In today’s ever-changing security landscape, businesses are constantly seeking ways to protect their assets and ensure the safety of their employees. One effective solution that has gained popularity is the implementation of physical access control systems (PACS). These electronic systems provide a means to control and monitor access to physical spaces, allowing authorized individuals to enter while preventing unauthorized entry. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the fundamentals of PACS, their components, benefits, deployment models, and how to choose the right system for your business.

Understanding Physical Access Control Systems (PACS)

What are Physical Access Control Systems?

Physical access control systems (PACS) are electronic systems designed to control and manage entry into physical spaces. These systems utilize authentication and authorization features to ensure that only authorized individuals are granted access. The main objective of a PACS is to enhance physical security and protect people and assets from unauthorized access, theft, vandalism, or any other form of intrusion.

Components of Physical Access Control Systems

PACS consist of several key components that work together to control and monitor access to physical spaces. Here are the main components of a typical PACS:

    1. Access Points: Physical barriers such as gates, doors, and turnstiles that control access to a space.
    2. Access Control Software: The software that powers the PACS and controls access to physical spaces. It allows administrators to manage access permissions and monitor security events.
    3. Credentials: Physical or digital items used to verify the identity of individuals seeking access. Examples include passwords, PIN codes, key cards, biometric credentials, and mobile credentials.
    4. Readers/Keypads: Hardware devices used to scan or enter credentials into the PACS. They can range from simple numeric keypads to advanced biometric access devices.
    5. Control Panels/Door Controllers: Physical devices that process credential data, verify its validity, and transmit authorization data to access points.
    6. Locking Mechanisms: Physical devices that engage and disengage access points, such as locks, electromechanical locks, or electronic strikes.
    7. Request-to-Exit (RTE) Devices: Sensors that can be triggered by individuals seeking to exit an area, automating the opening of doors.
    8. Access Control Server: A physical or virtual device that stores information related to physical access, including user profiles, access privileges, and audit logs.

Common Types of Physical Access Control Systems

Physical access control systems can vary based on the type of credentials used for authentication. Here are some common types:

    1. Electronic Door Locks and Keypads: These systems are commonly used for smaller applications, providing access control to single rooms or small buildings. They often rely on physical keys or passwords for authentication.
    2. Key Fob and Key Card Systems: These systems are used for larger applications where physical keys or passwords may be impractical. They utilize digital credentials, such as key fobs or key cards, which can be easily distributed and tracked.
    3. Biometric Access Control Systems: These systems use advanced biometric technologies, such as facial recognition, fingerprint scanning, or iris scanning, to authenticate an individual’s identity. They offer higher security and reliability compared to electronic locks.
    4. Touchless/Contactless Access Control Systems: With the growing concern for hygiene and health, touchless access control systems have gained popularity. These systems, such as facial recognition or mobile access control, automate physical access without requiring physical contact from the user.
    5. Mobile Access Control Systems: These systems utilize mobile phones or handheld devices as physical credentials, granting or denying physical access to secure areas. They offer convenience, remote control capabilities, and real-time monitoring.

Benefits of Physical Access Control Systems

Implementing physical access control systems offers a multitude of benefits for businesses and organizations. Here are some key advantages:

Enhanced Security

One of the primary benefits of PACS is improved security. By controlling and monitoring access to physical spaces, these systems help prevent unauthorized entry and protect assets from theft or damage. PACS can also integrate with other security systems, such as video surveillance or alarms, providing a comprehensive security solution.

Data and Privacy Protection

Physical access control systems help protect sensitive information and data by restricting physical access to authorized individuals. They ensure that only authorized personnel can enter areas where confidential or sensitive information is stored, reducing the risk of unauthorized disclosure.

Cost Savings

Implementing a PACS can lead to cost savings in various ways. Automated features, such as keyless entry or biometric authentication, reduce the need for manual control and security personnel, resulting in lower labor costs. Additionally, preventing unauthorized physical access can minimize the risk of costly incidents and security breaches.

