Putting Out the Welcome Mat for Video Surveillance

IP video plays a key role in making rental properties safe and profitable

Neon green hula-hoops twirled outside a Des Moines, Iowa apartment complex as kids hopped in bounce houses from systems integrator ICS Advanced Technologies. On that sunny afternoon in July 2013, while local volunteers served pizza, residents of the low-income housing units, managed by Conlin Properties, celebrated their annual Tenant Social sponsored by the local Crime Free Multi-Housing program.

As an international initiative designed to reduce crime, drugs and gangs on apartment premises, the Crime Free Multi-Housing program is operated by local police departments and has been embraced by various property management companies since its introduction to the Des Moines area in the late 1990s. This program awards certification based on physical security procedures, intensive management training and community outreach events. It also strongly encourages the use of advanced security technology, such as IP surveillance cameras, to further improve the quality of life.

For Conlin Properties, IP surveillance cameras from Axis Communications have played a critical role in the program’s success. Executives estimate that they have seen a 40 percent reduction in incident calls since they started using and publicizing these cameras. They have seen their waiting lists grow full with quality tenants committed to maintaining a safe and happy living environment.

“The Axis cameras have become a huge selling point with current and future residents,” said Beth Ehlers, vice president of Conlin Properties. “They’re really impressed when they see the large screen monitor in the rental office displaying all those camera views of the property.”

Building the Foundation for IP Video

Initially, Conlin Properties relied on analog cameras for their properties; but, in 2009, ICS Advanced Technologies recommended upgrading to digital technology with Axis network cameras. With an IP infrastructure, individual site managers could manage all the cameras on their property from a central location, and Conlin executives could access cameras from across the entire system at any time. The video could be called up whenever necessary on a mobile phone or tablet, and ICS would be able to monitor performance remotely with daily system checks.

Additionally, Axis cameras offered features well-suited for apartment complexes such as HDTV-quality video, split panoramic views with image de-warping and “Corridor Format.” These features increased the value and usability of video for both security and business intelligence purposes.

“When we analyzed the total cost of ownership, including the cost of service combined with the higher image quality offered, Axis cameras made good economic sense,” said Patrick Bailey, executive vice president of ICS Advanced Technologies.

Creating a Safe Haven for Tenants

Starting in 2010, ICS began installing the fiber optic network and adding IP cameras at a rate of 200 to 300 per year for a current total of 1,000. During the design phase, they worked closely with the property managers to choose the right cameras for each location.

“As a rule, in the hallways, we try to keep everything 720p or higher resolution because that gives us a lot of good quality data to work with,” Bailey said.

A mix of AXIS M30 Series Network Cameras has helped prevent vandalism, smoking and fights in hallways. The vandal-resistant, palm-size cameras are often set to the vertically-oriented Corridor Format for full views of the hallways, without unnecessary footage of walls or empty space. Panoramic AXIS M3007-PV cameras provide complete 360 degree overviews of short hallways and recessed alcoves.

“We’re able to capture all the hallway entrances with a single camera,” Bailey said.

The image de-warping function allows the cameras to produce up to four separate views from sections of the coverage area without the “fish-eye” effect produced by wide-angle lenses.

When selecting cameras facing exterior doorways, ICS chose HDTV-720p AXIS P3364-V Fixed Dome Network Cameras. This option ensured they had a camera with the resolution necessary to fully capture the faces of those entering the building. The cameras also provided Lightfinder technology to see color details in low light and a vandal-resistant casing to withstand abuse.

Salient Systems’ CompleteView VMS software ties the system together with fast retrieval of video evidence for investigating security events even over remote or wireless network connections. Most properties store the video on local Salient servers, but locations with fewer cameras are hosted in ICS’ data cloud servers.

“With the Salient VMS, the way the property managers access the cameras is seamless across the system,” Bailey said. “Their experience is the same whether they’re accessing hosted video or their on-site video.”

All the properties are connected through ICS’ Virtual Private Network service and easily accessed via the ICS Proxy. This puts all the cameras at their fingertips quickly and easily without the need to log into the VPN.

Crime Prevention at the Touch of a Button

The flexibility of the system and highquality images has played a significant role in reducing crime and making residents feel safe.

With the new system, property managers can instantly call up video on their mobile devices when suspicious activity occurs. In the past, Conlin Properties’ staff had to go through a time-consuming process of locating video, determining what technology the police had available and burning a compatible file to CD. Now, video can be shared instantly with police at the scene to confirm a suspect’s identity on the spot. In one instance, they were able to successfully compare a small insignia on the shirt of a suspect, who was covering his face on video, with the shirt of a man police had in custody.

“After an incident, managers can log right into their mobile devices,” Bailey said. “It’s a lot easier to access the data and get it to the officers. That has helped increase the successful arrest rate quite a bit.”

Efficient, Cost-Effective Property Maintenance

In addition to security, exterior cameras are helping Conlin Properties improve their business operations by allowing them to observe vendor service in real time.

“They’ve come in handy for overseeing snow removal and landscape maintenance,” said Jeremey Hummel, director of apartment operations “Now we have video proof as to the number of hours and the quality of work, so vendors can’t overcharge us or deliver sub-par service. That advantage goes straight to our bottom line.”

The cameras are also able to direct their staff more precisely to address issues as they arise.

“Instead of saying, ‘There’s a problem in Building 3 that needs to be looked at,’ managers can direct maintenance staff to the specific location that needs attention,” said Bailey. “Managers were telling me that the cameras are a huge time saver for performing regular maintenance.”

Visibility Increases Security

According to Ehlers, publically advertising the cameras and promoting their results has contributed greatly to the system’s success. Criminals and troublemakers are learning to avoid properties with cameras as the reputation of the security system spreads.

A video recording that identifies tenants or guests engaging in misbehavior means culprits cannot lie or direct blame elsewhere. The forensic evidence can also be used to evict bad tenants, though the process is often self-selecting as troublemakers generally do not want to stay in buildings where surveillance cameras record, holding them accountable for their behavior.

“A lot of crime is opportunistic,” Bailey said. “An ill-intentioned person walking down the hallway may see somebody’s door is not quite shut and slip in to steal something. Yet, having signage at eye line in hallways and entrances announcing cameras are monitoring the property seems to make a pretty big difference.”

Additionally, advertising the cameras has proven to be a draw for tenants who want the promise of safety and security offered by well-monitored properties.

“We always put in a big screen TV or monitor in the [manager’s] office that displays the cameras,” said Bailey. “The great thing is that as the tenants come in, they see that their property is monitored and can tell that their property is safe.”

The assurance of safety creates a positive feedback loop that benefits both residents and property managers. The reduction in crime increases the desirability of the property, and in turn attracts quality tenants who are interested in maintaining a high standard of living.

“When your home is safe, you are a happier person,” Bailey said.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Security Today.

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