Video Surveillance in Schools

District Integrators Learn About Video Surveillance

Whether it's safety or avoiding theft and vandalism, more eyes are needed

School district video surveillance solutions
A typical urban school district can easily have more than 2,500 cameras installed throughout its facilities. Some systems are straightforward, while others can be sophisticated, encompassing advanced surveillance capabilities and utilizing a broad range of surveillance technologies, including anti-vandal varifocal outdoor dome cameras, outdoor zoom box cameras, anti-vandal zoom indoor dome cameras—both in analog and ip configurations—and high-resolution LCD security application monitors to support the continuous 24/7 operation.

At the same time, schools are under budget pressures. Thus, the video system selected has to be cost effective. Most school districts don't have the revenues for security departments as larger districts do. But, even if there is a security department, the system must be easy to use for local administrators, such as the frontdesk personnel or principal.

The Sarasota County, Fla., School District started implementing a video system five years ago and continues to upgrade it today. With more than 55 schools of all sizes and a total enrollment of more than 41,000 students, it is a large district.

"Our mission statement is to assist in creating and maintaining a safe, secure and nurturing learning environment for students, staff and school visitors by working hand in hand with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies," said Darrell Reyka, Sarasota County School District manager of security. "Through continued enhancement of programs and services, we strive to support the educational needs of the school district and the community we serve. "We had two main concerns when contemplating a video system: We needed to ensure that the design meets our school safety and asset protection objectives, and we had to get as much coverage as we could within our budget. In every school and at every camera placement, there was a trade-off between coverage and the dollars available."

Today, the majority of schools are implementing IP-based systems. Typically, the host network backbone is already installed and the integrator only needs to drop a camera onto the IP network. There are no concerns with coax or twisted pair wire. That's why, with an IP video system, cameras are easier to install.

From an IP video system storage standpoint, most school districts will have buyer/reseller agreements with one or more of the leading computer brands, such as HP or Dell. By ensuring that the video system is open architecture and integrates with industry-standard hardware, the district can take advantage of the pricing offered by these business partners for their image storage. Such systems also let school districts take advantage of best-of-breed technology choices.

However, the Sarasota School District took a different approach.

"Five years ago, when we started implementing our system, analog was the safe way to go, providing a solution that could grow with us," Reyka said. "Today, we're still 98 percent analog. Our primary reason is storage. Florida state law requires us to store all recorded images for 30 days. With approximately 2,800 cameras and 200 DVRs, that's a lot of storage. By going IP, we would have to create a new, different storage infrastructure. With the budget we have, we would rather continue to provide more coverage instead."

Although different types of cameras are used throughout the Sarasota District, all cameras are vandal-proof and wired to provide PTZ.

"As we go evaluate a facility for the first time or to upgrade, we gather information about the school operations and conditions to assess the types of camera or cameras that will be best to do the job at that specific facility," Reyka said. "We believe in wiring all cameras to be PTZ when we install them instead of having to go back at some point to add that benefit."

Starting with Nothing, Ending Up with a System

"When deciding to implement a video system for the district, we originated a threephase plan," Reyka said. "In the first phase, we decided to build the infrastructure at each school. At the typical school, that meant installing approximately 20 cameras with the appropriate numbers of DVRs. In the second phase, we built upon the original infrastructure, adding extra cameras or higher technology cameras in some instances.

"The third phase, which we are now in at most schools, expands upon the installed infrastructure, setting the stage for an ongoing project of upgrades and expansion. On average, the original 12 to 40 cameras that were installed at the typical school site increased up to as high as 215 cameras at larger schools."

What Should the Integrator Do?

The role of the integrator is very important. Although Reyka and his staff are very conversant in video technology, most school districts don't have such a luxury. Thus, the integrator is not only the purveyor of the system but acts as a security consultant as well.

