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Someone to Watch Over You

Today's video surveillance technology is about much more than security.
University Business, May 2011

When most people think of video surveillance, they think of a Big Brother scenario, where their every move is being monitored. And after a campus tragedy, such as the Virginia Tech shootings of 2007, pundits debate whether video surveillance might have prevented the tragedy. But at colleges and universities, these electronic eyes do much more.

We spoke to three security experts to discuss how video surveillance technology has changed to make surveillance far more intelligent and effective. Our panelists are:

  • Patrick Fiel, public safety advisor for ADT Security Systems
  • Dave Tynan, vice president of marketing for Salient Systems 
  • Larry Consalvos, senior vice president and corporate director of iXP Corporation.

All three have extensive experience in helping colleges and universities use video technology for safer, more efficient operations. They discussed how modern video surveillance technology can help schools control costs, reduce risk, and keep students and faculty safe.

Fiel: Cameras are used more for operational purposes than for security, and that's where they are most effective. We use them in cafeterias to monitor the food, how many people come through the line, and so on. We use them in bookstores to monitor suspicious activities. Cameras have come a long way to help the end user.

Consalvos: The ability of these systems to provide high-definition video allows a university to preserve, both live and via archives, any transaction that takes place on a university. That could be anything from a transaction at the cash register in the student union or cafeteria, to vandalism or parking lot safety.

Tynan: And, with network capabilities, you don't always need someone monitoring them. If, for example, a specific door is opened, the video validates the event and an alarm can be pushed out to a smartphone with video, so you can respond quickly from anywhere. If you can activate an alarm and not have someone watching a hundred cameras, you can have a far more productive organization.

Fiel: Cameras are the mainstream. I had over 3,000 when I was the chief of security for the DC school system. I had 163 campuses, but I reduced crime by 90 percent in the inner city. Video cameras are very effective if used properly.

Many schools have had video surveillance for years. Why should they adopt newer technology?

Tynan: There is a great deal of pressure on institutions to migrate from analog systems to network-based digital systems. Courts in the U.S. increasingly view those legacy analog video systems as a liability. The analog-based systems don't provide adequate evidence when provided to the court.

If they can migrate from legacy analog systems to a digital system, they will ultimately save money, because they won't have to devote as much time to investigation. They will have indisputable video and will have an improved percentage of successful investigations. Then they can begin to use the surveillance system as an audit tool to deal with compliance regulations.

Fiel: For one, colleges must comply with the Clery Act, where they have to report serious incidents immediately. If Virginia Tech, for example, had technology like video cameras or mass notification solutions, they could have instantly looked at the cameras before, during, and after the event. If they had proper cameras, they might have been able to catch the shooter earlier, before the second ordeal.

Tynan: You could have high definition cameras in your cafeteria, monitoring the facility for health compliance. Rather than shutting down the cafeteria when a health inspector does an audit, now you can have the inspector come in and review the video. He can zoom in on the details of food preparation, for instance, to determine the cleanliness of the environment and the training of the workers. You have an audit tool you can use without shutting down the process, and you can reduce the cost and the inconvenience.

Tynan: At most institutions, video surveillance doesn't have the same regulations and compliance requirements that, say, fire regulations have within a facility. And storage requirements vary according to the number of cameras, the frame rate you use and the video quality itself. At a typical university, you are talking about terabytes of storage. To put that into cost perspective, your typical laptop has hundreds of gigabytes of storage. If you compare the cost of storage to the cost of liability, the cost of storage looks pretty attractive.

Fiel: Funding is a big problem. Every security chief I talk to would like to have additional funding to enhance what they currently have or upgrade it. They rely on federal grants, but unfortunately, this year, there is no forecast for funding because of the budget, and it looks like, next year, there might not be any grants either. So they really have to think outside the box and dig into their operational budget.

Fiel: Sometimes it's hard to convince senior leadership that you need security unless something happens. We want to be proactive, and a lot of security chiefs feel the same way, but unfortunately they don't get the buy-in from senior leadership. And that's simply because they have to create a balance between technology and administrative costs. We support the security chief, but the chief is just one part of the funding process. When I do a presentation, I want the whole executive team there. Then we give an overview of what we are trying to accomplish and the reason for it. Then you get the buy-in. It's all about communication.

