To Catch a Thief

Dare County schools took on multi-campus crime—and won

After repeated break-ins and no clues pointing to a viable suspect, Dare County Schools in North Carolina decided to install network cameras in the Cape Hatteras Secondary School.

Within a month after the installation, the thief struck again. The police reviewed the video, identified the perpetrator and issued a warrant for his arrest. He was apprehended after pawning stolen items in Maryland. The video led them to a successful prosecution, and the thief was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The network video system was the first surveillance deployment in a district-wide initiative to increase security and safety. Dare County Schools—whose 11 elementary, middle and high schools cover an 80-mile stretch of North Carolina's Outer Banks—serves a population of nearly 4,900 students. With increased concerns about vandalism and theft common to a school district of its size, Dare County embarked on a search for an affordable approach to surveillance that would act as a deterrent as well as an eyewitness to any future incidents.

Opting for Affordability

When First Flight High in Kill Devil Hills, N.C., was built, the district hired a contractor to install an analog surveillance system, which turned out to be an expensive proposition.

"Once security became a big issue for the district, everyone wanted to get cameras into their buildings," said Carl Woody, the network engineer for Dare Country Schools. "But there was no way we could have afforded it if we used the same system and hired an outside contractor like they did for the high school."

All of the schools in the district already had analog cameras covering the exteriors, and event recordings were captured on VHS. According to Woody, the main problem with this approach was that someone needed to manually press the record button and swap out tapes as needed. If that person was out, was unavailable or simply forgot, nothing got recorded. Also, these solutions were not networked, so administrators couldn't view the cameras remotely.

Woody preferred to deploy a digital solution that could be accessed over the network. He also wanted motion-sensing cameras that would only record what was necessary, rather than capture and store large amounts of continuous video.

After extensive research into comparable and more affordable alternatives, Woody's IT team deployed Axis network cameras and CDW video encorders in eight cameras of the schools—five elementary and two middle schools and one alternative high school.

Leveraging Existing Infrastructure

Because the district already supports VoIP, all the schools are connected a via fiber cable network. Existing inline power switches reduced the cost of installation and made it much easier to deploy the cameras. Integrating the Axis cameras and video encoders into the network was just a matter of pulling the wires through the conduit.

"We were able to complete each school installation fairly quickly," Woody said. "It only takes about a day to pull the wires and half a day to mount the cameras."

Since the district already had a mixed array of analog cameras, it was important to incorporate their video feed into the network solution as well. This was accomplished by attaching them to an AXIS 240Q video encoder at each site.

Matching the Right Camera

The number of cameras deployed in each site ranged from six to 15, depending on the size of the school. Woody also installed Axis camera station software on the desktops of the principals and authorized staff members at each location, giving them access to the network cameras in their own building. Woody, the superintendent of schools and a few other select individuals are the only ones authorized to access all the network cameras throughout the school district.

The surveillance system at each school is comprised of several indoor network cameras and a video encoder to digitize the video feed from the outdoor analog cameras that point to the school entrances, parking lots and play areas. The cameras cover stairwells and hallways at several schools. Before launching the major surveillance initiative, Dare County installed drop-ceiling-mounted network cameras in a few schools to cover the hallways.

"When it came to determining where to locate the cameras, our main concern was covering the hallways," Woody said.

School officials mounted network cameras on the walls at opposite ends of a hall and leveraged their PTZ capabilities to ensure complete coverage of the area.

"I especially like that the PTZs have no movable parts, so I don't have to worry about motor or component failures," Woody said.

Initially, the schools thought 10 days of video archiving would be sufficient. So Woody installed 800 GB of storage on each server managing the video. But as time went by, school officials realized they actually needed to maintain recordings for up to 30 days, which necessitated adding 2 TB of external storage to each server to support the increased storage demands. Woody felt that this ability to easily upgrade system capacity as needed with commercial-off-the-shelf hardware provided the Dare County Schools with another valuable benefit from choosing a network video solution.

By design, each school's cameras feed to a local server, minimizing any impact on the district's 1 GB fiber-optic network.

Camera Positioning

Using a joystick and the camera station software on a desktop, a principal can view all the cameras in the school, click on one particular view and zoom in on an area or change the field of view. To ensure that the cameras are then repositioned back to their optimum setting, Woody programmed each camera to reset after 45 seconds.

Like most school districts today, Dare County pays close attention to graffiti messages perceived as threats. The network video system can be used to identify students who enter lavatories or hallways around the time when a message is written on a wall or in a bathroom stall. The surveillance video has already helped in the investigation of a false fire alarm at the Kitty Hawk Elementary School by identifying a group of students near the switch when it was set off.

The network video system also has been an invaluable training tool for the district.

"Once the cameras were in place, the district used them at Manteo Middle School to record the sheriff department's SWAT teams conducting drills for securing a school if somebody entered with a weapon," Woody said. "The recordings were put in an educational format for the SROs and SWAT teams to review and critique their actions."

Time is Money

For Woody, the network video solution has been a definite time saver.

"I don't have to travel to the school to figure out which camera captured the incident," he said. "I can do everything remotely."

With the success of the network video system, the district plans to extend coverage to the athletic fields at one of the high schools. The initiative will involve PTZ and fixed dome indoor/outdoor cameras with optical zoom capabilities as high as 35x and 50x, respectively, to cover the press boxes, bleachers and fields.

Athletic events raise a number of security and safety issues. In the event that rivalry spills over from the field to the bleachers, with a higher optical zoom, school officials will be able to see anything that transpires and read license plates in the parking lot.

"Students understand that we put the cameras in place for safety and that the high expectations for proper student behavior at our school will be taught and reinforced by all adults," said Gregory Florence, principal of Kitty Hawk Elementary School in Dare County.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Security Today.

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