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Fob Appeal

An alleged break-in that happened three years ago still lingers in the memories of the board members of the Coliseum Park Apartments cooperative on New York’s Upper West Side. Why only alleged? The shareholder had no evidence that anyone had illegally entered. No security camera footage. No damaged furniture. Just a valuable stamp collection gone missing. That’s one reason the board ultimately decided to pursue a rigorous new key fob access system that would not only make the building more secure but also give doormen far-reaching oversight of who entered and exited.

Another reason is curb appeal. The co-op redid its lobbies and, on top of that, the board felt a more modern access system would make the co-op more attractive to would-be buyers.

The Coliseum Park Apartments consists of two 14-story buildings adjacent to each other and a block away from what used to be the New York Coliseum (that was replaced by the Time Warner Center in 2000). A garage serves as an underground conduit between the two buildings. There are 32 doors tied into the new access control system, installed by Academy Mailbox, a security company.

That firm has worked with Coliseum Park in the past to improve its intercom system and upgrade the security of the office spaces on the first floor of the north building. When the new system is fully off the ground, every resident will be provided with a fob, either in the form of a token that can be attached to a keyring or a card much like those used by hotel patrons.

This means that, ultimately, the fob technology allows building management to target and control access. For example, only those who use bikes will be allowed access into the bike room in the basement. Hired dog walkers and weekly cleaning services will be given limited access to only the doors necessary for them to perform their jobs.

And if anyone loses a fob, building superintendent Jason Panarella, who has been very involved in the installation process, will merely deactivate it and issue a new one. A host of logistical problems will evaporate, making the key fobs an attractive option from a managerial perspective.

“As soon as I’ve used a key fob, [the usage is] going to come up on this computer,” says Panarella, pointing to a computer console in the front lobby. “My name is already programmed to the key fob, so it will say I came through this door at this time.”

Putting a Plan into Action

The board of Coliseum Park Apartments approved Academy’s proposal for installation on May 5, 2012. The idea was conceived before Panarella was hired – they had been toying with various security system upgrades. Geoffrey Kovall, who was on the board until this year, recalls discussing the possibility of installing number pads that would require residents to punch in a passcode to open a door. Installing security cameras was always an option on the table. The final decision to go with the key fob technology was carefully discussed, and, “for a job this size, that’s typical,” says Steve Arnold, vice president of Academy.

Arnold has been part of the family-run security service for more than a decade. Whether or not the board members or Panarella were aware of it, they were taking on an advanced access system of larger proportions than he had seen before. This made the project an important one for Academy, which sees key fobs as the “way of the future.” Arnold, who heads all of Academy’s access control projects, came on board with Coliseum Park early last summer and brought with him experience installing similar technology in other New York residential buildings.

“It wasn’t a rushed job,” Arnold notes. “If it [had been,] we could have gotten it done in a third of the time.” The installation happened in two phases. As Arnold explains, there were the “dirty work guys” and the “electronic guys.” And finally, there was the installation of the magnetic strips, which was done by yet another contractor, Abbey Locksmith.

The first two months of labor were devoted to doing the wire runs. This was a bit like spinning an enormous wire web throughout the two apartment buildings in order to connect each door in the system to a central computer. Because the property’s subterranean garage space is so large, the connection between the two buildings presented a challenge for the wire runners. In the end they solved the problem by tapping into the building’s phone wires that had already been laid down. Although this hurdle was overcome eventually, it was last minute changes like this that ultimately made the wiring take up more time and labor than Arnold had initially anticipated.

“[We] underestimated the amount of time needed for the wire,” he concedes. “You try to calculate it in your head, but you can’t stay on top of it.”

There would be other unwelcome surprises. When it came time to install the magnetic strips on some of the older doors in the basement, for instance, they soon found that the doors would need to be replaced in order to fit the new equipment. Having to order new ones would put construction back yet again and meant that Abbey Locksmith had to return to the site a few additional times.

“From starting to run the wire to now was two months of labor,” Arnold recalls. Setbacks notwithstanding, the installations were completed by January, including 32 doors tied into a centralized system and a huge stash of new key fobs ready to be assigned to their owners.

No Two Buildings Are Alike

Part of what makes projects like this one challenging is that they are inherently resistant to being fully streamlined. There is a unique installation process for every building in New York and every level of security needed.

One of Academy’s advertising taglines is “A standard access control system does not exist,” and the Coliseum project certainly provides a fine example. Given that installation will inevitably involve constantly coming up with novel solutions to unforeseen challenges, what may be the most important factor is the tenacity of the people involved, and Coliseum Park has had a winning team, with Arnold acting as a liaison between the construction crew and the building staff, and Panarella working diligently to make sure the doormen are well trained in the new software. Despite the roadblocks they faced, Arnold is convinced that the return on the investment is well worth the effort.

“The key ring Jason has [had] to carry around [in the past] looks crazy,” he says. If the superintendent loses it or quits his job, the board has to go through the process of installing a new lock and distributing new keys to the residents.

No more. Soon, the building management company, Akam Associates, will help organize and distribute the new fobs to all the residents, and floor by floor, one by one, they will finally be able to give up their old metal keys and join the 21st century era of electronic access control.

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