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The case for condo security

Condominium, or high-rise residential security is considered an area of the security market with its own unique challenges. Unlike commercial facilities, the occupants of residential high-rise buildings call the buildings home, so for them it’s personal.


May 13, 2011
By Jennifer Brown


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“The difference is people live here,” says David Hyde of David Hyde and Associates based in Toronto. “If you have a security issue, it impacts your home and your family and your private life. There have been incidents of high profile criminals working in luxury high-rise condos with reports of drug dealing or fringe activities involving firearms on the premises. It’s one thing when it’s a mall or retail situation but with condos there is more exposure to personal vulnerability.”

But security can still be a tough sell if those inhabiting the building and those managing the property don’t understand the value.

“The situation that often occurs is that half of the condo board members think they’re security experts while the other half want to use something that looks like it came from Fisher Price off of eBay. You should see some of the technology I see on site sometimes — it goes into my security hall of shame,” says consultant Terry Hoffman of Hoffman and Company who has seen the demand for security audits at condos increase in the last two years. “It’s a difficult segment of business to be in because too often condominium boards don’t see the value.”

Unless it’s a high-end building, the planning for security is left for the property management firm that takes it over after construction is complete. The property management firm must then answer to a group of residents who make up the condominium board — an often diverse group who knows very little about security. Too often the goal is to keep monthly condo fees low and pay as little as possible for security services.

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“Often boards will complain about their security guards, but it all comes down to accountability,” says Hoffman. “The property management companies must be accountable to the boards. If they don’t like what the guards are doing, they should do something about it. Guard service is the most effective thing you can do if you implement standard tours and have them attend regular meetings with the residents.”

Hyde has performed security audits on condos and is called in more often when the property managers are asked to address a specific problem.
“There are two instances a condo building will call for security consulting support: when there are high end condos with a budget for it, or due to recent crime trends,” says Hyde. “The attitude about security in a condo also depends largely on the demographics of the residents and whether they own or rent. If a building is largely owner-inhabited versus rental inhabited it is likely to have a higher degree of security.

“Really, it’s a numbers game,” says Hyde. “If you have 500 units or more and 300 people own the units, there should be enough of a representation from ownership and therefore security will be supported more,” he says
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The condo market is also one where every dollar counts, says Hyde.
“It’s unusual that they will want a full risk assessment — they want more of a security audit. They want someone to come in and tell them that they are meeting the requirements for security on procedures, systems and security guards in a way that presents a reasonable face of security.”

Hyde says there is often a lack of cohesion between the various ad hoc elements of security that may exist in a residential building.
“There are often cameras in place that might be used part of the time and maybe there are a few procedures around mail handling or access cards but they are usually standalone procedures and are not part of an overall program,” says Hyde. “The procedural element is typically always missing. You have to get them to look at: How do we use these things to the maximum effect?”

There is also typically an over-reliance on one element of security. Cameras are viewed as something that could solve a lot of issues but too often no one is monitoring those cameras so they offer a false sense of security, says Hyde.

But Sean O’Brien of Security Management Services in Toronto says cameras can satisfy many problems.
“Everyone understands CCTV is vital for a building. If you want a hope of seeing what happened in common element areas like pools and elevators — all those areas where there is high-risk exposure — there is an awareness to protect those things. The most cost effective way is to put a camera in and create a deterrence and access control if the building can afford it,” says O’Brien.

However, no matter how many cameras or security guards a building deploys, unless the residents buy into living in a secure environment, the system can still fall apart.
O’Brien has been in the business since the 1980’s and says he has seen an increase in security awareness and an appreciation for the stability security brings to a residential building.

“There’s greater acceptance,” says O’Brien. “Especially when they realize it can improve property values both for the landlord and for the unit owners, if a building is viewed as secure.”

O’Brien’s company recently convinced a building management team that was having security problems to go from having a night-only security guard from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. to 24 hours a day.

“It tripled the cost but they did it for the image of increased security,” he says.
The bottom line is there is only a limited pool of funds for security in a condo.  In a condo, if the security budget goes over, the unit holders pay and that’s not a popular piece of news to deliver at the condo board annual general meeting.

Hyde says an integrated approach to security is necessary to have a good program within a condo organization.
“In my opinion you need the integrated approach — having cameras and guards — I don’t see how you can have cameras alone in a condo environment,” he says. “There is a lot of dynamic activity with visitors always coming and going and at different times of night. Then you have visitor parking and often property management is only there 9 to 5. After 5 o’ clock it’s security who often takes over that role.”

To think cameras and electronics could take over the human element in a condo environment is not realistic, says Hyde. “There is a huge benefit from having a front counter area concierge and cameras at key locations to see where people are asking for access. Used properly, cameras can be a great operation aid and follow up to crime,” he says.

Salim Bel Mamoun of Pillar Security based in Toronto has been dealing exclusively with condos for the last 10 years. Pillar is a small guard services firm specializing in the high-end condo security market. They have developed a software program that integrates security into condo operational management.
Bel Mamoun says when condo property managers and residents are shown data to back up the investment in security they more readily accept the cost.
His clients use the company’s Sentinel System reporting software to track incidents.

“All of our incident reports are done through our web-based application and the building’s property management has access to it through a remote link. When there is an incident I get an email on my BlackBerry,” says Bel Mamoun.

Residents can also use the software to book rooms online without having to come down from their unit to the security desk.
It also records daily logs and visitor parking with licence plate numbers, the receiving and delivering of packages and accumulates all data in a central location.

“The data becomes property of the condo board so if we lose the contract the data can be extracted for the board’s use,” says Bel Mamoun.
The system was used to make the case for an additional security guard in a building of 400 units (there was only one guard there previously). “I went to the condo board and showed them how many packages a day they receive and now they have a better understanding of what the security guard does.”


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