Skip to content

Access Emergency

Condominium complexes, gated communities, industrial compounds, apartment buildings, and private roadways are all examples of locations where mechanized gates and doors are used to control pedestrian and vehicle access. Depending upon the application and level of security required, access control systems may be completely automated or staffed around the clock. System components typically include perimeter fencing, bollards, lighting, signage, tollbooths, electromechanical locks and motorized operators that raise traffic control arms or retract gates on demand.

While doors, walls, gates, and fences do a great job of keeping out the bad guys, they also do a terrific job of keeping out the good guys—public and private responders whose job it is to answer calls for help emanating from within these residential and commercial mini-fortresses.

As a first responder, getting past an electric gate that stands between you and a call for service can sometimes be a daunting task. As a security systems integrator, consultant or installer, have you inadvertently lengthened emergency response times because of a remote controlled gate? Or has your lack of proper planning or design resulted in emergency crews being completely locked out of a call for service?

It happens all the time. Police officers, firefighters, ambulance crews and security personnel pull up to a gate thinking they have the right code, punch it in on the keypad and then sit there as they watch the gate do absolutely nothing. Frequently these crews have resorted to tailgating a resident or visitor through the gate or ask their communications center for help. Calling back the original reporting party and getting them to “buzz-in” these responders is not a quick process and asking for the updated pass code over a radio frequency poses its own security concerns.

Mandating Access

Do you know how jurisdictions you serve address gated communities? Likely there is no single answer to the emergency access dilemma or, worse yet, maybe it is not considered an issue because it has never been a problem before. Some agencies accept the expectation that individual police, fire and security units are to maintain a set of keys, access cards, transmitters, and a current list of codes for all the apartment complex doors, gated walkways and driveways in your district. But as cities continue to grow this expectation is not a realistic one.

With security foremost on the minds of many Americans, the installation of access control systems will certainly be on the rise and the issue of emergency access may be a growing problem across the country. Without proper planning and legislative action, it is easy to see how such systems could adversely affect a response unless the use of emergency bypass systems, on all electronic gates, are mandated.

Of the local emergency access ordinances in effect today, many were written years ago by the fire authority having jurisdiction and do not take advantage of recent advancements in the access control industry. While some of the more popular methods of emergency entry meet with the approval of firefighters, it is doubtful that other public safety agencies or private security providers were consulted in the selection process.

Relatively few law enforcement agencies are on record as recommending or mandating types of emergency access controls. In the contract city of Santa Clarita (California), the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recommends the use of lock boxes. In Oregon, the Eugene Police Department offers two options: garage door-like transmitters or the use of lock boxes, but only the fire department has access to the latter.

With twelve newly developed gated subdivisions, the city of Lexington (Kentucky) found itself in the midst of an emergency access crisis in 1999. While it undertook a 90-day study of the problem, the city required around-the-clock staffing of each gated neighborhood to ensure that emergency personnel would not be thwarted in their attempts to answer calls for help. Eventually, the gates were equipped with siren recognition systems.

The San Leandro (California) Fire Department requires “electric key switch control station” while the cities of Irvine (California) and Pasadena (Texas) both mandate the installation of a receiver system that is controlled by way of public safety radio systems with an effective range of at least 100 feet on all electromechanically control gates.

The Fairfield (California) Fire Department has two separate mandates. While lock box systems are required on all commercial properties, the installation of radio receivers that allow emergency vehicles to open gates by using existing public safety radio frequencies is mandatory on all gated community developments and residential properties.

Emergency Access System Types

There are eight basic methodologies that emergency personnel can employ to gain entry into gated areas. Each has its own strengths and drawbacks. The categories are:KeypadsThird PartyLocksCardsLightSoundRadio Signals, andForced Entry

Keypads. Some gates come with combination locks or keypads that accept a numerical pass code assigned to emergency crews. The code is entered by hand and entry is made.

