Cost-Effective Security Solutions for Small and Midsize Buildings

We all want to feel safe in our own homes, and in a small co-op or condominium, any incident from theft of a bicycle to a personal confrontation can cause a major shift in perspective. For boards of small and midsize buildings without doormen, the first reaction is often to look at your security system, which encompasses front- and roof-door locks, intercoms, exterior lighting, keeping sight lines clear by trimming trees that could conceal someone lurking near the entrance, and moving mailboxes to the front of the building, where security is generally concentrated. But how do you do it affordably?

It's always tempting to tech up: Who wouldn't be awed by the programmable telephone entry and access system DoorKing 1834, a variation on the venerable Cyberdoorman, which has been around since the early 2000s and involved off-site surveillance? "You don't have to rewire to install the DoorKing system," explains Josh Koppel, president of HSC Management. "You connect it through the phone line, and if someone buzzes from downstairs, the resident can ring them in from anywhere, not just inside the apartment. You could be in Miami and you can ring them in."

But there are plenty of options between installing a decent front-door lock and posting RoboCop's heavily armed (and painfully malfunction-prone) ED-209 security robot in the lobby. Sometimes simple is highly effective.

Candid Cameras

"I'm into cameras," says Matthew Arnold, president of the security-tech company Academy Mailbox. Video cameras are valuable as much for their deterrent effect as anything else: A lot of crime is opportunistic, so common sense dictates making yourself a less attractive potential victim than the next building. That doesn't mean it's necessarily worth it to save some serious money by using dummy cameras, Arnold cautions. He cites the case of a girl who was sexually assaulted in a Manhattan elevator and whose family won a lawsuit that hinged on the sense of false security that dummy cameras confer.

Arnold has noticed an upswing in smaller buildings installing video intercom systems. With these, there's a unit with a video screen in each apartment, replacing the old voice-only intercom, and another at the front door.

"The unit isn't running constantly," he explains. "It turns on when someone rings," which addresses the personal privacy concerns that make some owners and shareholders resistant to the idea of 24/7 surveillance. "Only one apartment can be [buzzed] at a time," he adds, which slows down would-be malfeasance by preventing intruders from playing the odds that if they buzz a dozen units in rapid succession, someone will let them in blindly.

"The camera will take a sequence of six snapshots of the person who's ringing the bell. Those are stored in the apartment unit" — not in some central location where people other than the owner/shareholder can view them — "and the unit can store up to 40 sequences." At a cost of roughly $750 per apartment, that's a significant security upgrade that doesn't require a sky's-the-limit budget.

In the Key of "Gee!"

In situations like this, experts say it might be a good time to consider upgrading the key system. One possibility is to use Mul-T-Lock keys; to get copies of them made, you have to present a special card with an electronic security strip, which prevents unauthorized duplications. Or you can try electronic key fobs. Those are "less expensive than video systems, and they're more controllable than keys," explains Daniel Girdusky, vice president of business development at Rydan Security, because they offer a sophisticated range of functions that allows occupants to customize the access they permit.

"Let's say you have a dog walker or a cleaning person who comes in at certain hours when nobody's home," Arnold says. "You can give them a key fob that's programmed to work during a set time range, one that's easy to change when circumstances do."

Looking to the future, Girdusky sees biometric systems, which identify a legitimate user by a unique physical attribute like a fingerprint, as an "option to explore" for small co-ops and condos. Although they sound science-fictional, the systems already exist; what's changed, he says, "is that they're rapidly decreasing in price."

But any security system is as strong as its weakest link: people. "Our best security is trying to have everybody in the building know each other," says Chris Cooper, board president at a 10-unit condo in the East Village. "I'm always saying, ‘If you see someone you don't know on the stoop, ask them to move on. Be polite, but say something.'"