Cameras at the Intersection

Using technology to manage traffic and protect public safety

In 1991, Congress established a federal program to develop, test and promote the implementation of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), exploring ways that information and technology could improve transportation safety. Since then, the government has earmarked dollars for cities across the United States to put technology in place to manage traffic and protect public safety. Tuscaloosa, Ala. is one city that has benefitted.

The Tuscaloosa Department of Transportation received federal funding for traffic message boards and cameras. Using its bucket trucks and technicians, Tuscaloosa’s DOT began installing cameras at high-volume intersections across the city. Eventually, every major intersection in Tuscaloosa had a DOTinstalled camera in place.

This program was the Tuscaloosa Transportation Department’s entry to cameras and has helped the city manage traffic without widening roads.

“We’re not camera people, but we’ve become camera people through experience,” said Chris Golden, Tuscaloosa Department of Transportation.

As cameras transitioned to Ethernet and IP, Tuscaloosa DOT said that it had to switch from running coaxial cable to programming each camera by assigning an IP address and ensuring it fit into the overall IP network scheme. Golden and his colleagues began focusing on installation and programming of cameras, wireless equipment and Ethernet switches.

Putting Experience to Work

In July 2008, Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox announced the Hope Initiative, the start of a long-term effort to fight crime in his city. This initiative included a number of recommendations such as increasing patrols by police, establishing an East Tuscaloosa police precinct and making infrastructure improvements, like adding security cameras. Since the Tuscaloosa Transportation Department had the equipment and experience in installing cameras as part of the ITS initiative, the city turned to them for help.

Initially, the transportation department worked with an integrator to lay out a scheme for the initiative’s security systems. The integrator recommended equipment such as servers and software platform options that had been used on projects in Chicago, New York City and Pittsburgh. Ultimately, Golden’s team connected the cameras, and the integrator programmed the system.

The city of Tuscaloosa funded a portion of the Hope Initiative, and the University of Alabama added dollars, too. The university sits adjacent to some of the areas the Hope Initiative is focused on, like the “Strip,” which includes university student housing. Among the goals was giving peace of mind to residents as well as parents, whose children were attending the university—sometimes a long way from home.

The Hope Initiative’s cameras began to come online in early 2009. The platform for the cameras is an IP video management system; however, there were very few stable security center platforms available when the city kicked off this initiative.

“These early systems were like Windows 98, very unreliable,” Golden said. “The Omnicast system we chose was an exception.”

Choosing Cameras

Through its relationship with a provider of lighting, poles and cameras, Tuscaloosa’s DOT learned of 3G/4G wireless cameras from Moog. The camera system uses existing cellular networks and network video to provide video footage via IP cameras.

“We had steered clear of wireless products, except for a few areas, because we always thought fiber was better,” Golden said. “But we tried seven of the Moog wireless cameras on our DOT compound, and they worked without missing a beat. There was no latency in the cameras.”

After six months of use and testing, Tuscaloosa DOT decided the wireless cameras would work for the Hope Initiative, as well as other locations. For example, the DOT tried the camera system at the Tuscaloosa airport. The airport has cameras connected by fiber that runs back to the DOT compound, but there were areas that were impossible to reach with fiber that DOT wanted to monitor.

Golden and his team installed the wireless camera system, receivers and transmitters up to a half mile from one another. Golden’s camera provider also developed a camera system with a USB aircard and static IP address that Tuscaloosa DOT has set up for special events.

“We had an air show with the Blue Angels, and we used the Moog mobile cameras for monitoring crowds and moving people from shuttle buses,” said Golden. “The image is as close to real time for an aircard as you could ever imagine. The cameras are 3G, and you band them to a pole and move it to the next pole, if and when needed.”

Seventy-five percent of Tuscaloosa is covered with Hope cameras, with most city property having these cameras. According to city officials, there are some buildings—the city courthouse and parking garage—that have a different camera system with its own protocol, but the city’s leaders hope to move these outliers to the Hope system.

“The beauty of the IP video management system is that so many different types of cameras and Ethernet products work with it,” said Golden. “We have eight camera systems as part of the Hope initiative.”

While there are a number of cities that have extensive security systems in place, Golden believes Tuscaloosa is unique because it doesn’t rely on contractors as the primary operators.

“We do 90 percent of the installation and monitoring work ourselves, and we get assistance from our contractors when we need an expert opinion,” Golden said.

Curbing Crime with Cameras

In 2009, the Hope Initiative saw crime in the city’s Rosedale Hope Zone, where 11 percent of the city’s crime occurred in 2008, drop by 20 percent. Officials said that the camera system played a role—as well as added police patrols, the new police precinct and the involvement of more than 60 churches and various social service groups.

On April 27, 2011, a major tornado destroyed many areas covered by the Hope Initiative, so the police department’s public affairs office said current statistics would be skewed because of the resulting population shift. However, in September 2013, the Transportation Department purchased five Moog EXO high-definition network camera systems with H.264 full-line compression for monitoring additional areas within the Hope Zones, as well as assets such as the city’s dam.

The city’s IP video management system has been in place for four years, and even through regularly scheduled swaps of PCs, the system has performed effectively. In cases where the DOT’s security desk client application loses connectivity to its servers, the city has been able to continue monitoring cameras, as well as maintain access to live video.

Using the IP video management system software, the Tuscaloosa Police Department and other first responders can view footage of the seven Hope Zones across the city. The system stores the footage for up to two weeks, and the police IT department can assign who has access to what footage.

The city’s DOT has access to the camera footage, but its goal is not observing people; rather, the DOT monitors only real-time footage to make sure the cameras are operating correctly day and night. The University of Alabama can also see approved video footage and share it with the school’s engineering lab to use for research.

According to city officials, keeping the Hope Initiative on track requires ongoing attention, community involvement and the latest technology.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Security Today.

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