The Possibilities of Integrating Intercoms on a Network

Integrating intercoms onto a campus network enhances a college or university’s security and safety applications

Intercoms are an ideal solution for college and university campuses, because they provide an appealing level of security for a campus’ friendly flow of people. With multiple buildings all being used for different purposes, and up to tens of thousands of people coming and going at all hours, the need for effectual security communication on a campus is ever-present.

While yesterday’s intercoms were primarily used for convenient communication among family members on different levels of a home, today’s intercoms go well beyond strictly convenience to functioning as a sophisticated security device in commercial and institutional applications. They are particularly effective on campuses of all sizes.

The majority of installed intercoms use analog technology; however, that share is being redistributed and there will be more IP-based intercoms than analog in the coming years. Network-based intercoms offer many benefits for integration with other security and safety systems, such as telephony, video, access control, and emergency paging. In concert with these other technologies, intercoms enable a fresh angle of situational awareness that those responsible for security may not have had before.

What Can an Intercom Do?

On campuses, intercoms are used in administration buildings, classroom buildings, lecture halls and auditoriums, offices, cafeterias, libraries, dorms and residence halls, sports centers and athletic facilities, maintenance buildings and parking garages. They can be especially useful at “information points” around a campus, for example, used as emergency “call boxes.” They also are commonly used at gates controlling the entrances to a campus, which in some cases may reduce the number of security guards needed.

In its most basic form, an intercom facilitates audio communication between two or more people separated by distance, particularly when one of them is attempting to gain access to a building and the other is responsible for granting that access by unlocking a door or raising a gate. While the demand for audio-only intercoms in commercial applications is waning, there still may be some niche applications for them on a college campus.

A growing trend in the intercom market are units that provide both high-definition (HD) audio as well as HD color video. The benefits of having integrated two-way audio communication with video verification are powerful. Intercoms are used for vetting people, to ascertain who the user is letting into their campus buildings. The addition of HD video to an intercom changes it to a more robust security solution than audio alone. In addition, having a unit with audio, video, and even access control all in one device means that one unit can function in place of several separate products, and it communicates as one unified security solution.

Campus Concerns

Key words for campuses today related to intercoms are: security/verification, convenience, low contact and interoperability.

When used for security, the first part of vetting people through an intercom is two-way communication with a high-quality audio connection that works well in noisy environments. The second part is an integrated camera with HD resolution and lowlight capability or night vision, so intercom users can see who is requesting entry. Additional features, enabled by network integration, are things such as the capability of sending snapshots of visitors via email, or letting in people using a mobile device or desktop computer.

Intercoms have to be convenient because of the sheer number of people using them, especially in college and university campuses where there may be tens of thousands of students, professors, staffand visitors who interact with them. One example of enabling convenience is by having an integrated access control reader so authorized users can enter a building using their card, smartphone (Bluetooth-enabled), fingerprint or PIN — or a combination of these for multi-factor authentication — while unauthorized users must press a button and be vetted first before being allowed entry.

Low contact is a buzzword today, but it is important because of the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. The less often one has to touch anything, the better. That can be accomplished in a few different ways with intercoms. For the person at the door, using their smartphone as a credential means they don’t need to touch a keypad to gain entry. For the person monitoring the intercom, they can be in a remote location from the people at the door, while still keeping the entry secure by vetting visitors through the audio and video functions of the intercom.

Underlying interoperability is integration of the intercoms with other systems on the campus network, so they will act as part of a single security system that manages everything — or at least multiple systems that all “talk” to one another.

Open-platform IP intercoms can easily integrate into a university’s other network-based systems, including first and foremost, the IP telephony system. SIP protocol support makes it easy to link the intercom with IP phones and PBX from other producers, without having to connect to the server.

By means of this integration, when the intercom button is pressed, it triggers a predefined/programmed group of phones to sequentially or simultaneously ring. Staff assigned to allowing access can then view a video of the caller prior to answering on a video phone or on software on their computer. They are then able to answer and have a conversation with the visitor. If the request to enter is deemed appropriate, the door is released through the IP phone.

Integration with the campus telephony system through the SIP protocol allows users to make calls from one place to another from the intercom, and to tie the intercom into the paging and emergency call system. Most universities have a paging system, which is used for audio communication to classrooms, zones (parts of the campus), or the entire campus, for making announcements or alerting people to emergency situations. An intercom can integrate with these third-party systems, allowing it to become a speaker end-point where the announcement can be heard. Due to their programmability, the intercom also can become an initiation point of the alert.

Integration with the video management system (VMS) allows for video feeds from intercoms as well as other cameras to be monitored centrally such as in a security center and/or distributed to people in remote locations on campus or further away. In addition, by integrating the intercom camera feeds into the VMS, they can be recorded, searched and archived.

If there is an access control system on campus, by integrating the intercom it becomes another reader on the network, collecting data on card swipes, Bluetooth reads and key fobs.

Examples of Integrated Applications

Dormitories are one example of where an integration can benefit users from a security standpoint. By integrating the intercom to a campus access control system, the users’ access cards allow authorized students into the residence building during scheduled hours, but after-hours they can no longer enter by using only their cards. Instead they have to use the intercom to call the desk attendant to ask to be let in. This provides a way for the university to double-verify who’s actually getting in and to make sure there isn’t a big group of people entering with the authorized student, which is a good method for controlling the spread of COVID-19 by limiting large gatherings on a campus.

In buildings that house offices of professors and counselors, intercoms can take the place of a receptionist. Students who wish to see a professor can scroll through the intercom’s virtual phone book to find the person they want, and then have a video call with that person, vetting them before remotely releasing the door.

Intercoms can provide gate control for entrances and in parking garages. With built-in access control with RFID or Bluetooth capability, as a user approaches the gate, the intercom will automatically open the gate. Integration with an access control system can provide additional features such as audit trails. Guests who don’t have credentials will push the intercom’s button, which would call a guard center somewhere on campus and a guard would perhaps ask to see a driver license that they can check against a list before raising the gate.

Intercoms can act as emergency call boxes. When the emergency button is pressed, it will call the campus guard or university police for assistance. Integrated on the university’s network, the system can pull in video from that intercom or from adjacent cameras so police will have situational awareness. It may also be able to fire a strobe for immediate attention to the area.

Beyond Simple Communication

Today’s intercoms are generally easy to program and can be programmed for many additional functions that weren’t offered in older models, such as triggering silent alarms, detecting motion, and detecting sounds.

For example, an intercom on a campus can be programmed so that if it’s 2 a.m. and there is a high level of noise or there is motion by the door at which the intercom is installed, it can then send a message, trigger an alarm, turn on a light or fire a strobe. A unique code can be set on the unit that opens the door, but also triggers another action without warning the person. Some intercoms can do time-and-attendance, which could keep an audit record of students’ work-study hours as they enter and exit a building.

With these additional features, as well as the capabilities offered by integration, it’s easy to see how an IP intercom fits into a whole solution for a campus. A campus can do all kinds of things from a security standpoint with what was once considered just a simple convenience device.

This article originally appeared in the January February 2021 issue of Campus Security & Life Safety.

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