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Innovations Coming to Rescue of Hotel Security

May 10, 1987|TONI TAYLOR | Taylor, an authority on the travel industry, lives in Los Angeles.

Thermal imaging cameras that see through smoke, use of biometric fingerprint and retina identifications, credit card/electronic access room-locking systems, and wireless transmission of in-room smoke detectors to a central point are among the newest technological developments in providing better hotel security and fire-safety programs.

But the cost of some of these devices is slowing down their implementation. On the other hand, insurance companies are after hotels to beef up their safety/security programs.

Recent court decisions in Wisconsin, Texas and Florida have indicated that the standard key-in-knob lock system is not enough security for hotel rooms, says Larry Chervenak, president of Chervenak, Keane & Co., a New York-based consulting firm specializing in hotel operations and technology. "These decisions are having an obvious impact on hotels in other states as well," Chervenak says.

A key development in this area is the growing use of card-operated electronic room-locking systems. Chervenak predicted the system should become fairly standard at hotels by the end of the decade.

Credit Card as Key

One of the newest innovations is the use of a credit card as the access key under these electronic lock systems. With this method, the same major credit card you use to check in would be used to open your room door. Access to rooms can be controlled by card number, date and pre-defined time periods.

"The initial cost of putting in this credit-card system is higher than using one of the other electromagnetic door locks," Chervenak says. "The credit-card-operated locks have to be wired down to the front desk, which can monitor use of the card. But testing is under way to have a wireless connection to the front desk, and the same bidirectional links may be used eventually for central communication of smoke-detector signals from rooms as well as energy control."

Concurrently, Chervenak added, the electromagnetic door locks in the marketplace have also been improved with more flexible sequencing, keying levels and variable time restrictions on key usage.

Safes in rooms, a growing trend, are also coming in for some electronic refinements, Chervenak says. With these new types of safes, you may use the same key that is used for the front door, or a plastic card instead of a key. Not only could there be more security for guests leaving valuables in these safes, the newer versions may also make billing easier for hotels.

Scanning Devices

Infra-red scanning devices that can determine the size or shape of a person, even in the dark, should help in protecting conference rooms and exhibits. Such units can register the natural infra-red rays emitted by objects, with computer link-ups interpreting a "heat shape" as human if it has arms and legs and a temperature within the appropriate human range. Even someone's height and weight can be calculated.

Similarly, there are refinements in closed-circuit television that enable these units to pick up more objects, including people, in low-light situations. "Pictures with these new units are far less fuzzy, and identifications are much clearer," Chervenak says.

Hotels are also making more use of biometric technology using fingerprint and retina identifications. "The price is still high, and most of the time these units are used for hotel staff and to limit access to controlled areas in hotels. But their general use is likely to expand," he says.

It's possible that eventually hotels may require guests and visitors to undergo biometric identification before using elevators or other hotel facilities.

New technology is also coming on line in the area of fire safety. For example, a new wireless transmission system to a central hotel point of smoke-detector alarms, officially approved in January by the National Fire Protection Assn., can improve fire safety enormously, Chervenak says. While many hotels have put smoke detectors in their rooms as part of a steady tightening of fire codes, the effectiveness is diminished if they are not connected to a central point.

"Most people are out of their rooms during the day, and maids in the hallways often have selective hearing," Chervenak says.

Another new fire safety device is a sealant that can be used with air conditioning and juncture boxes to keep fire and smoke from spreading. Some foreign hotels already are using the sealants.

New flame-retardant materials have also been developed. "Earlier kinds of flame-retardant materials might just smolder, but the newer versions emit much less toxicity and smoke, which is what kills many people in hotel fires," according to Chervenak.

However, Chervenak also noted, sheets and pillow cases are still not fire resistant. "You'll never stop someone from smoking in bed, so there's still a danger on that score."

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