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Big Brother Is Watching

Roberto Gonzalez remembers when his Brooklyn condominium board decided to beef up its security. It was in early 2008. The units had only been occupied for about four or five months, when one of the owners was mugged in the lobby. It was late at night, the woman was unaccompanied, and when she went into the building lobby, a man followed her in and strong-armed her into giving up her wallet.

It was immediately afterwards that the condo unanimously agreed something had to be done about security. But what? There wasn’t enough money for a full-time doorman, and a part-time one didn’t seem to make sense. After all, what would the unit-owners do when the part-timer wasn’t on duty? Gonzalez, the vice president of the five-member board, did some research and came up with a solution: an electronic doorman. By locking the front doors and installing a video camera panel on the outside of the building, everyone going in and out would be tracked by a camera. Not only that. An employee would be watching them – and talking to them – from a remote location.

“We wanted the benefit of a live person [watching the door], but we were too small physically and budget-wise” to afford an on-the-spot doorman, explains Gonzalez. Several security companies came and made presentations. Ultimately, the board decided to go with the Long Island City-based American Integrated Security Group (AISG) and its “Remote Doorman” program.

Gonzalez’s condominium, which comprises three buildings at 223, 225, and 227 Maujer Street in Williamsburg, now boasts a video intercom panel outside each of the three front vestibules and cameras in the lobbies. So, for example, when a delivery person comes to one of the front doors, he or she pushes the button for the doorman. An AISG employee immediately offers greetings and instructions to go into the building and leave the package or dry cleaning or whatever in a specific location.

For the condominium owners – 24 in all – “there is definitely a greater sense of security,” says Gonzalez. If a resident has lost his keys, AISG maintains a photo database of the residents and will, if all is on the up and up, open the door. The operators are on stand-by 24 hours a day, and despite a few early problems – some of the condominium owners complained that the AISG employees weren’t prompt and professional enough in greeting them and opening the door, says Gonzalez – most of the residents are happy with the system. It’s been about nine months since the program was installed, and all in all, the unit-owners are very happy.

Having a remote doorman is just like having a real person on the premises, except that you don’t have to tip him, jokes Levy Acs, president of AISG. “Certain buildings cannot afford to have a doorman, so they opt for this service, which is a fraction of the cost of what you would have if you have a doorman.” AISG offers several different packages: if the building has an intercom system already, the firm can install a video system piggybacking onto the intercom for $4,000. If there is no existing system, the installation costs can run about $10,000, which includes the panel outside the building and cameras and intercoms in the lobby. Maintenance is about $25 a month per apartment. For an additional $30 to $50 monthly, AISG also offers a service it calls Virtual Concierge, or VIC. If a resident wants to make dinner reservations, order flowers, or schedule a taxi, the VIC service can do that. So far, says Acs, most of the residential buildings are interested strictly in the remote doorman feature. When someone visits the building and presses the intercom, “it rings to us. We’ll call the tenant, let him know that [someone] is downstairs and wants to visit,” says Acs. This way, the building stays secure and the residents and their guests aren’t inconvenienced, explains Acs.

Lynne Mekeel, a member of the condominium board at 20 Clinton Street and the president of Merchants Properties, which manages the building, says that her board just voted to install a similar program. “We have an old-fashioned system. Someone rings your bell, you can talk to them, but you can’t see them.”

She had seen articles about remote access doormen systems and just recently proposed the idea for the Clinton Street condominium. It was greeted enthusiastically. “What the people liked was the security of the cameras, because sometimes [residents] just let people in. There have been too many instances of people walking through the hallways who don’t belong here.” After doing some research, the board opted to go with Video Doorman, the program created by the Queens-based American Security Systems.

For $23,500, the company will install a video console outside the building and cameras inside the lobby and the elevator. When couriers ring the panel for entrance to the building, a live operator, based in Staten Island, uses the video camera and two-way voice communication to greet them, verify whom the package is for, opens the vestibule door, and instructs couriers where to put packages on the ground floor.

The best part about the program, says Larry Dolin, president of American Security Systems, is that the remote operator stays with the couriers every step of the way, and if for any reason a person does not immediately vacate the building after making a delivery, the remote video doorman will announce that the police will be notified. All deliveries are digitally recorded.

As an added security measure, residents of buildings with Video Doorman are given a key fob with a button which, when pushed, immediately connects them with an employee.

“Let’s say you are coming toward the building and you don’t feel comfortable,” says Dolin – it’s late, or someone is loitering outside. Push the button on the fob and “we will greet you by name. If anything is going on, we will dispatch the police.”

While the whole package can be pricey, $23,000 for installation and another $1,100 a month for maintenance, for the residents of 20 Clinton Street, the enhanced sense of security and ease is worth the cost, says Meekel. In her 38-unit condominium, there have been situations when people have been climbing on fire escapes trying to get into the building or roaming the hallways and breaking into unlocked apartments

In April, when Meekel proposed that the condo consider Video Doorman, people responded enthusiastically. Not only did the board members like the idea of being greeted personally when they came home and having their packages tracked, they were also pleased that a camera would be recording what is going on in the lobby, “so if by chance anyone is robbed, the police can review the camera and see who was in the lobby.”

The board members did not balk at the cost of the installation. Even though it will take an assessment and increase in monthly common charges to pay for it. Notes Meekel: “Everyone was very happy to have it.”

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