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A Key Fix that Flies

​ROANOKE REGIONAL AIRPORT in Roanoke, Virginia, is a mid-sized airport that hosts approximately 26 flights daily, providing nonstop service to nine large cities. To meet requirements set out by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Sergeant Tony Agee explains that security at the airport is tiered to ensure redundancy. Part of this redundancy is found in the access control system. Some entry and exit points, such as interior doors, have only proximity card readers; low-security areas, such as supply closet doors, have only mechanical keys. By contrast, the doors to secure areas have both proximity card readers and a hard key. “If the card reader fails, we have a hard key backup to secure that door,” he says.

But one problem was that if a mechanical key was lost, Agee had to determine whether it was a master key, which would have opened all doors in the system, or an operator key, which opened only specific doors. Then, the relevant doors had to be rekeyed and repinned immediately. Also, within a specified period of time, Agee had to inform the TSA that the keys had been lost and the locks changed. “Without that hard key, we have to post an officer at the door until it is secure,” says Agee.

In early 2011, an employee lost a master key. “We had to pull each locking core out of the door and repin it.” says Agee. “The fix was cumbersome and time consuming.”

The experience led Agee to speed up his search for a new solution. “We had started looking several years prior to this,” says Agee. “But we found that the locks weren’t compatible with the existing infrastructure. We were looking at a lot of money to retrofit the system.”

Agee wanted a solution for these doors that had the ease-of-use of a mechanical lock but with greater security and easier reprogramming when keys are lost. “We were also looking for a lock and key system that could be tailored to our needs and would give us audit capabilities of when the doors are opened and who is opening them,” he says.

Agee had used Medeco products at the airport since 1999. In late 2011, Medeco told Agee about its XT eCylinders. After researching the system, Agee found that the system had all the features the airport needed, and it could be easily installed. “It was plug and play with what we already had,” Agee says. “The switchover was just a matter of taking the old core out and replacing it.”

The system has a core that is installed in the door, just like a traditional lock. The keys look like a rectangle with rounded shoulders. “It is larger and heavier than a regular key,” explains Agee. “More like a key fob for a car key than a standard mechanical key.”

One feature of the system that appealed to Agee was that the lock itself has no power source; the key is the power source. The software program controlling the system is loaded onto a computer in the security command center and is password-protected. However, Agee can also access the system remotely via a Web portal if necessary. “The software allows us to program that key to open whatever cylinder we say and no others,” says Agee. “When we buy new keys, we can program them to only open specific locks.”

When keys are purchased, the data packets that authorize the keys are sent electronically via e-mail while the keys are mailed separately. Agee then transfers the data packets to the software.

Unlike a mechanical key, the XT key can be tailored to each department or person, giving access only during the appropriate days and times. Also, the system has an audit trail that records all entries and attempted entries.

If one of the XT keys is lost, Agee can upload a black list onto a control key. This black list contains information for the key that is no longer given access. Agee places this control key in each lock that the key would have accessed. The doors do not need to be repinned or rekeyed. “It takes a matter of seconds per door,” Agee says. “It is much faster than the three to four days it would take to reprogram a mechanical system.”

The system was installed in three phases. The first phase, completed in early 2012, was a small roll-out on just a few doors to ensure that things worked smoothly. The first phase went well, according to Agee, so the second phase, which entailed putting the system on all high-security doors, went ahead in mid- 2012. The third phase was to install the system in a few of what are called “all weather” applications as an outdoor test; that was completed late last year. “These were outside applications on padlocks and outside doors,” explains Agee. They wanted to make sure that the system was going to work with ice and rain. “And it worked without flaw, so we will go ahead with the rest of the outside locks this year,” he says.

Agee is pleased with the performance of the installation of 125 locks to date and plans to install approximately 90 to 100 more units in the upcoming budget year.

The 50 airport employees who use the system were initially skeptical of the larger, bulkier keys, says Agee, but everyone has come around to supporting the system. “It is much easier for everyone,” he says. “For some people who had extensive access, they were carrying four or five mechanical keys. They really enjoy carrying only one key.”

Since the installation, some new XT keys have been lost. “Reprogramming the locks was easy,” says Agee. “And we [only had to have] a guard posted at the door for 30 minutes, not three days.”