Creating a Safe Community Without Breaking Your Budget

Creating a Safe Community

 Too often a condominium community takes a hard look at its security only after  the damage is done.  

 “Our business is an event-driven business,” says Andres Vidales of ADT Security Services, based in the Miami/Fort  Lauderdale, Florida area. “The majority of times that we get called, it is because something has already  occurred.”  

 When an incident does occur on their property, residents tend to overreact. They  quickly conclude that they are in the midst of an epidemic of crime. But, in  fact, the great majority of crimes are isolated incidents. “Burglary is a crime of opportunity,” according to Jody P. Weis, the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.  “By being security conscious and taking some simple steps to secure your home,  you can significantly reduce the risk of becoming a victim,” Weis says. Implementing a range of low-cost and no-cost solutions can vastly  improve security on the property.  

 Steps to Safety

 The most effective approach to crime prevention doesn’t cost a dime, but does take extra effort. “The number one thing is community involvement,” advises Officer Bob Wilkins, head of the Plantation, Florida crime prevention  unit. “Crime feeds on apathy. If people simply mind their own business, their entire  community is vulnerable to crime.” For starters, he adds, “residents should get to know their neighbors and share information.”  

 Association members should bring in experts to advise them. “One of the most important things managers and associations can do is to reach  out to their Police Department,” says Carmen Gonzalez Caldwell, executive director of the Miami-Dade chapter of  Citizens Crimewatch, a program sponsored by the National Crime Prevention  Council. “Have them do a security survey—a free service that most police departments offer. Invite your local police  department to come in to speak to your residents on what people can do to  protect themselves.”  

 Crime Prevention Essentials

 Experts say the first line of defense for homeowners is to call the police at  the slightest sign of suspicious activity on the property. But, residents often  think, a stranger acting “suspiciously” might be a neighbor they don’t recognize. Surely the police will be pissed if they are bothered with false  alarms.  

 “No!” insists Caldwell. “Do not hesitate. When in doubt, call the cops. It’s better to be safe than sorry. And no, the police don’t mind you calling, even if it turns out to be nothing.” She recommends programming the local police number into cell phones. And if you  see a crime in progress, call 911.  

 “Suspicious” activity includes a stranger loitering on the premises, a vehicle cruising the  roads, someone peering into cars or windows, kids walking around during school  hours, solicitors without appropriate identification or someone knocking on  doors asking for directions or with a strange-seeming story.  

 Once on the phone with the police the resident should be prepared to stay on the  phone, whether they identify themselves or not, and have patience with the long  list of questions the police might ask to help them determine the level of  threat. They will want to caller to be specific. Not, explains Wikins, “there’s a guy sitting out by a car that kind of makes me uncomfortable,” but rather, “there is a guy by his car and it seems like he is watching for something” or “he keeps trying door handles.” And, of course, a detailed description of the suspect or their vehicle is  invaluable.  

 Stay Alert

 According to Wilkins, “Most residential crimes occur because the opportunity to commit them exists,  created by the victim through carelessness and lack of attention to security.” Residents should contact the managing agent whenever they notice that any  aspect of the security on the property has been compromised—if a light has burned out, a gate is out of commission or if they notice  graffiti or vandalism.  

 Residents should stay alert at all times while walking in common areas or from  their car to their apartment. “We are so overwhelmed with our own personal issues,” notes Caldwell—“so distracted that we don’t pay attention to our surroundings. We forget to do things like lock the door  when we leave the house or lock the car when we get out or leave things visible  in the car.”  

 According to Wilkins, homeowners should “park their car in a well-lighted area. When you return to your car, have your  keys in your hand ready to open the door and look around the car to insure no  one is waiting for you.” Also, he advises, “when walking in public, don't wear a lot of visible expensive jewelry or display  large amounts of cash.”  

 If your building has a buzzer system rather than a doorman at the front  entrance, be sure not to allow anyone who has not been buzzed in to enter along  with you. Thieves might pretend to be friends of neighbors who are supposed to  let them in but aren’t home, relying on peoples’ reluctance to create an uncomfortable social situation. If someone you don’t know attempts to come into the building with you, you might act as if you’ve forgotten something in the car and walk away for a couple of minutes.  

 Low Cost Solutions

 There are two key elements of security that can be implemented at a cost that  will not shock the board treasurer.  

