Security is a person's best friend at New York diamond exhibit
Security is a person's best friend at New York diamond exhibit

Mar 1, 1998 12:00 PM

In a command room at New York City's sprawling American Museum of Natural History, a lone floor rack houses mechanisms that communicate a distance of more than 1,000 feet, past thick, concrete walls, with a wireless security system to protect the museum's incredibly popular exhibition, The Nature of Diamonds. In the exhibition hall, a flat ribbon cable carries alarm signals from wireless transmitters inside display cases containing spectacular diamonds. The cable snakes its way out of a computer relay board and into a DB25 plug, connected to a 16-position multiplexer, which integrates the CCD camera system with the alarm system for the exhibition. If an alarm goes off, the corresponding camera will automatically go on. The security system is almost as tasteful and seamless as the exhibition itself, with 200 alarm points sending signals over a 900 MZn frequency spectrum to a series of small, white boxes called repeaters, which are placed strategically between the exhibition and the command room. Director of security and safety Stephen Hollowell left a job with the Brooklyn Academy of Music (which he describes as the oldest cultural institution in New York) to join the museum just over a year ago. A tall, lanky man with a disarming English accent, he explains the challenges his department faced as it labored to put together in just six months a security system for an exhibition that had been nearly three years in the making. "The repeaters take the signals from one place to the other," says Hollowell. "This exhibition was planned to be portable, and we therefore realized we couldn't use hard wiring for it. In going to a wireless security system, we faced the problem of how to get signals past solid concrete walls - the museum's structure is incredibly dense. After a lot of trial and error, we came upon the idea of using repeaters to catch the signals along the path from the exhibition to the security room." The repeaters keep the signal level consistent. A receiver, which is connected to a PC by serial data cable, picks up the alarm signals that have been passed along the chain. The wireless equipment, receivers, transmitters and repeaters are manufactured by Inovonics and were packaged by Actall of Sandimas, Calif. Actall produces the computer database and software called Crisis Controller, which runs the entire system, using state-of-the-art alarm graphics. Joseph Fucile, technical director for MSI Security Systems, Inc., Kearney, N.J., the primary contractor for the security system, notes that "many vendors placed bids, but many couldn't do the job. They couldn't transmit the signals or they didn't have the software that would work with the wireless system and pick up its signals. It was a miracle that we put this together." Bids were in by July 1997, and in August, extensive testing was done to see which vendors' systems actually worked. "We asked for very strict specifications. Actall was at the time in the process of developing the software, and we are the first to be using it with all its features," says Hollowell. The diamond exhibition's security system is an independently manned operation. The "mini-security room" as Hollowell calls it, contains the CPU that operates the Actall software, a Pentium 166MHz computer, the floor rack with the cable connections, two 17-inch Panasonic monitors, a Panasonic time-lapse VCR and a Robot 16-position multiplexer. A guard operates the Actall system 24 hours per day. "All of the equipment will be part of the traveling diamond exhibition," says Hollowell. The museum is currently negotiating with other museums, but it is not yet known where the exhibition will go when it leaves the American Museum of Natural History. Sixteen new Panasonic black-and-white, fixed, 1/3-inch chip cameras with Pelco housings were purchased for the exhibition, but an existing CCD cable system is being used. To avoid having to add wiring, an FM Systems two-camera multiplexer increases the camera capacity of the cable system. There is an encoding multiplexer at the exhibition gallery and a decoding multiplexer at the security command center. "That enables us to send two signals over one cable and to use two cameras with one cable, with the signals split back at the security console," says Hollowell. Black and white was chosen because it gives better resolution in the low-light conditions of the gallery, and fixed cameras are more than adequate because, with their wide angles and strategic positioning, they are able to pick up all points at the exhibition, Hollowell adds. In the security room, one monitor is set up to sequence all the cameras and another to display information and camera points that may be triggered by an alarm. "The surveillance cameras are positioned so that they monitor groupings of display cases, gallery areas and basic traffic flow. When an alarm goes off, the cameras automatically display the area where the alarm occurred," says Hollowell. While Hollowell considers the overt cameras with their white housings to be "pretty bold," they actually blend in well with the overall surroundings, particularly with the cylindrical, track-type lights hanging from the walls and ceilings, so that the aesthetics of the exhibition are in no way marred by the security devices. Still, says Hollowell, "It's clear to people that the presence of security is there." Indeed, at the entrance to the exhibition, no one could doubt the presence of tight security. Every visitor must walk through a Garrett Magnascanner CS5000 metal detector and put their bags through a Heimann Systems X-ray machine. Employees of U.S. Defense Systems, Washington, D.C., operate the metal detector and X-ray machine and have trained museum employees to do the same. Inside the exhibition gallery, visitors who get too close to paintings will be informed in calm, even computer tones by a Salco Industries sound device that they have ventured too close and must move back. Those visitors will have come within the proximity of a motion detector's beam. The sound devices have not been used by the museum before, but they are commonly used in art museums, says Hollowell. The display cases contain shock sensors and door contacts, and when security is breached, an integral dialing system automatically calls up a central station alarm company, which notifies the police. "A perimeter envelope is also part of the system," says Hollowell. "The gallery perimeter has a variety of door contacts, motion detectors and panic alarms, all monitored by the MSI system." With 130 security officers, the museum has an ample employee force to help guard the exhibition, inside and out. Crowd control is achieved by timing visits, much as a movie theater does. Tickets are sold for a particular time and an average visit lasts one hour. The exhibition has been sold out most weekends since it opened in November 1997. Others instrumental in planning and implementing the security system include Ralph Ward LTD, a Washington, D.C., security consulting firm, and members of the museum's Exhibition Department, including Gerhard Schlansky, designer for The Nature of Diamonds exhibition. Ward and Schlansky designed the display cases, made of shock-resistant glass. Since joining the museum in January 1997, one of Hallowell's major focuses has been to plan and produce the unique, mobile, wireless security system protecting The Nature of Diamonds. Soon, a new challenge will beckon: a major, multi-million dollar upgrade of the museum security system, contracted by MSI Security Systems. Currently, there are more than 100 CCD cameras in place inside and outside of the museum, controlled by a DOS-based operating system, with eight Dedicated Micros multiplex units yielding 16 inputs each over 10, 17-inch Panasonic monitors in the command room. There is also an extensive alarm monitoring system. "We will be using an access control and alarm monitoring system by Northern Computers," says MSI's Joe Fucile. The new system will eventually link the Rose Center for Earth and Space, opening in the year 2000, with the rest of the museum. The system is expected to use a Windows NT operating system. Also in the works is a new Pelco matrix video switching system for the command room. Once The Nature of Diamonds exhibition moves on, Hollowell will be able to devote himself full time to the security upgrade of one of the greatest natural history museums in the world, which encompasses no less than heaven and earth, past and future, and all the plant and animal kingdoms in between, including priceless fossils of such carnivores as Allosaurus, Albertosaurus, Velociraptor and T-Rex. When the upgrade is complete in several years, the ancient predators will be protected by an integrated, state-of-the-art system of microchips and wires, monitors and multiplexers, computer images, cameras and databases.

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