The sanctity of the mail
The sanctity of the mail

Aug 1, 1999 12:00 PM

Mail is something most of us take for granted. But once an envelope goes into the mailbox, it becomes federal property, and it is the responsibility of the Postal Service to make sure it arrives safely at its destination. The Postal Service takes this responsibility seriously, calling it the "sanctity of the mail."

How does the Postal Service ensure nothing happens to the millions of items we mail every day? Most recently, by installing access control and closed-circuit television (CCTV) systems in bulk mail processing facilities around the country. The systems are far beyond what most facilities require.

"This is not really a security system," says Robert Landino, a principal with Southwest Security Consultants International of Dallas. "The word security has the wrong connotation for what we're doing here. This is an access control system designed to maintain employee accountability and to provide a totally controlled environment."

Like any large distribution facility, a bulk mail processing installation employs hundreds if not thousands of men and women, rotating around the clock through three daily shifts.

While access control, CCTV and communications technologies such as those used in Dallas contribute to the protection of employees, especially during late night and early morning shift changes, the top priority is to protect the mail.

Protecting the mail at a processing facility means managing and controlling large numbers of people and vehicles. Security must know: Does this person belong in this area of the facility? Does this vehicle have legitimate business in this parking area or at that loading dock? An integrated access control system can help ensure satisfactory answers.

The Dallas bulk mail facility - one of the country's largest - has become a prototype for the design of access control at Postal Service bulk mail processing centers around the nation.

The 75-acre Dallas site houses a 496,000-square-foot building with dozens of doorways. About 1,500 employees work in the facility, with 500 to 700 people present during each of three daily eight-hour shifts. Parking on the site can accommodate up to 1,300 cars and trucks.

Access control in such a large facility begins with site planning that specifies access privileges by place and time.

"The Dallas project involved a lot of site reorganization," says Steve Elliott, project manager with Brown Reynolds Watford Architects Inc., the Dallas firm that managed site design at the facility. "We started by fencing the entire perimeter. Then we reconfigured the site by segregating the traffic moving in and out."

Originally, the site permitted all vehicles, including delivery trucks, vendor vehicles and passenger cars, to enter through a single main entrance.

"We decided it was important to separate the access routes, so we created three truck entries and two truck exits," says Elliott. "We also designated traffic lanes for trucks, along with truck parking lots. We routed cars and small trucks in and out of the old main entrance and set up lanes to split the traffic in two. One lane moved into an employee drop-off just outside the front entrance of the building and then back to the main road. The second lane moved off to the side of the building into the employee parking lot. We also set up separate lanes and parking areas for visitors and drivers with disabilities."

To expedite the flow of traffic through the gating system, the architects designed a double-lane entry and exit for cars and small trucks so two vehicles can enter or exit at the same time.

The three truck entries admit a single lane of traffic. To prevent bottlenecks, one of the two truck exits provides two lanes.

While Brown Reynolds Watford reconfigured the site, Southwest Security Consultants International integrated the systems, and Dallas-based Smith Engineered Systems handled the installation.

Barrier gates by Federal APD of Farmington Hills, Mich., backed up by sliding gates by Tymetal Corp. of Clifton Park, N.Y., control the flow of vehicles and prevent tailgating through each entrance and exit.

As a convenience to authorized vehicles that may enter and exit several times a day, the gating system allows for express entry with a system provided by Ultraprox of Baton Rouge, La. Called the Interrogator, the Ultraprox system uses radio frequency (RF) tags on the authorized vehicles and a receiver and microprocessor built into a control panel near the gates. When a vehicle approaches, the RF tag emits a signal and awakens the Interrogator, which reads the identification number embedded in the signal, checks with the main access control database, and opens the gate if warranted.

Each entry and exit gate also operates on orders of the facility's main proximity card access control system, supplied by Interactive Technologies Inc. (ITI) of North St. Paul, Minn.

For other vehicles, intercom consoles and CCTV cameras at each entrance and exit enable drivers to ask a guard at a substation to open the gates. Ring Communications Inc. of Ronkonkoma, N.Y., provided the intercom system, while Vicon Industries Inc. of Hauppauge, N.Y., supplied the CCTV gear.

For all vehicles, entering or exiting the site requires drivers to wait behind the barrier gate as it slides open. When the barrier gate has completed its cycle, the gate swings up. The only exception occurs during shift changes, when, to speed the flow of traffic, the slide gates remain open and the swing gates control traffic.

Once inside the perimeter, about 30 ITI proximity readers control the doorways into the building itself.

At the main employee entrance, two sets of tandem turnstiles, proximity readers, an intercommunications console and CCTV cameras control access. The Alvarado Manufacturing Co. based in Chino, Calif., custom designed the turnstiles to accommodate the integrated access control equipment, CCTV cameras and an intercom console. In addition, the turnstiles prevent tailgating by allowing for only one person to enter before relocking.

Integrated proximity readers, intercoms and CCTV cameras also control access through selected exterior doors. "The doors without these controls are used for emergency egress only," Landino says.

All of the doors have smart strike hardware made by Von Duprin Inc., Indianapolis. To distinguish between entering and exiting, a sensor determines whether the inside or outside handle has turned.

Inside the building, 40 proximity readers control access to offices and processing areas.

One of the relatively unusual aspects of the ITI access control system is that the field panels control only two readers each. "This is important to maintaining the integrity of the system," Landino says. "The more doors you put on a panel, the more readers will fail if a panel goes down. For the same reason, we've included battery backup for the panels in case of a power outage."

Another fail-safe element of the system involves hardwiring the readers and panels to the emergency operations control center instead of using the backbone of the facility's existing NT network. "We've kept the access control system separate, again to protect the integrity of the system," Landino says.

To support the access control network, employees are photographed with a conventional color video camera, and a digitizer saves the image in an ITI database housed on a PC. Employee photo ID badges are printed on Fargo printers using ITI PVC card media.

The CCTV component of the system supports access control more than most CCTV systems. Again, the goal is not so much to catch people after the fact as it is to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

To this end, about 20 black and white Vicon pan/tilt/zoom cameras, enclosed in domes, scan the exterior of the building and grounds of the installation. "We chose black-and-white cameras for the exterior because they require less illumination and are less susceptible to variable light," Landino says. "Color cameras cannot provide a high quality picture under the high-pressure sodium lighting used at this facility. On the other hand, black-and-white cameras like high-pressure sodium."

Inside the facility, 15 fixed, color Vicon cameras cover entrances, exits and restricted areas.

Cameras placed close enough to the emergency operations control center transmit video over coaxial cables. Those set at a distance use a Vicon fiber-optic transmission system.

The cameras route signals into a custom console enclosure made by the Amco Engineering Co. of Schiller Park, Ill. The console houses a bank of 12 color and black-and-white monitors, VCRs and a matrix switcher, joystick, and keyboard, all manufactured by Vicon.

While the video is recorded for later review, contract security officers from The Wackenhut Corp. of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., ride the switcher controls and keep a close eye on the monitors - particularly for any alarm monitors that light up.

According to Landino, this system was designed without multiplexers. Future systems, however, will incorporate multiplexer technology to make it easier to manage and call up recorded video. Currently, to review an event, officers must fast-forward through images from the entire camera tour.

The Amco console also houses the computer screen and keyboard for the access control and intercommunication systems' controls.

While Wackenhut officers staff the emergency operations control center and monitor the console, they do not patrol the facility or respond to problems. When an alarm goes off, monitoring officers notify Postal Service Inspectors who respond with the full authority of the federal government.

At that point, the term absolute control takes on an entirely new and more authoritative meaning.

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