Electronic Key Cabinet System Lets Districts Think Outside the (Knox) Box

Electronic Key Cabinet System Lets Districts Think Outside the (Knox) Box

As parents and students nationwide prepare to return to school, concerns over school safety continue to grow. With numerous high-profile incidents of active threats in the news, parents and educators are grappling with the best ways to protect students and staff from danger.

As a result, Texas has created several new House bills—including H.B. 3 and 13, which are specifically aimed at improving school safety. The bills set forth a series of mandates, such as an independent assessment of a school’s security measures, additional funding for upgrading security protocols, and a mandate for schools to develop an active shooter plan. To comply with the new legislation and to create safer environments, schools are implementing various measures, including enhanced security protocols and technology, to prevent and respond to active threats.

The Northwest Independent School District (NISD) in Fort Worth, Texas, has become a breakout example of how “outside the box” thinking has led to the proactive enhancement of their security platform and compliance with the new bills by integrating electronic key management into existing access controls and establishing a solid partnership with local law enforcement and emergency management.

NISD has rapidly emerged as one of the fastest-growing school districts in Texas, encompassing 234 square miles, 14 cities and towns, and parts of three counties, with an annual enrollment of more than 30,000 students. However, with a growth rate of 1,400 new students each year and the addition of five new campuses for the 2023–24 school year, the district is poised for decades of growth. The breadth of the school also proved a challenge should an active threat occur due to the multiple counties and protocols established by each responding department.

Michael Conklin, the NISD executive director of safety and security, recognized the challenges in this thriving environment. To address the safety concerns specific to the education environment, he saw an opportunity to advance the district’s electronic key management solution—which was already in use for fleet management—and integrate with their access control system and Traka Box.

Conklin initially deployed Traka’s electronic key cabinets for maintaining their vehicles but soon seized the opportunity to optimize their functionality. Beginning in 2019, they embarked on a district-wide implementation of the key cabinets that could be integrated with their existing access control platform, enabling local first responders to gain expedited entry into the facility using a key fob during an active threat situation.

Bridging their asset and access control solutions together was just the start, though. Conklin still had to figure out how to ensure any city or county responder could access the system regardless of their agency. For Conklin, the small investment of purchasing key fobs for individual first responders seemed the logical solution. Not only did this strategy help comply with the Texas bills’ added requirements, but combining the infrastructure with the Traka Box and key fobs would create a unified system—unlike traditional solutions, which would not have sufficed because of the logistics involved in managing multiple keys for different police and fire districts.

Today, more than 250 local first responders carry intelligent key fobs that can quickly unlock every critical key in all NISD facilities. While the daunting task of managing so many credentials and keys might seem overwhelming, Conklin instituted robust security measures without rekeying any facility by combining the critical management features with the Knox Box and creating an environment that not only allows first responders and public officials easy access to any of the district’s facilities, but also delivers notifications should a key go missing or not be returned by a set curfew. Assigning curfews to every key in the Traka system means that any key not returned on time triggers an alert, notifying Conklin, who will initiate an investigation and deactivate the fob if the key is indeed stolen or misplaced.

Allowing first responders access to the district’s buildings during a crisis is only a part of the solution. With the new Texas House Bills in play, public safety officials must be familiar with the intricate details of each building for optimal responsiveness during an active threat situation. That’s why Conklin actively invites local law enforcement to come to the school, access the building after hours, sign into the Traka system, and even have lunch or do paperwork on the campus to familiarize themselves with the layout.

Additionally, local law enforcement assists in conducting active shooter drills throughout the year, an integral part of the district’s safety protocol. During these drills, staff and students are trained not to open the door for anyone in a lockdown, even if the person outside claims to be the police. An experienced officer is the only person authorized to unlock the doors, making it essential to equip responders correctly with keys and access for a safe release in emergencies.

Wise County Emergency Management Coordinator Cody Powell recalls listening to Conklin’s presentation on the key and access control system and thinking about how it would work with the IT firewalls. However, he says NISD had already resolved the issue by integrating it with their existing infrastructure, thereby facilitating first responders’ accessibility even before any crisis arose.

According to Powell, by issuing critical fobs to each responder, NISD made the Traka Box a central point accessible to all, allowing them to enter the buildings with ease and without any hassle for optimal response times.

For Michael Conklin and NISD, integrating electronic key management with Traka Boxes has proven a significant step towards enhancing school security during active threat situations. NISD’s innovative approach has enabled local first responders to gain swift access to critical keys and respond to emergencies promptly and efficiently. This integration provides a unified system that offers first responders an expedited and streamlined approach to accessing school buildings and the necessary keys during active threats. By taking proactive safety measures, NISD conveys that student and staff safety is their top priority.

This article originally appeared in the September / October 2023 issue of Campus Security Today.


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