Condo Association security is a tough topic – as I’ve covered here and here. Although my Association is in a nice neighborhood, we’ve had our share of incidents, and each time it’s a bit jarring. Today I’ll be covering the fundamentals of how to build a Condo Association security plan.
I will preface this by saying you should always work with a qualified security consultant who can perform an appropriate site survey. As with all vendors, however, do a little of your own homework and be ready to ask tough questions. To help you build your Condo Association security plan, here are some of my thoughts based on my experiences that should help shape your own plan and engagement with appropriate vendors.
You will never be 100% secure. There are many vendors who will try to scare you about how your building isn’t secure and sell you lots of things to try to make you more secure. Figure out what problem you’re trying to solve and what you need before spending any money. I covered this requirements process in detail in Safety 101. Identify your overall plan, and then locate what areas are problem spots and address those first. A site security assessment by a qualified security professional combined with some guiding principles developed by your Board is the best way to prioritize. An optional first step, which is free of cost, is to ask your local police liaison to do a walk through of your property after dark. Many of them will do this for free and point out areas of concern to you, along with mitigation suggestions. While this isn’t a full site plan, it is free, and provides a good starting point.
From a budgeting standpoint, once you’ve addressed the most pressing issues, you should consider allocating an annual budget for general physical security improvements, like new lights, new locks, camera updates, etc. This ensures you’re continually evolving your building’s security, but you’re not doing so in a way that spends beyond your means. It also demonstrates to Owners that you’ve got a plan and an approach to the problem, which helps build trust.
Some of the most practical and cost-effective improvements are better lighting, doors that self-close and buzz if left open (provided you have staff that can close buzzing doors), panic buttons, and access control (i.e., key fobs). These are comparatively cheap and make a big difference in securing your building.
If you use cameras, understand that you need to have cameras that can “see” based on where they are deployed – if the cameras will be in a low light area, make sure the camera has low light capability. Also make sure they are deployed in areas where they will see the information you need. For example, if they’re in a garage, make sure they are angled so that license plates are readable. If the camera is at a door, make sure it is angled and of sufficient resolution to be able to make out a person’s face. Make sure you have a receiver system that can process the camera footage and preserves a reasonable amount of footage – at least a week’s worth of records – and more is always better – a month is ideal for most purposes. Also ensure that your Owners understand what your cameras are used for. Are they for response (for someone to rush to the rescue) or forensics (to help identify a perpetrator)? This also can turn into a legal issue. You can be sued if you have cameras and staff don’t rush to the rescue if that’s the expectation of the use of the cameras. But most Associations don’t have people looking at their camera feeds full time – it may be a part-time duty of a front desk person, for example. Setting expectations for Owners of how security measures are implemented is both a safety issue and a liability issue, and one to keep in mind. If you’re interested in learning more on this, this article has some good information.
Staff, Training, and Security Services
Your staff – be they maintenance, front desk, or security – may be the biggest weakness in your security architecture. People are the biggest failure in most systems; don’t invest in things that can be foiled by people failing to follow a procedure. Make sure the systems you install are easy to use and that your staff are trained. If, for example, you install a fancy video system but no one knows how to use it, that’s a problem and a waste of money.
Security guards are very, very expensive and create a lengthy cost tail – unlike physical infrastructure where you are paying once for the upgrade, you have to pay for guard salaries perpetually. If you hire security, you may be signing up for the long haul. Make sure that guards fit in with the rest of your overall plan – they should be part of a layered approach. Also, remember that a guard can’t be everywhere at once. If your Association is big enough to afford security guards, you’ll then have to decide where and how they patrol. If you feel you need guards, I would also make sure you’re working with a security firm and ensuring you’ve got the right mix of people and technology and aren’t just hiring security guards to say you have them. There might be cases where you could jointly enter contracts with neighboring Associations, depending on need and geography, where they are more cost-efficient and the guards can patrol multiple properties.
An alternative or augmentation to security guards is to form a neighborhood watch. These programs are organized and sanctioned by your local police department, which will typically offer free training and tips for establishing a robust program. Like most volunteer programs, the challenge is finding someone who can organize the watch and volunteers to participate in it. Neighborhood watch programs aren’t really a “patrol” per se, but rather emphasize increasing community awareness and reporting of suspicious behavior. They aren’t a true substitute for hiring security guards. That said, they are a much cheaper alternative to hiring security, and it can build a sense of community for the Association.
There are some unintentional side effects of improved security, namely increased liability to your Association. First, you must maintain anything you install (lights, cameras, etc.) or you will likely be held liable in the event there is an issue that can be tied to a failure to maintain security element. Further, depending on the jurisdiction, more security can actually make an Association more liable in a civil court – essentially the argument goes, the more security you provide, the more it’s your fault if you fail to protect people. This can be an issue when you hire security guards or invest extensively in cameras, although your local legal nuances and case law will vary. Yep, life isn’t fair. I advise working with your legal counsel before making any major investments to ensure you understand what unintended consequences you might be inviting. In many cases the liability is a fair tradeoff, but you might need to pick up insurance or at least be aware of the full scope of effects of your actions.
Condo Association security is all about “right sizing” and ensuring that you’re not overreacting to a single incident. You need to know your community, know your Owners’ desires, understand your budget capacity, and find the right mix of security for you. Just remember to have a qualified firm perform a survey, make sure you’re not getting drawn down a rabbit hole of spending, and consult your legal counsel before making any major changes.