Tynan: The challenge is that most organizations make the assumption that they have to do what we call "a forklift upgrade" to replace all the cabling, all cameras, and all the head-end recording equipment to obtain that video forensic value they are looking for. That isn't necessarily the case. Often times, you can change out the head end or the brains of the system and retain existing assets like the cabling and cameras, and still improve by multiples the quality of the video you collect. Even with the older analog systems, you can get commercial servers and workstations that can capture the analog video and convert it to digital to improve the quality of the recording capability.

Tynan: That's a logical transition from analog to digital that won't bust the bank. We find that this initial phase is as little as one-third the cost of a total system replacement. It allows a university to transition over time as their budget allows. With capital as precious as it is today, security departments can still improve the quality of their operations and the overall security of the campus with this phased approach.

Consalvos: There is a benefit to using video as what we call a force multiplier. You can use cameras to look at areas that are designated as high risk at certain times of the day or evening. You can avoid the need for a roving patrol. For example, if you had to put a guard outside a door every day, around the clock, you'd be paying essentially for 21 shifts of a person—salary and benefits—just guarding the door. It is significantly cheaper to put a camera over the door and make it more intelligent. We can use "smart CCTV" (closed circuit television), which is the integration of other security technologies on top of the cameras that allow the camera to do more than just view.

Consalvos: You might add a motion sensor to the camera that alerts operators that something is occurring in that area. Or you could have other physical sensors, such as access control, or seismic and infrared sensors added to the CCTV.

Fiel: We often hear of customers having problems with false alarms. When I worked in the DC school system, I had 3,000 false alarms in my first year. I spent millions of dollars of patrol time going to false alarms. In many cases, the security system was so old, a contact on a door was loose and rattled in the wind, triggering the alarm. With cameras, you can go into the alarm situation and verify if there is any activity.

Consalvos: With any product as it evolves, it becomes price competitive, but it really all comes down to the end user's set of requirements. Cameras that might work in Florida where they have to deal with a lot of rain, humidity, and high temperatures, may not work as well in the Midwest in the wintertime. Everything has to be based on the user's requirements and the environmental concerns that the technology has to meet. The good news is that there are more competitors in the market and the prices are more competitive.

Tynan: Exactly, and there are some compression technologies borrowed from the internet world that can allow even the video sensor in your phone to be adapted for video surveillance use. What is typically most important is improving the recording capability, and that can be addressed with commercial off-the-shelf servers and workstations.

Fiel: I don't think the price has to be a factor. Administrators just need to understand the capabilities of the technology. It can be a major resource for administrators. It can be additional eyes for the security department, especially when schools are cutting manpower. I know that's a grey area. I'm not a proponent of reducing manpower, but if you have to do that, you can supplant it with technology.

Tynan: That's a good question. I think there are organizations that have a vision of what video surveillance can do for them when they realize that it can be an information system. Unfortunately, at many institutions, video is viewed as a high data-consumption information system, and IT management typically has a fear of video sharing a common network at a university. But today's systems can address the issues of transmission compression and storage so that video and other information can share the same network effectively and not get in each other's way.

Consalvos: If you were to compare colleges to private sector businesses, I think I'd say businesses are more proactive. But it comes down to the business driver. What is the problem you are trying to solve? Is it a response problem? Is it a manpower problem? Is it a financial problem? Then you need to look at what services and technology can help you solve that problem within your budget.

There are certainly some that are proactive. Johns Hopkins University, for example, is probably one of the most proactive. They have had a smart CCTV program in place for five years, and that has resulted in an 80 percent drop in Clery-reportable crime since 2005.

But I wouldn't say all colleges and universities are ready to adopt this. Each makes its decision based on some of the dynamics of putting cameras on campus. Some are comfortable, some are not.

Consalvos: There are concerns over privacy and concerns over how those cameras will be used. Is there a standard for digital evidence or not? Will the cameras be used outside only or inside as well? Every college community is different, and everyone has different standards and metrics for public safety emergency response.