Compliance with Regulations

Many industries have specific compliance requirements related to physical security and data privacy. PACS can help organizations meet these regulatory obligations by providing secure physical access control and monitoring. Whether it’s healthcare, finance, or other sectors, PACS contribute to maintaining compliance and safeguarding sensitive information.

Improved User Experience

PACS can provide a seamless and streamlined physical access experience for employees, visitors, and other users. With features like biometric or mobile access, users can enjoy convenient, intuitive access to secure areas, enhancing their overall experience and satisfaction.

Ease of Use

Physical access control systems are designed to be user-friendly, allowing even non-technical users to enroll, authenticate, and manage access permissions easily. Key cards, fobs, or biometric readers are simple and intuitive to use, making physical access control convenient and efficient.

Flexibility and Adaptability

PACS can be customized to meet the specific needs of different organizations. Whether it’s a single building, multiple buildings, or an entire campus, there is a physical access control solution that can provide the right level of security and access control. Features like mobile access control or virtual credentials offer flexibility and adaptability to varying physical access requirements.

Integration with Other Security Systems

Physical access control systems can easily integrate with other security systems, such as video surveillance or alarm monitoring. This integration enhances overall security, providing a holistic solution and reducing the risk of potential security incidents.

Centralized Management

Managing physical access across a large facility or campus can be complex and time-consuming. PACS offers centralized management features, allowing administrators to efficiently manage access permissions, monitor activity, and respond quickly to threats or incidents.

Deployment Models: Standalone PACS vs. Enterprise PACS (E-PACS)

When considering the deployment of a physical access control system, organizations have two main options: standalone PACS and enterprise PACS (E-PACS). Let’s explore these models and their respective benefits and challenges.

Standalone PACS

A standalone PACS is a localized system that controls access to a specific facility or areas within it, such as a Secure Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF). Standalone PACSs are typically facility-centric and do not connect to enterprise networks. While they are commonly used and relatively straightforward, they present some operational challenges:

    • Independent control of physical access at each site.
    • Delays in credential transfers or terminations.
    • Inconsistent application of enterprise-wide security policies.
    • Reduced situational awareness due to the inability to correlate logs across the enterprise.
    • Increased human error, such as data entry mistakes, in organizations with multiple standalone PACSs.

Enterprise PACS (E-PACS)

An enterprise PACS (E-PACS) extends the concept of standalone PACS to act as a unified, enterprise-wide system controlling physical access at multiple agency sites. E-PACS addresses the operational challenges of standalone PACSs and offers improved system management, scalability, monitoring, and performance. Key advantages of E-PACS include:

    • Centralized control of physical access for most or all agency sites.
    • One employee and contractor enrollment system that connects multiple locations.
    • Streamlined credential registration and provisioning.
    • Efficient modification or termination of access privileges across the enterprise.
    • Regular updates and maintenance, reducing costs and enhancing reporting capabilities.

While some agencies may require standalone PACSs for unique sites or missions, most agencies can benefit from transitioning to an E-PACS model.

Aligning Facility Security Level (FSL) and Authentication Mechanism

To ensure effective physical access control, it is important to align the Facility Security Level (FSL) with the appropriate authentication mechanisms. The FSL assessment helps categorize security areas, while authentication mechanisms determine the level of authentication required for each category.

Facility Security Level Assessment

The FSL assessment involves evaluating the risk level of each site and identifying critical assets. By considering factors such as security classification level, impact on national security, and the cost of asset replacement, the assessment enables the categorization of security areas based on risk impact levels.

Categorizing Security Areas

Security areas are categorized into three types: Exclusion, Limited, and Controlled. Exclusion areas require the highest level of authentication, Limited areas require intermediate authentication, and Controlled areas necessitate the lowest level of authentication. The categorization is based on the criticality, sensitivity, and likelihood of risks associated with each area.

Authentication Factors and Mechanisms

The minimum number of authentication factors required for each security area category determines the appropriate authentication mechanism. Exclusion areas require all three factors (something you have, something you know, and something you have on or in your body), while Limited areas require two factors, and Controlled areas require only one factor. The authentication mechanisms can include PKI authentication, biometric authentication, or on-card biometric comparisons, depending on the security area category.