Many keypad systems lack any real audit control as all emergency crews typically use only one code collectively. It is not uncommon for officers to find themselves completely locked out of a call for service when the code changes and no one bothers to inform the police department about it. There is usually some delay encountered in getting to the keypad and inputting the proper combination.

If your communications center has an up-to-date pass code that is not known to the responding officer, dispatchers will typically broadcast it over an unsecured police or fire frequency. A common police scanner can pick-up all such transmissions. If a pass code was to fall into the wrong hands because of a broadcast such as this, who would be liable and what would be the potential ramifications?

Third Party. By requesting access from a third party through a dispatch callback procedure, telephone or intercom system, residents, guards, or employees can remotely grant access into the gated area. Officers may be successful in getting in by hailing a passerby or by following a vehicle with access through the gate. During off-hours, no one may be present to provide said access or, in some situations, officers may prefer not to alert people inside the complex of their arrival. Another concern with “telephone entry” type systems is when an emergency 911 call emanates from a residence in a gated compound or a multi-unit apartment building, police/fire dispatch locks or holds the line open pending emergency responder arrival upon the scene. This creates a problem because the telephone entry control system can’t be activated by the person who actually called for assistance.

Locks. Personnel can gain access by using a key that opens a lock or activates an electric switch. If the facility has only manually operated gates, the key and lock is probably the only option in providing site protection while allowing emergency access.

Some jurisdictions mandate lock boxes, but this solution is used almost exclusively by fire departments although some marketing campaigns are now targeting police. Within the lock box is either a switch to activate the gate mechanism, another key, or an access card that can be used to open the barrier.

The downside to keys is accountability and the sheer number required to equip each police vehicle or officer that may be dispatched to a particular location. A lost key might require the re-keying of all matching locks, switches, lock boxes, and the replacement of all existing keys—a costly proposition.

Cards. Access credentials offer an audit trail of activity as each device is associated to individual users or vehicles by the access control system. Common technologies include touch-plate, embedded chip, magnetic stripe and barcode. Many card types require the insertion into, or the touching of, a card reader. Another reader scans a barcode tag affixed to the side of vehicles as it approaches the gate. Proximity cards are best categorized radio devices and increase the pass-through speed of emergency vehicles because actual contact with the reader is not required.

If a card is lost, the permissions associated with it can be quickly removed from the system. Cards are relatively inexpensive and replacements can be put into use quickly. But just like keys, the management of a card for each piece of potential response equipment or officer can be an expensive proposition and a audit control nightmare.

Light. Some cities use the patented Opticom™ traffic priority control system manufactured by 3M™. Each emergency vehicle in the jurisdiction is equipped with a strobe light that contains a proprietary and coded infrared component that preempts traffic signals during emergency responses so that the fire truck or police car gets a green light at controlled intersections. Similar to those found on traffic lights, a compatible receiver can be attached to gate operators that will provide emergency access to vehicles flashing the special strobe.

This solution requires that each emergency vehicle be equipped with an appropriate strobe emitter. Unless your city already uses Opticom™ to control traffic lighting, this system may prove to be cost prohibitive and impractical for this limited use. Another important point for law enforcement to consider is that using visible light systems may compromise the covert entry of responding units.

Sound. A popular solution to the emergency access conundrum is sound activated entry systems. When an emergency vehicle gets within range of the proprietary audio sensor, the gate opens after detecting the sound of a siren for 2.5 to 4.5 seconds. Such systems are fairly inexpensive to purchase, are compatible with most gate operators, and are popular with fire departments.

While fire equipment rolls to calls with lights and sirens all the time, this is not the case with police nor is it even an option for security vehicles. Even if it was, the last thing security may want to do is to tip-off their arrival by blasting a siren.

Radio Signal. Once a gate operator is equipped with a compatible radio receiver, any authorized vehicle can open a security gate in one of several ways:Activating a manual transmitterEquipping a vehicle with an active or passive RFID device                                                                                                              Use of a radio frequency identifier

Manually-activated transmitters require users push a button to open a gate. This proven technology is used to activate garage door openers in most American homes.

