How to Raise Your System's Grade

In rural communities, a newly renovated high school often serves double duty: educational facility by day and public host to community events by night. This kind of multi-usage often stretches conventional security resources beyond their intended design. Such was the case in Cody, Wyo.

The block-long Cody High School, with its state-of-the-art auditorium and computer labs, not only serves as an education center but also as a busy after-hours hub for neighborhood programs, including concerts, lectures and collegiate classes taught via the Internet.

“Being a smaller community, our high school plays center stage to a lot of different community events,” said Brandon Jensen, the school’s principal.

Administrators limit access to the school by locking all but two main entrances during daytime hours -- and those doors are under observation by school staff. At night, with townspeople coming and going for various activities, it’s more problematic to keep the building secure.

In 2000, the school experienced a serious case of vandalism, which provided the catalyst to install a number of analog cameras around the premises.

“We experienced a substantial amount of damage,” said Jim Heath, technology director for Cody Public Schools. “All the administrative offices were turned upside down, the computer lab was trashed. Vandals sprayed fire extinguishers all over the classrooms. It was a big disaster.”

After a decade, administrators have yet to apprehend the culprits. Once the high school installed the analog cameras, the community believed them to be magic bullets that would stop incidents like that from happening again. And if not, at least the video would enable them to catch the guilty party.

“Any time we had a situation, people’s first response was ‘What do the cameras say?’ And frankly, those cameras weren’t saying a whole lot,” Heath said.

In fact, the video captured by those video cameras invariably yielded too few details to be useful -- especially at night when most incidents seemed to occur. After a decade of disappointment, the district decided a high-resolution IP-based surveillance system would be a better deterrent for vandalism and other inappropriate activity on school property.

To help them devise an appropriate replacement for their legacy analog technology, school officials turned to ISC Corporation, a Wyoming-based network integrator that the district had previously used to install its fiber network and IP telephony system. ISC recommended an array of 80 indoor and outdoor network cameras from Axis Communications to monitor the school building and its 42-acre campus. The Axis cameras use PoE and plug directly into the school’s robust network infrastructure through Ethernet cables, making it easy to move them to different trouble spots as needed.

The exterior cameras came equipped with automatic day/night functionality to provide a clear picture of people and objects even in low-light conditions. ISC also advocated an intuitive NetDVMS from OnSSI that would allow administrative staff to monitor, manage and investigate the video as well as control the Axis cameras over the school’s fiber network.

Taking Proactive Measures
Rather than react to problematic events that inevitably occur at the high school level -- such as student getting into shoving matches or smoking on school grounds -- Jensen and Heath decided to take a proactive approach to ensuring the safety of the school population and the community at large. In addition to contracting with ISC to replace its inadequate analog cameras with more effective network surveillance technology, the school actively participates in crisis drills with local police, first responders and the Department of Homeland Security.

Since the new surveillance system is network-based, it has become an integral part of the security measures implemented by the town to avoid the kind of high-profile problems experienced by other schools across the nation. For exterior coverage of the premises, the video surveillance system integrates PTZ and fixed-dome network cameras to monitor entry doors, the senior parking lot, the bus loading zone, and abutting parks and recreation areas.

“We get a lot of traffic in and around the school, depending on the time of day and events scheduled,” Heath said. “We focus the cameras on areas where the students like to congregate and get into mischief, like the tennis courts across the street and the city park north of campus.”

Heath notes the dramatic difference between the network cameras and the old analog cameras.

“With the old system, there were times when the perpetrator was looking directly at the camera and, because the lighting was less than optimal, we still couldn’t see who it was. The Axis network cameras automatically adjust to the lighting conditions so we can zoom in and clearly see the details we need.”

“The video from our old analog camera system was so pixilated we only identified culprits about 15 percent of the time,” Jensen said. “Our new cameras have such amazing image clarity that so far we’ve been able to identify who was doing what 100 percent of the time.”

Holding Students Accountable

ISC also deployed Axis fixed-dome network cameras inside the high school to cover hallways, stairwells, the gymnasium and common areas, as well as outside bathrooms and classrooms.

“While we don’t have a lot of vandalism problems here, the cameras help us hold students responsible for their actions, whether they are malicious or accidental,” Jensen said.

Jensen recalls an incident where a student tripped and spilled milk on the floor and walls of the cafeteria. Instead of reporting the mess, he just walked away. In the past, administrators would have simply sent the janitorial staff to mop it up before anyone slipped and hurt themselves. With the new video cameras, administrators were able to pinpoint the time of the incident, identify the young man and assign him to help with the clean up.

Analytics for Recording, Archive Searching
To avoid unnecessary archiving, ISC leveraged motion detection embedded in the Axis cameras to trigger the VMS to begin recording an event.

“We custom-programmed the video motion detection sensitivity threshold for the field of view,” said Jeff Ehrenhart of ISC Corp. “For instance, in covering the park across the street, we blocked out areas of the frame where cars are constantly driving by.”

This deployment enables the school to use one camera to cover both the park across the street and the faculty and senior parking areas close to the school. By setting the motion sensors to ignore cars traveling the road, the school eliminates the archiving -- and storage drain -- of countless hours of video containing no events of interest.

“We have 24 terabytes of disk space and archive our video for 45 days,” Heath said. “Using the selective motion detection feature within the video frame saves us storage.”

ISC also deployed an intelligent search feature to help school administrators quickly scan video for missing objects. The Smart Search allows school staff to select an object within the field of view -- such as a laptop on a table -- and instruct the VMS to fast-forward to the next frame where that object moved or disappeared.

“Smart Search greatly speeds up an investigation,” Ehrenhart said. “Instead of reviewing several hours of video, the system automatically jumps to the exact moment of the event so you can see who was in the area when the object went missing.”

Maintaining Wireless Access in an Emergency
Cody High School employs a school resource officer -- a paid member of the Cody Police Department -- to work onsite at the school. In addition to having full access to the high school’s cameras, she serves as the liaison officer to both the chief of police and Park County Sheriff ’s Department.

“We have a really nice partnership with law enforcement,” Heath said.

In a crisis, the SRO can share password access to the cameras with other police officers and the Park County Search and Rescue, depending on the needs of the situation. Search and Rescue operates a mobile command unit equipped with wireless Internet connectivity, which enables responders to access the live video remotely in an emergency.

“We keep access to the cameras as limited as possible,” Heath said. He said he feels it’s important that the community understands the reasons for the surveillance system. “We’re not Big Brother,” he said. “We installed them solely for the protection and safety of our children, our staff and the community attending events on our premises.”

Putting a Positive Sp in on Surveillance
Jensen said having network cameras in and around the property has a positive effect on the behavior of students, faculty and visitors to the campus. With the clarity of the images provided by the network cameras, administrative and security staff can zoom in on crucial details of an incident to identify faces, clothing and even license plates. Having cameras on campus has become so widely accepted by parents that they now fully expect video to settle the blame-game in any student altercations.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Security Today.

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