The Macon County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) installed a new control panel for it’s detention center surveillance system last Wednesday. Before the installation, the jail relied on equipment as old as the facility itself, which was built in 1999.
According to officials, the new addition was crucial because surveillance control panels provide audio and video supervision of jail inmates, as well as remote control of door locks for the four jail dorms in the facility. When the old system finally crashed last December, it burdened not only the Sheriff’s office but also the budget of the county government.
“The control panel is the heart of the detention center. Everything can be controlled from right there,” explained Sheriff Robert Holland. “If that goes out, then what we have to do is utilize our key access, which means you basically have to take a key to each door and unlock it, which is time consuming.”
In the event of an emergency, like a fire, Holland said the amount of time it would take officers to respond to inmates and move them to safety could be too long. “We would have to go down and manually unlock the cells and the dorms to get inmates out of the building,” he explained. “There was a real security and safety issue. Not only for my officers, but for the inmates as well.”
Nearly two years ago, the Sheriff’s Office received notification from the company SimplexGrinnell, which installed the jail’s first surveillance system, stating that it would no longer be supported by the manufacturer. According to Holland, the notice warned that the company would no longer repair or replace parts for the ailing system– unless the county purchased a new system from them. The county therefore decided to terminate their relationship with Simplex and seek out a company that could install a system that was not proprietary, in order to avoid the same situation in the future.
Just as the notice from Simplex had warned, the age of the security system began to show signs of failure throughout the following year. “It was gradual. Things just started happening with the system,” Holland said, describing the system as having experienced technical glitches which led to it’s eventual breakdown last December.
“The issue was, we had to find a company that would come in and figure out how that system worked, because we weren’t buying from the same company that did that to us,” said Holland of Simplex. “They would not provide the schematics – the ins and outs of that computer system – so we had to bring other companies in to try to figure out how the [SimplexGrinnell] system worked.”
However SimplexGrinnell issued a statement regarding the matter, claiming that they were “committed to serving” their customers and they had in fact issued schematics to the department.
“We have had a very cooperative and professional working relationship with Macon County Law Enforcement Center as a responsible contractor,” read the statement, which explained that their Asheville office notified the MCSO in February 2009 that the control panel would no longer be supported by the manufacturer. “A few weeks later, SimplexGrinnell provided a proposal to upgrade the system and at that time provided the center with the system drawings that we had available. There was never a refusal on SimplexGrinnell’s part to provide drawings. We continue to maintain a good relationship with the Law Enforcement Center, and look forward to the future opportunities to provide fire and life safety equipment and services to the county.”
“The problem has been resolved and we used another agency to complete the work that we needed to have done,” Holland said in response to the statement.
Macon County Manager Jack Horton said at the Jan. 29 Board of Commissioners’ Mid-Year Retreat that the process of finding a new company took more than a year. Dave Musacchio, a jail security specialist, was brought in to consult. The project was bid out and three companies placed bids, excluding Simplex.
Ultimately the bid went to South Western Communications, an Alabama-based company. The contract for the new system and installation came out to roughly $80,000, according to Horton. The total amount of money budgeted for the contract with South Western Communications Inc. was $125,000, which will cover additional fees down the road. “We hopefully will not expend all of that,” he said.
A ‘turn-key operation’
When the system finally malfunctioned, and the jail doors had to be opened manually, the situation presented a number of serious personnel and safety issues for the detention center.
According to state regulations, Holland explained, “We not only have to see the inmates, we have to be able to hear them. We had to double our manpower, per shift, in order to maintain sight and sound.” With the system on the fritz, officers had to employ “direct supervision” of detainees.
In essence, an officer would have had to be present in every dorm of the jail at all times, in order to maintain proper surveillance of inmates, Holland explained. “It would have been very costly and it would have been very difficult to do because we don’t have that many employees,” he said. “We utilized one hundred percent of our resources to make that possible.”
In order to circumvent the burden on the detention staff and budget, Holland contacted Horton, the fire marshal and other county officials, and decided to house a portion of the inmates in another facility. The reduction of inmates in Macon County would mean the reduction of manpower needed for inmate supervision, he explained.
Approximately 20 inmates were transported to Cherokee County, and roughly twenty remained in Macon County, while the new system was being installed. Transporting and housing the detainees cost the county an estimated $10- 15,000, according to Horton, who added that it cost $40 per day to house each prisoner at the facility. “I think it's worked out real well. As far as I know it's working real good, the fire alarm system and the security system.”
As of Jan. 26, the new control panel was installed and officers spent that day training on the use of the new system. Currently, all inmates are now back in Macon County custody.
“It’s more state-of-the-art and up to date,” Holland reported. Unlike the previous system company, Holland and the other officers were very pleased with South western Communication efforts.
“With the new security system, it's not proprietary hardware so we can buy parts off the shelf when we need to,” said Horton. “It's a system that can be maintained, whether by the company that's installing it or by our own personnel.”