

Cockpit safety systems 

For example, the spate of airline hijackings that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s changed the mind-set that airports should be open environments, similar to train stations. Each subsequent terror cycle has led to even more heightened security at airports, which has brought us to the “shoes-off, no-liquids” security measures currently in place. 

After September 11, 2001, airport security was extended beyond the facility to include aircraft. On that day, hijackers were able to commandeer the planes because the pilots opened the doors for them, most likely under duress. Shortly after the tragic events of that day, commercial airplane cockpit doors were outfitted with electronic systems with lockout features, including a keypad lockout button and toggle lock with five-minute delayed entry. This system was meant to ensure pilots could keep terrorists out of the cockpit; the designers never considered the possibility of one pilot locking out the other. This is precisely what happened with the 2015 Germanwings disaster, in which the co-pilot locked the pilot out of the cockpit before deliberately crashing the plane into a mountain, killing all 144 passengers and six crew members aboard. 

When looking at doors and methods of their operation, security and safety professionals each have their own perspective that guides their approach to solving problems which are very different in nature. In the cockpit doors example, because protecting the pilots from passengers was the main driver of the solution, the potential that a pilot might want to lock out another pilot was not considered in the design. The result solved the problem of unauthorised access to the cockpit but also created the environment that made the Germanwings tragedy possible. 

When looking at doors and methods of their operation, security and safety professionals each have their own perspective that guides their approach to solving problems which are very different in nature

School access control security 

The lessons we’ve learned from decades of airport and airplane security can be applied to school security solutions as well. We have all become too keenly aware of the responsibility for assuring the security of schoolchildren and teachers, and for the need to develop technology and resources to prevent their endangerment. While a number of providers have developed solutions for prevention and response, some of these solutions address only the goal of preventing access to the school classroom by a would-be assailant. This is an important goal, but as in the case of securing cockpit doors, securing classroom doors must never be considered from just a single point of view.  

For much of the year, schools and classrooms are occupied on a daily basis by students and teachers. However, at times classrooms may be unattended by faculty or an adult, providing the opportunity for anyone in the classroom control of the door and any locking devices. This was the reason classroom door locking was for many years considered an action to be controlled only by key, similar to a public restroom. However, we now recognise the need to secure classrooms more quickly to prevent loss of life if an assailant with weapons has chosen a school as the target. The commercial door hardware industry has quickly responded with a wide variety of mechanical and electronic products. 

Effective door safety products 

But security solutions designed to protect students and teachers inside the classroom from an assailant on the outside must not sacrifice the critical role door access control and single-motion exiting play in ensuring life safety. Similarly, it is critical that school officials and first responders are able to quickly gain access to the room at all times.  

A potential “cockpit door” situation that enables someone inside the room, whether intentionally or not, to prevent quick egress or to prevent entry by authorised individuals is something we simply cannot tolerate. Products in the marketplace which may be effective in preventing forced entry must never be installed if they prevent exit or authorised entry. The unintended risks and potential consequences of door blocking products are too great. 

Overcoming bullying in schools 

But security solutions designed to protect students and teachers inside the classroom from an assailant on the outside must not sacrifice the critical role door access control and single-motion exiting play in ensuring life safety

Beyond the obvious examples – fire or other physical danger (including an active shooter), students inside a classroom could potentially be at risk from bullying, which is a major concern in schools across the country. Significant efforts are being launched to counter the harmful effects of this behaviour, which has resulted in a growing number of student deaths. Imagine the harm which could be inflicted upon a student imprisoned in a classroom by a bully who had the ability to prevent authorities from entering the room. Certainly this is not a situation any responsible school or public safety official would want to enable, nor is it a liability any student, parent or school district should incur as a consequence of providing a door blocking device in the classroom for easy use on the door. 

Lessons from past events 

When creating effective solutions for doors, whether for cockpits or classrooms, it is critical to consider all of the human factors, not simply the need to protect those inside from someone who wants to do harm from outside the door. Safety and security professionals must consider all the elements involved in life safety when developing best practices. Everyone who has a role in creating a safer school environment for students, teachers, staff and visitors should study the lessons of 9/11, Sandy Hook, Germanwings and other tragic events and apply those lessons when providing guidance to school districts and beyond.


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