What are Non-Proprietary Detention Control Systems?

Non-proprietary Detention Control SystemsI just got back from a great trade show in Colorado Springs (the CMI Conference), and my conversations there revolved around the topic of what makes a detention control system “proprietary”. If you don’t know, the CMI conference is a trade expo for maintenance and engineering staff at state prisons and county jails. These professionals deal directly with the day-to-day operations and maintenance of detention control systems. They see it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. This trade show is also attended by engineering consultants who specify the detention control systems which end up being installed at these facilities. What I found in my conversations is that what the maintenance and engineering professionals expect and what the design consultants specify often conflict. In this article, I’d like to detail where that conflict occurs and how it can be resolved.

A Tale of Two Definitions

The first thing that is apparent from conversations with both maintenance professionals and design consultants is that the two groups often mean something totally different by the word “proprietary”. Often times, when a design consultant defines the word “proprietary”, he means “a product which can only be purchased from one source”. The design consultant may also define the word to mean “a product that can be supported by more than one contractor”.

While the availability of replacement components and a diversity of support are also concerns for maintenance personnel, often times they mean something different when they define the word “proprietary”. What they mean by the word is “a product that I cannot support myself.” There is a difference here. The maintenance technician who is trying to diagnose an issue with a door in his facility doesn’t want to be stuck having to call his integrator for support. He wants to have a firm grasp of the system and be able to make changes without the involvement (or cost) of the integrator. He wants to be able to purchase a PLC or keep one as a spare and program it himself without having to wait for the availability of an integrator to do so.

Some Examples of How These Definitions Matter

While at this trade show, I had a long conversation with a design consultant who defined the MTI detention control system as “proprietary” because we manufacture the components and because we typically program it. My response to him had two points. First, all systems in a jail or prison are proprietary under that definition. Even the breaker box is proprietary. If you purchase a GE breaker box, you will have to purchase GE breakers. If you purchase an intercom system, you will have to purchase components from that manufacturer from then on. If you install an Industrial PLC, ultimately you will have to buy the replacement components specific to that PLC.

Second, with most detention control systems which are based on an Industrial PLC, the system becomes proprietary to the integrator once it is programmed. While at the CMI conference I met one maintenance supervisor who said that he was being “held hostage” (his words) by a systems integrator who had provided an industrial PLC-based control system. This integrator advertises the fact that they are “non-proprietary”, but this supervisor said that he has to go to them for everything, even to purchase the PLC, because they own the programming. They have even password-protected the programming so that the maintenance staff cannot make changes.

Yes, believe it or not, most systems integrators lock down their programming, even when the design consultant’s specifications call for it to be provided to the owner upon the completion of the project. In fact, in a recent sub-contract submitted by one of these “non-proprietary” integrators there was a clause inserted in its terms of sale which stated: “development passwords and coding of the security electronics system is considered proprietary and confidential information. Any tampering with code, programming, or passwords will result in an immediate void of the warranty and any insurance or liability obligations of [the integrator].” So the truth is, while these integrators tout the use of “non-proprietary” or “off the shelf” components and that anyone can work on it, in reality, the system is still proprietary to the integrator because the integrator programmed it and often reserves the right to that programming.

Even in cases where the owner has access to the programming, they still may not be able to do anything with it. The late comedian, Jerry Clower, tells a story about going raccoon hunting with John Ubanks. He said that John didn’t believe in taking a gun raccoon hunting because he was a “great conservationist”. When the 20 dogs hunting the raccoon would tree their prey, John would climb the tree and poke the raccoon so the animal would jump out of the tree. Jerry Clower said that John believed that the raccoon at least had the option of jumping out of that tree and whooping all those dogs and walking off if he wanted to.

There are many maintenance professionals who feel like that raccoon when it comes to working through the programming that an integrator provides. Even if the integrator is honest enough to provide all of the documents and good documentation, it can still be nearly impossible to sort through the unique programming methods of an individual PLC programmer. I personally have a degree in Software Engineering and am fluent in Assembly, C/C++, C#, VB, Java, JavaScript, and PHP, and I can tell you that one of the most difficult and daunting tasks I can take on is to go behind another software developer.

To that point, another maintenance supervisor we spoke with complained that he was locked down, not just to one integrator, but to one engineer at that company. This engineer was the original programmer for the facility’s detention control system, and the supervisor was concerned that this 70-year-old engineer might retire or pass on and he would then lose all support for his facility’s system. He said that even though the company is a decent sized company with other engineers, when he calls for support they always end up having to go back to the original programmer because of the difficulty (even for other engineers in the same company) of understanding the original programming.

So How is MTI “Non-Proprietary”

MTI’s detention control system is the only truly “non-proprietary” system from an owner’s perspective. There are two reasons for this. First of all, we maintain backwards compatibility to our termination boards for any new software or hardware we produce. That means that we are still able to ship replacement components for systems that were installed 30 years ago. Industrial PLC manufacturers replace entire product lines every 7-10 years, orphaning the systems which were installed as a supposedly “non-proprietary” system.

Second, MTI truly does provide all of the programming the maintenance staff needs, but we go further than that. The programming for an MTI PLC is simple. It is not complicated by rungs and rungs of Ladder Logic. Instead, the programming is a very simple spreadsheet format that anyone can read and understand. Also, MTI provides free training and free technical support for the life of the system, not just during the warranty period. We have customers who come back to training every year or two just to get a refresher, and they never pay us for that training. We have 30 year old customers who call up for technical support on occasion, and we do not charge them. MTI’s PLC programming software and touchscreen design software don’t even have the ability to password protect the programming documents. We literally give you the keys to your kingdom.

Given all of those facts, it should be clear to everyone who the truly “non-proprietary” detention control system is.