Procurement Best Practices for Physical Access Control Systems

When procuring a physical access control system, following best practices ensures a successful implementation. Here are some key steps to consider:

Identify the Need and Develop a Project Charter

Understand your agency’s requirements and develop a project charter that outlines the purpose, scope, and goals of the PACS project. Identify the deployment model, standards, and requirements that need to be addressed. Estimate the project’s duration to set realistic expectations.

Identify Stakeholders and Define Project Phases

Identify key stakeholders and gather their input throughout the project. Define the project’s phases and tasks, including pre-project planning, site security assessment, SOW development, RFI, RFP/RFQ, integrator evaluation and award, design, implementation, inspections, testing, and close-out.

Develop a Project Schedule

Create a project schedule using automated tools or agency software. Share the schedule with stakeholders to ensure accuracy and completeness.

Conduct FSL Assessment and Develop Requirements

Assess the Facility Security Level of each site and determine the appropriate authentication mechanisms. Develop a PACS requirements document or specification, organizing requirements into clear categories such as technical, performance, and operational.

Release an RFI and Submit an IT Funding Proposal

Issue a Request for Information (RFI) to potential service providers, requesting qualifications and capabilities. Follow your agency’s budgetary procedures to submit an IT funding proposal for the project.

Develop an RFP and SOW

Create a Request for Proposal (RFP) and Statement of Work (SOW) to solicit integrator bids. Establish evaluation criteria and identify the integrator that best meets your needs.

Develop a PACS Architecture and Migration Strategy

Define a migration strategy to transition facilities to the new PACS solution. Consider factors such as common ingress/egress traffic patterns, throughput speeds, ongoing maintenance needs, and training requirements.

Buy Approved Products and Services

Ensure that all purchased PACS components are FIPS 201-compliant and listed on the GSA Approved Products List (APL). Work with your chosen integrator to select the appropriate hardware and software from the GSA Multiple Award Schedule (MAS).

Training and Support

Provide specialized training to technical leads and team members involved in the PACS implementation. Ensure ongoing support and maintenance for the PACS system.

By following these procurement best practices, you can ensure a smooth and successful implementation of your physical access control system.

How Physical Access Control Systems Work

To understand how physical access control systems work, let’s explore the key steps involved in the process:

  1. Enrollment: Administrators enroll users into the access control system, gathering their personal information, physical or digital credentials, and biometric data if applicable.
  2. Authorization: Users are assigned access permissions based on their role, department, or level of clearance. Permissions can be adjusted individually or in groups.
  3. Authentication: When an individual approaches a secured area, they present their credentials for authentication. The system checks the credentials against the access permissions to determine whether access should be granted.
  4. Access: If the authentication is successful and the user is authorized, the physical barrier, such as a door or gate, unlocks, allowing entry. If not, the barrier remains locked, preventing unauthorized access.
  5. Managing/Monitoring: Administrators continually monitor and manage access permissions, adding or removing users as needed. They also monitor audit logs to ensure authorized access and detect any suspicious activity.
  6. Auditing/Reporting: In case of a security incident, detailed logs are available for examination by administrators and security personnel. These logs can help identify vulnerabilities and maintain the overall security of the physical space.

Physical access control systems play a crucial role in enhancing security and protecting businesses from unauthorized access or threats. With their ability to control and monitor access to physical spaces, PACS provide a comprehensive security solution for organizations of all sizes and industries. By implementing the right physical access control system, businesses can ensure the safety of their assets, protect sensitive information, reduce costs, and achieve compliance with regulatory requirements. Whether it’s a standalone PACS or an enterprise-wide system, investing in physical access control is an essential part of a comprehensive security plan.

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About Facility Protection Group

​Facility Protection Group is a Florida state certified systems contractor specializing in electronic security services supporting both traditional and cloud based Access Control (Card Access), Video Surveillance / CCTV, Audio / Video Intercoms, and Intrusion Alarm Systems. Founded in 2018 and located in Tampa, Florida; Facility Protection Group has assembled a team that has a tremendous wealth of industry knowledge and experience.