 Lighting is number one. “Put up as many lights as you can,” advises Vidales. “Criminals want to be undetected and darkness is a playground. Condominium  associations need to light their parking lots better and put some motion  sensing lights around the perimeter.”  

 Motion-activated floodlights can be installed in out-of-reach locations around  the residences themselves to scare away burglars and alert homeowners to  potential problems outside. They should be installed so that they are  tamper-proof.  

 If there are already a sufficient number of light fixtures around the complex, “simply changing the bulbs to a more powerful wattage helps,” suggests Caldwell.  

 The second area to pay attention to is the landscaping. While they help beautify  the grounds of the condominium complex, plants and trees can offer places to  hide. Trees and bushes should be trimmed so they allow clear lines of sight  throughout your property. Bushes and hedges should be trimmed to two or three  feet tall.  

 Caldwell recommends, “planting some bougainvilleas, which have very big thorns, on the inside of  fences, so anyone who tries to go over that fence will get hurt.” Barberries and roses serve that purpose as well. Thorny bushes might also be  planted beneath apartment windows. And using gravel stones that make crunching  sounds near doors and windows curtail a criminal’s ability to stealthily prowl the premises.  

 Investing in Security Systems

 Tightly controlled barriers to all points of entry to common areas are essential  to safety. According to Keith Fischer, owner of the Highland Park,  Illinois-based Keyth Technologies, “The very first thing I would tell the condo association is to make sure the  physical security is up to snuff. How are your locks, gates and doors? Do the  doors have self-closers?”  

 After that, he asks, “How are the keys in the building being managed right now? Who has access?”  

 When asked to evaluate security for the Lake Point Tower high-rise condominium  in Chicago, Fischer and his team found that while the property had a restricted  key system, he recalls, “all the maids had keys to the building—and the pizza delivery guy, the dry-cleaning guy, the grocery delivery guy.” Residents had been reporting lost keys and then distributing new copies freely.  

 Fischer recommends non-key and non-key-card (which can be copied) systems that  eliminate the possibility of keys getting into the wrong hands. “Biometric fingerprinting is advancing,” he observes. “The systems today are cost-effective, weatherproof, smaller and faster.”  

 Keys for individual apartments that are held by management should be controlled  by a computerized system that tracks their usage by building staff. “The machine logs who took it out and when they took it out,” explains Fischer. And for extra-cautious clients, he says, “we put in a camera looking at the key cabinet to verify with redundancy who  really came in and when they left and when they came back.”  

 Unmonitored cameras, costing about $200, are mostly valuable after the fact, for  identifying intruders, but they do provide some level of deterrence when  well-placed signs announce their presence. “Signage goes a long way at your major points of entry,” according to Albert Stewart, owner of the Tampa, Florida-based Integrated  Security Consultants. “It lets them know that there is video or heightened security.”  

 Virtual Guards

 To go the extra mile, associations can install high-tech, “remote concierge” systems at entryways. When a visitor rings at an entrance, their live image is  sent to either an on-premises staff person or a remote monitoring station, or  both. While such a system requires a large initial outlay, they’re cheaper in the long run than guards. And guards can be sources of collusion  with criminals, too free in disclosing information about residents or lax in  screening entrants.  

 Cameras are particularly effective when used in conjunction with a “video analytics” system and placed all about the property. “We can take video analytics and draw a circle in the pool,” says Stewart. “If the pool closes at 10:00 and there is someone there at midnight, it sends an  email or text message to the manager,” who can pick up the video feed on a monitor or computer. Or the system can  alert a live agent at a remote monitoring service, who will evaluate the threat  and call the police if necessary. High definition cameras appropriate for use  with video analytics run about $1,000.  

 A less expensive alternative is to have a motion sensor built into a regular  camera, which alerts and sends a live feed to someone onsite who can call the  police while viewing any intrusion into the property. “The police respond so much faster when there is video confirmation,” explains Stewart.  

 Don’t Make it Easy

 According to Wilkins, “Ninety percent of criminals are amateurs who are looking for easy opportunities.”  

 So the bottom line is that if you implement even a few preventive measures,  strong lighting, locks and a basic alarm systems—plus enhanced vigilance on the part of association members—you can make your community a whole lot safer.    

 Steve Cutler is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Chicagoland  Cooperator.  

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