SECURITY SYSTEM MAINTENANCE: Strategies for Choosing a Plan

Jul 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By ANDREW N. ONDICH


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Investing in security technology, like many things, has become a more complex business decision. Longer life-expectancy means users are more likely to need longer-term warranties and system maintenance programs.

Operational expectations framed in information technology terms — such as mission critical, continuous availability, and high availability — have prompted users to focus on system uptime more than ever.

As security programs and systems take a more significant position in business operations, security managers are saddled with the key responsibility to keep systems running at peak efficiency, with little or no downtime. Therefore, system maintenance is a pivotal consideration in the procurement decision process.

Security systems are normally warrantied and guaranteed against functional, operational, and workmanship failures. Most security contractors offer some term of warranty to their clients, usually covering parts, labor and workmanship. Manufacturers also offer warranties on their products, although the length of the terms may be different than those offered by the contractor.

Naturally, the longer the warranty term, the better for the end-user; a shorter term is better for the contractor. That means establishing the terms of the warranty should be as careful a decision as designing the overall system. Contractors tend to offer either one year parts and one year labor, while many offer only 90 days labor. As a minimum, the end-user should insist on at least one year.

A one-year warranty allows users to better estimate long-term maintenance needs — two years is even better. In some worst-case scenarios, it may take almost a year for a contractor to work bugs out of a system. Analyzing potential service needs on only a first-year warranty leads to extraordinarily high base-level data. A two-year warranty allows a deeper analysis of time and material estimations for future maintenance considerations.

After the initial implementation and warranty, the user should be concerned with the continued operation and maintenance of the system. Software maintenance, preventive maintenance for equipment, repairs, replacements and labor are all budgetary items and operating expenses worthy of early investigation. Preparing for the future maintenance needs of the system is paramount during the initial procurement phase. Preparing to negotiate extended warranty or maintenance contracts with the installing contractor or other service companies also requires early planning.

KEYS TO PLANNING FOR FUTURE MAINTENANCE NEEDS

Having sufficient knowledge regarding the layout, interconnection and programming of a system is imperative. As-built drawings, detailed wiring diagrams, identifiable cable routing, detailed programming charts and complete operating and maintenance manuals will give a user that knowledge. Users should not let the only source of information be the contractor, or worse yet, the technician assigned to an account.

Most users have heard it: “Everything is proprietary to some extent or another.” The key to controlling costs is to limit, to whatever degree possible, proprietary equipment. For this article, the definition of proprietary is limited to a product that can only be serviced by the installing contractor. In order to choose an alternate provider, the new contractor would need to purchase parts or expertise from the original dealer. Users should insist on equipment that is available to a larger dealer network, giving opportunities to change service contractors if needed. Products that are off-the-shelf, even if limited to an authorized dealer network, are better than those available only from a single source manufacturer/installer.

Understanding the product is also a key aspect for the user. What does the system need in order to be serviceable? Is the software supported through all versions, or is it limited to the most recent two, three or four versions? Who is responsible for maintaining the operating system, database software and computer hardware? How often will installed devices like cameras, position sensors, locking hardware and batteries need to be adjusted, cleaned or replaced? Most of all, what are the fixed fee costs from the manufacturer to stay up-to-date?

Through requiring and preserving thorough records, reducing or eliminating proprietary equipment, and understanding potential firm fixed costs, maintenance and costs can be controlled.

TYPES OF MAINTENANCE PROGRAMS

Let's define some of the terms surrounding maintenance programs:

A warranty encompasses a period of time immediately following acceptance of an installed security system during which the contractor is responsible to ensure the system operates as required by the contract. Warranties normally include coverage of all parts, labor and workmanship included in the initial installation.

An extended warranty implies that the warranty period is established beyond the standard terms offered by the contractor. An extended warranty should also include all parts, labor and workmanship included in the initial installation.

Maintenance agreements are contracts established exclusive of the initial implementation, and may be put in place with the original contractor, or any combination of other service organizations. The servicing companies may be inside or outside contractors, and be responsible for individual components or complete systems.

Extended maintenance has no unique meaning. It only implies that a long-term contract may apply. While warranties are typically inclusive of the entire initial installation, maintenance programs may be sectioned into limited service categories.

Preventive maintenance is just like visiting the doctor for a check-up each year. Whether one is sick or not, the doctor is able to see changes in their systems, and direct them to a course of action that may prevent health failure. Preventive maintenance is that, plus a trip to the dentist. The security system is checked by a qualified technician who reviews the system programming, tests circuits for changes in resistance, checks and changes batteries and adjusts components as necessary. While giving the system its checkup, a thorough cleaning is also in order — with camera housings, lenses, equipment cabinets, power supplies and other equipment getting the once-over to ensure quality operations.

Software maintenance is the regularly scheduled update of software programs to eliminate any bugs found since the latest release, and to add any patches that make the software function better or provide added features for ease of operation.

System maintenance is the response to a problem, identified by the end-user. It may be provided under a time and material agreement, a fixed-fee contract for parts and labor or a fixed fee for labor with added costs for parts.

