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A Healthy Access Upgrade

​NORTHWESTERN MEMORIAL Hospital in downtown Chicago attempts to balance the goal of fostering an open, welcoming atmosphere with the need to provide a secure environment for its 9,000 employees and the many patients and visitors who use its 900-bed facility. Barney McGrane, director of security services, kept these factors in mind as he began researching options for upgrading the access control system.

The existing setup was a 95-panel C-CURE 800 access control system, which controlled both internal and external doors as well as providing access to the patient elevators. Manufactured by Software House, it had been reliable but the hospital was outgrowing its capabilities both in terms of the number of doors it could handle and the amount of information it could provide for analysis.

Whatever new system McGrane chose needed to be compatible with other aspects of the hospital’s access controls that could still be used, such as the special access control devices in the hospital’s neo natal intensive care unit (NICU).

Those had been specially designed by local lock integrators Glavin Security Specialists, and the hospital did not want to have that redone. Working with the specialists when it was originally designed, McGrane had the NICU divided so that each bed space was a self-contained pod. With the space divided, the infants in the unit were protected from excessive light and sound from the hospital in general. To protect the security of the patients, each pod was secured by an access control unit. However, the access control had to be specially designed too, to make sure that the area was as quiet as possible.

The door does not beep when the access control unit is activated and even the door strikes were selected to be quieter than standard issue door strikes. If access control at a door is breached, an alarm sounds in the control room but there is no audible alarm in the NICU. Similarly, if a general alarm goes off in the hospital, it does not sound or flash in the NICU pods.

The new system also needed to be expandable and able to handle more information. The old system had a main server and the server communicated directly with the panels. “If the server died, you were in trouble,” explains McGrane. Also, the panels could only handle a small amount of data. “You could only put so many records on the panels,” he says. “We knew we were coming to the end of an era.”

With these issues in mind, McGrane started researching new systems. The simplest solution was to upgrade the existing platform to a newer C-CURE platform, the 9000, which did have new capabilities to address the hospital’s growing needs, but McGrane looked at other available technologies to be sure that there were not better options before making the decision to stick with the same vendor.

With regard to the concern about the reliance on the server, McGrane found that the new system contained smart panels. If the server fails, these panels still work because they can stand alone or communicate with other panels. The new panels also have nearly limitless capacity. The new system can handle over a million active cards. Other new features include the ability for certain users—such as physicians who might be on call—to have more than one badge in case of emergency, without creating a second record. The system also allows some users to have unlimited clearances associated with their badge.

The new system also solved another problem for McGrane. With the old system, communication with the panels was slow, meaning that the software could only communicate with three to four panels at a time. At that rate, it could take nearly an hour to complete system changes on just one of the panels. “If you had to communicate with all of those panels separately, even the simplest change took eight hours of downtime,” he says. The new panels are networked devices, meaning that changes that are input from the main server can be universally applied to all panels and take a matter of seconds. A large software upgrade across the entire system can take an hour, he notes.

In 2011, McGrane requested the system in his 2012 budget. The request was approved for the system and then McGrane put out a bid for an integrator. Advent Systems, of Elmhurst, Illinois, won the bid and began working with McGrane to implement the transition to the new system.

The changeover took place in 2012, with the system going live in August of that year.

The most challenging part of the project would be to ensure that there was no break in the access control functions as the switch was made. Ensuring that all the access control information was moved to the new system proved to be the simplest step of the upgrade. The existing database of card holders was moved over to the new system using a conversion tool.

The next step was to replace all the old panels with new ones. First, McGrane worked with Advent to load software and prepare the server. However, bringing the new panels online was more of a challenge. The tricky part was to bring each new panel online without causing a disruption. Security installed the new panels next to the old ones over the course of three months so that the old ones could keep functioning until they were ready to flip the switch. Each panel was given an IP address to connect with the network and then brought online in sequence. Security then shut down the old software and brought up the new system.

“We got power to each panel and then held them in a waiting pattern…bringing the panels over bit by bit on the same day,” said McGrane. As each new panel came online, security personnel monitored them through a desktop computer to ensure that they were communicating with the server and with each other. “Because we went to such a fast, network-based panel, I knew right away if there was a problem by watching the diagnostic online,” he says.

As this process continued, the doors being switched over were propped open to prevent alarms. Security was posted to watch over the door and check badges during the switch. Staff members were also standing by to fix panels that didn’t transfer. “It went very smoothly,” says McGrane. “Out of 188 panels, only five didn’t come up immediately.”

The key to the transition, according to McGrane, was extensive planning. “The project management was critical to keeping disruption to a minimum,” he notes.

Reporting, which is vital to the hospital from a compliance standpoint, is much more extensive with the new system, allowing McGrane to “create custom queries and pull just about any data in any way.”

According to McGrane, the system has been performing as intended since installation. Now, the security team is looking to make use of some of the additional features that came with the new platform. Of specific interest is the lockdown feature that allows security to pick and choose which doors should remain closed during a partial lockdown in the case of an emergency. “I like the idea of configuring the system to specific threat levels,” says McGrane. “We are looking at doing that in the future.”

Overall, McGrane says the new system has been a real win for the department because it has taken the future capability and stability questions out of the equation, allowing security to concentrate on other more important issues.