Active RFID transmitters require no user action. Similar to those mounted on the windshields of vehicles using automated toll roads, it continuously emits a radio signal. Upon approach to a gate, the receiver detects the signal and activates the gate operator. Another type of transmitter is mounted on the underside of a vehicle and its signal is detected by a roadway loop similar to those used to detect cars at traffic signals. Passive RFID devices typically require manual presentation within close reader proximity.

There are a number of manufacturers for each of these technologies. Although each offers rapid emergency access, every response vehicle must be equipped with a compatible device and the device must be maintained in an operable condition. The likelihood of each gated facility in a jurisdiction using the same access frequency or technology is unlikely creating the need for each piece of rolling stock to carry any number of gadgets to gain emergency access. Of course, the loss or theft of a transmitter or transponder poses particular concerns for facilities with matching frequencies. In the case of the always on transmitter, simply driving past a gated complex may inadvertently activate the gate operator.

Another newer technology takes advantage of the common thread that ties all public safety agencies together. This newer system operates by way of the public safety agencies own radio transceiver. Radio frequency identification is the latest technology being marketed in the access control field. A patented receiver monitors fifty different frequencies programmed into memory by the user or installer. Coordinating radio clicks with a visible light, the possibility that spurious radio traffic may inadvertently activate the gate operator is nearly eliminated.

Radio signal identification is quick (less than four seconds) and secure. Receiver range can be set from within inches to about one-quarter mile away and handheld or vehicle-mounted radios can be used to open the gate. An internal log in the receiver maintains details on what agency gained access and when, retaining 50 of the most recent transactions. A significant feature that this system offers over others is that it supports mutual aid operations for multiple public safety agencies.

Forced Entry. More of a method than a system—and certainly last on the list of emergency access options—is forced entry. Crashing fences, cutting locks, and breaching gates are proven means for public safety uses to get where they need to go, but such tactics usually result in collateral damage to facility equipment and/or vehicles. Jumping fences puts responders at significant risk of injury and leaves them without vehicle-mounted equipment. As such, brute force and scaling barriers are considered options of last resort.

System Override. Although outside the scope of this article, security gates should also include the ability to override the gate operator in case of a power or mechanical failure. Such systems include manually operated mechanisms and backup power supplies. In the case of a power failure, the battery backup system automatically opens the gate then shuts down the gate operator until the primary power supply is restored. If the battery backup and primary power both fail, the gate operator should go into a fail-safe mode.

“Fail-safe” is an industry recognized standard that allows a malfunctioning gate to be manually pushed open so that vehicles or people are neither locked-in nor locked-out. Fail-safe overrides are mandatory in many jurisdictions across the country.

Quick, Reliable Access a Necessity

If you have not thought about emergency access to gated properties or for electromechanical entry doors to apartment buildings for your customers, now is the time to start. The number of gated systems will surely increase as people now feel more vulnerable and reconsider the priorities of safety and security at their homes and workplaces. Without proper emergency access controls in place, public and private responder response times are unnecessarily lengthened due to the blockade posed by improperly equipped electromechanical gates or doors.

Working on independent solutions on individual electric gates will only complicate the issue. In doing so, every response agency will be responsible for even more pass codes, keys, access cards, or transmitters. Some fire engine visors are already covered with myriad of transmitters and their key rings can’t get much bigger. And who will have to replace these access devices if they are lost or stolen?

You are the security expert! There are simpler technologies that guarantee reliable emergency access through electromechanical gates and entry doors. Examine the options and work with your local jurisdictions to develop a comprehensive, holistic approach if none exists.

Some people may not see the benefits of quick, simple, and reliable access to gated facilities, but the safety of your customers—and your staff—depends on it.

Tom Chronister, CPP, is a commander with the Oxnard (CA) Police Department.