SELECTING A MAINTENANCE PROGRAM

With every nuance of a system maintenance program comes added cost. Those concerned with establishing a firm budget for system maintenance may opt for a total parts and labor maintenance agreement. Others may determine that technology has advanced to a degree that equipment replacement is rarely necessary, and may be more flexible regarding budget items for maintenance. Remember, everything is negotiable.

If software is required to operate a system, attention must be paid to the manufacturer's policies and practices regarding version and interim upgrades and updates. Many manufacturers continue to develop software programs to remain up-to-date with the operating system developers (Windows, LINUX, etc.). Updates in the operating system may adversely affect the security application software and the manufacturer then “patches” the program to adjust. On the other hand, some patches may cause more harm than good. It is highly recommended that a software maintenance program be implemented, yet that each update be taken care of individually. In most cases, the old adage applies: “If it isn't broken, don't fix it.”

Combining a preventive maintenance program with on-call service (no parts) provided under a standard maintenance contract offers several advantages. Most problems can be detected early — before they become a problem. It also saves the expense of the time it takes to figure out what isn't working. Hours can add up as a technician tries to determine if a problem is due to software, hardware, programming, bad resisters or something else. Choosing to purchase the labor in advance — and the parts only as necessary — can save a considerable amount of money over the life of a system.

Service contractors generally consider fixed costs, such as software maintenance, and either add a percentage of the initial cost or a fee per device to determine maintenance agreement fees. This method makes determining fees easy for the contractor, but may not have much basis in fact.

There are many service and maintenance programs that have been developed fully with the customer in mind, and there are many developed with the sole purpose of generating a profit. A good maintenance program provides the end-user with reasonable costs for service work, and the contractor with a reasonable profit.

Deciding to make an initial investment in a security technology solution takes diligence, and so does choosing an appropriate maintenance program. The key is carefully analyzing actual needs, and then negotiating a win-win contract.

What follows are some strategies that have worked well in the past:

WARRANTY ANALYSIS

The warranty period after acceptance of an installation ensures the implementation operates as designed and remains stable. By requiring a longer-term warranty (possibly two years), the user is able to analyze service requirements and potential costs.

Every service call — warranty or otherwise — requires the service technician to record his activity on a work order. The work order includes time spent (labor hours), and parts repaired or replaced. During the warranty period, the contractor should be required to itemize all potential charges — realized or not — on each work order. Trip charges, replacement and repair parts, labor, equipment and materials should all be identified.

Collecting this data allows the customer to understand all costs associated with maintaining the system over a period of time. Data collected during the warranty period becomes the basis from which annual costs can be estimated, and from which a maintenance contract, if desired, can be negotiated.

When reviewing the data, users should pay attention to any nuances from the initial implementation that may have worked in the supplier's favor during the warranty period. Extraneous post-implementation costs should be discounted, so as not to negatively impact true service costs. Users should review all costs for labor and for equipment, extrapolate anticipated costs based on actual history, and then begin negotiating. The longer the term of the potential contract, the more likely it is to be acceptable to the contractor.

WARRANTY AS INSURANCE

Most security contractors and service providers limit the coverage provided under a service contract. While “normal wear and tear,” equipment failures and workmanship are customarily covered; damage from misuse, acts of God and damage due to negligence are not.

Security installations include many components that, by their nature, are excluded under a maintenance agreement, yet are considered in establishing the fee. As an example, most camera mounts could only be damaged intentionally, so they are excluded from “free” service, even though they are paid for.

Under a warranty as insurance plan, the customer enters into negotiations (or develops a request-for-proposal) fully aware of the exclusions, and eliminates them from the agreement. All incidents of failure are covered, including incidents like lightning damage, flood, non-negligent damage, etc. In return, the contractor is permitted to charge a flat percentage fee of the total installed cost of the system. To aid in mitigating the added risk of an insurance-type agreement, the contract is typically established for five years or more, with guaranteed annual increases of 3-4 percent.

24/7 AT A 9-TO-5 PRICE

Another strategy is suggested by the following example: A creative branch manager was involved in a negotiation for an extended service agreement for a large national security contractor. The client, a hospital, was in desperate need of an emergency service response plan, but was limited by budget to a standard working hours plan. The hospital occasionally needed nighttime and weekend response services for life-safety related security system failures.

The fee to extend the standard agreement required a 40 percent greater premium, and in lieu of that, after-hours response includes time-and-a-half rates and portal-to-portal charges. Both exceeded what the hospital could pay.

Understanding (and confirming) the hospital's needs, the branch manager offered to provide 24/7 service for the standard service fee under two conditions — that after-hours calls truly had to be a life-safety (or high security) emergency, and all calls had to be placed to the security director first, who would then contact the service company.

Over three years there were fewer than a dozen emergency calls.

FOR THE RECORD…

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew N. Ondich, CPP, is director, physical security programs, for SecuraComm Consulting Inc., an independent security consulting and engineering firm. He has more than 22 years experience developing security programs for corporations across the U.S., focusing on organization-wide system development and optimization.

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