It is up to the integrator to recommend different products for different sites. He or she also needs to be a service provider, helping the district to extend the life of the system and ensuring they obtain the maximum value for their investment both at the beginning and down the road. All the while, the integrator must be mindful that schools are a low-margin, bid-oriented business. To get the right bid at the right price, the integrator needs a lot of information.

To win a bid, early in the process, the integrator should walk through the school sites with the administrators to determine the infrastructure. Figure out if the district can upgrade to IP, immediately lowering the cost of installation. It is important to truly understand the goals of the district. Expect differing views when talking to various school departments. Some questions to ask are: Where does safety need to be heightened? Where has vandalism been more prevalent? Also determine the difficulties of blending the video system with the IT staff. By working in concert with IT, both sides can reap savings.

Elements of a Good Bid

The following tips will help integrators win the bid.

When feasible, recommend H.264 compression. This standard performs significantly better than any prior standard under a wide variety of circumstances in a range of application environments. H.264 typically performs better than MPEG-4 video, obtaining the same quality at half of the bit rate or less, especially on high bit rate and high-resolution situations.

Recommend an open system. This ensures that the integrator can provide other systems, such as access control or alarm management, as well as other video devices to the customer, ensuring a best-of-breed solution for a totally integrated security system.

Determine storage. Make storage easy to support and maintain. For those using IP, take advantage of district agreements with their computer suppliers, ensuring the district is getting the best pricing.

Go IP, if possible. This provides the school district with more options, such as installing standard or high-resolution megapixel cameras, which can be important for several reasons. The picture quality advantages of megapixel network cameras benefit schools in several ways. In some applications, a megapixel network camera can cover the same area as other cameras but with an improved picture quality. For example, a high-resolution analog camera provides a resolution of 704x480 while the megapixel camera provides a resolution of 1280x1024, a significant difference. In other applications, megapixel cameras cover a wider area than standard CCTV cameras. This means a district can employ a megapixel camera with four times the resolution of a standard camera or even a 3.1 MP camera with 10 times the resolution of a standard camera.

Keep it simple. The great majority of schools do not have a security department, and those that do have users who are not security technology trained. Thus, the video system must be intuitive and easy to use.

Keep recordings on site. To ensure school officials always have access to the recorded video, put the DVRs on site. Such an installation not only provides the opportunity for remote monitoring but also ensures the district will have video in case the network goes down. If all recording is centralized and a connection breaks, the video is lost, negating the whole purpose of having the system in the first place. Depending on how the recording options are set, the school can get more than a month of continuous recording time on a single DVR.

Beware the software solution. The software must be easy to install. Otherwise, the price will increase. Also, it must be easy to use, needing minimal training time and integrator visits. Lastly, the software must be cost-effectively priced.

"Access to the system is local," Reyka said. "At the individual schools, the school administrators and the school resource officers have access to the video system. They can view it and review recordings. Since this is not their main job, it's important that they have no problems in accessing or using the system."

Video Helps the District

"Both school administrators and local law enforcement are happy with the results we've received from our video system," Reyka said. "It has helped our school district, with a relatively limited number of staff, to see what's happening at our schools. First of all, simply the fact that we have cameras is a deterrent, warning potential violators that our schools are not a good place to be. This deterrent better protects our students and staff, plus helps mitigate vandalism.

"Recorded video has been a good investigative tool. We've had more than one instance where our video recordings have helped resolve a theft or vandalism incident. But we're not finished. We are now integrating our cameras into our central station alarm monitoring system. When an alarm sounds, it triggers the cameras on that school site to lock onto the area of the alarm, helping our dispatchers to know exactly where to go and what is happening there."

When asked what lessons the district has learned since implementing and using their video system, Reyka responded with a laugh. "Be prepared for never having enough," he said. "Seriously, though, we really thought this system through at the front end. We didn't want to create a dinosaur. We needed to assure that the system we created would be a good investment. Therefore, we have always worked closely with our school administrators to assure they have an effective video security system resource. The system has worked well and proven to be an important component in the program of school safety and security in Sarasota County.

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