Casino Security

All Bets on Better Surveillance

Choctaw Nation casinos improve the odds with networked cameras

Despite an atmosphere of fun and games, running a casino is serious business. If you operate a chain of gaming sites, your need for vigilance increases proportionally. With the popularity of Native American-run casinos on the rise, the Choctaw Nation, which owns a number of casinos in southeastern Oklahoma, has taken advantage of this momentum to build new facilities and renovate its older locations. Given the increased traffic to its casinos, security is ramping up surveillance to protect its high-stakes operations.

Over the past five years, the tribe's Pocola, Okla., casino tripled in size to accommodate more than 1,000 slot machines and a 200-seat off-track betting facility. During that period, the Choctaw Nation, which is the third largest Native American tribe in the United States, also added casinos in Durant and Broken Bow. The tribe will open an additional four new casinos this year in McAlester, Grant and Stringtown, Okla. The renovations and planned expansion spurred the tribal gaming commission to look into modernizing its surveillance systems to better help security staff keep a closer watch over patrons, employees and the criminal element often attracted by gaming sites.

Upping the Ante

Initially, the Choctaw Nation used analog surveillance systems to monitor gaming floors, high-stakes poker tables and slot machines, as well as the money cages. But over the years, the tribe found the legacy analog cameras were becoming a hindrance to working with local law enforcement. The images they captured were too poor to be used as evidence in court. And because the video was being recorded on VCR tape, the quality degraded as it was watched multiple times, creating difficulties for security teams who had to play back images repeatedly over the days or weeks of an investigation.

"Casino security needs advanced cameras that will capture the details of a card, a ticket and the number of chips thrown on a table or under one's hand," said Paula Penz, gaming commissioner for the Choctaw Nation.

Tribal leaders began investigating open IP-based surveillance solutions that would provide more secure, evidentiary-quality video recordings for all their casinos and operate at 30 frames per second to capture even the most subtle moves of patrons and employees. Furthermore, they wanted an open-platform design that would be easy to set up and expand without major expense or disruption of gaming activity.

After an in-depth evaluation, the tribal selection committee chose an array of fixed and PTZ network cameras from Axis Communications to watch over the back-of-house hallways and money areas such as the cash booths and ATM kiosks, as well as building exteriors, parking lots and high-stakes gaming areas at six of its casinos.

To date, the Axis cameras have replaced their analog counterparts on the floor and back of house at the Pocola casino. New surveillance installations at Broken Arrow, Stringtown, McAlester, Grant and Durant bring the total to more than 1,000 cameras running on the casinos' fiber backbone. With future expansion of Choctaw Nation casino operations, that network camera total could eventually exceed 3,000 at all of its properties.

"Axis network cameras meet our needs for running 30 frames per second and high compression without compromising image quality," said Jason Pritchard, integrations manager of onsite solutions for the Choctaw Nation. "That made our selection straightforward."

Meeting Commission Criteria

The National Indian Gaming Commission sets casino surveillance camera guidelines at 30 fps for optimum security. Equally important, the network cameras are PoE-compliant, saving the casinos infrastructure and installation costs by using a single cable to both power the cameras and transmit the video signal over the network. Their analog counterparts, conversely, required running a coax cable bundle all the way to the head end.

Because the network cameras support efficient MPEG-4 and advanced H.264 compression standards at 30 fps, the casinos can maintain 14 days of archival footage. By deploying virtual network video records on a Pivot3 serverless computing platform instead of physical servers, Choctaw casinos have eliminated about 90 servers from the project, saving on data center build-out costs as well as electricity for power and cooling.

"We're already seeing value from our conversion to IP cameras, both in the resolution of the video and the easy operation of the entire video surveillance system," Pritchard said. "Being able to archive 14 days of video is an important part of our daily operation. It gives us a permanent record of each casino's activity and protects our operation from theft and fraud as well as any unforeseen events and emergencies."

Behind the Scenes

Several casinos manage network cameras through a universal network video management system from Petards, a U.K.-based software company. Others use the Omnicast network video management integrated with a Synergis access control system, both from Canada-based Genetec. In both cases, the systems allow security staff to change camera settings through the network, avoiding disruption of gaming operations on the floor where the cameras are installed.

Because network cameras are monitored 24/7 from surveillance rooms on the casino properties, security can immediately respond to incidents of theft, threats to customer safety or questionable behavior of patrons or employees.

Ever-changing Lighting Conditions

Extreme variations in light levels are typical of casino environments, which include everything from dim mood lighting to flashing signs and neon lights.

"We needed surveillance cameras that could react quickly to extreme lighting changes without compromising image quality," Pritchard said.

The Choctaw Nation chose AXIS 216 fixed dome network cameras with advanced image processing that deliver crisp images in low lighting as well as glaring brightness. The automatic iris control changes the lens aperture to maintain optimum light level to the image sensor.

Several casinos are using fixed dome network cameras with H.264 compression and built-in two-way audio capability, including an audio detection alarm that allows for real-time communication with patrons, staff or intruders.

"This feature eliminates the cost of installing separate cabling for microphones in the cash booths," Pritchard said.

And because the cameras support advanced H.264 compression, Choctaw Casinos have been able to reduce the size of the video stream by more than 80 percent, compared with MJPEG compression, and as much as 50 percent more than with MPEG-4, signifi cantly lowering network bandwidth and storage requirements for their video surveillance system.

Several casinos also use network dome cameras for broader coverage of high-stakes gaming areas, parking lots and general floor activity. Designed for both indoor and outdoor operation, the PTZs offer rapid auto focus and great optical and digital zoom under a wide variety of lighting conditions. They give the security staff the option of 360 degrees of endless pan and continuousmotion guard tour as well as remote manual control.

Deterring Fraud and Crime

Initially, the network surveillance cameras were put in place to combat patron cheating and similar threats that would erode the casinos' profits. But with the forensic-level image detail now available to the tribal gaming council, the security system also is helping the Choctaw Nation control internal misconduct, such as dealers pocketing chips and dealer-player collusion.

"Employee theft can seriously impact a casino's bottom line," Penz said. Putting a stop to that kind of activity is already giving the Choctaw Nation a measurable return on investment from its video surveillance system. In an industry perceived as having deep pockets, fraudulent insurance claims for slip-and-falls, vehicle damage and other mishaps are another common occurrence. With more comprehensive, high-caliber coverage from their network cameras, casino security directors now find it easier to determine whether there is any liability stemming from these claims. As word has spread of the new surveillance systems, tribal leaders are already noting a significant drop in false slip-and-fall allegations and shortages at the tables and tills.

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