A Virtual Gateway

The beginning of the first ‘Smart Cities’ in the Greater Houston area

Three years ago, Shrader Engineering had the privilege of designing one of the most unique security concepts in our region for the City of Sugar Land Police Department. The security system forms a “virtual gateway” throughout Sugar Land. Simply put, vehicles which pass through the virtual gateway are automatically scanned and potentially linked to criminal activity. Like many modern systems, data is processed and transmitted at incredible speeds. Officers on duty can be dispatched to intercept stolen vehicles, Amber Alerts, and many other types of crime linked to vehicle license plates – in less than two seconds.

The First Phase

Sugar Land deployed the first phase of this security system in the northern portion of their city, where crime had been slightly higher over the previous years. Since that time, Chiefs of Police and IT Directors have been to several networking events and have exchanged information regarding the system. Today, the “virtual gate” concept appears to be catching on.

Craig Shrader, the firm’s President, and I initially met with Sugar Land Police and IT officials in response to a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) regarding the design of a ‘citywide surveillance camera project.’ Like many cities, the City of Sugar Land had been looking at deploying surveillance cameras in order to enhance their security. The cameras would be installed at major intersections in areas of relatively higher crime, and would all be tied back to their police headquarters. We felt good about our qualifications as an engineering firm, but unfortunately we were not selected.

Like so many security deployments I’ve seen come and go, Sugar Land decided to give the design phase of the project directly to a contractor. I’ve seen this time and time again for telecommunications and security projects at all kinds of different entities. Organizations often do not consider telecommunications or security to be disciplines that require an engineered approach.

Months went by, and I moved on to designing other projects for our firm. But, suddenly, Sugar Land issued a second RFQ for a citywide surveillance project. The contractor had not delivered to the level of quality that Sugar Land expects, and the previous security project had been scrapped before it started. Shrader Engineering – a small engineering firm – would get another chance.

Use of Technology

The world of technology, security, and telecommunications can be complicated. Large scale deployments typically involve dozens of sites spread across several miles of terrain, wired and wireless communications, various types of security and network equipment, intense outdoor weather conditions, and new combinations of software and technology components. These many components and sub-systems must ultimately work together to form a unified surveillance network which functions reliably. Furthermore, a lot of different manufacturers and service providers have to come together and work productively. This requires an orchestrated engineered approach.

Shrader always says, “You wouldn’t build a bridge without hiring an engineer to design it first. You always hire an engineer to design it first.” While we don’t design bridges at Shrader Engineering (yet), our electrical, communications, and technology systems help form the critical infrastructure that our communities depend on. These systems should be engineered each time to ensure the success of each project. I would argue that large security systems are no different. If you want to achieve success, take the engineered approach.

I spent many hours preparing an elaborate presentation for our first meeting with Sugar Land – the one that did not result in winning their business. Nevertheless, I think that extra effort showcased some of our abilities and helped us get invited back for Sugar Land’s re-launching of their security project initiative.

This time, rather than prepare another PowerPoint, Shrader and I decided it would be best to speak off-the-cuff. We particularly emphasized the telecommunications aspect of the project, and how it might be the key to the reliability of the security network. Sugar Land has built out a lot of telecommunications infrastructure over the last few decades, and we felt that adding to and modifying their existing systems could enable them to save money over the long term. A security system cannot function without reliable communications backhaul – so any network devices owned by the city would need to be designed in great detail.

Sugar Land’s IT department certainly understood the importance of telecommunications, and from there the meeting shifted from a security system conversation to one more concerned with infrastructure, power, concept of operations, policies, procedures, and so many other important topics. A security system of this scale is about more than just cameras or access control devices.

Rapid Evolution

Technology evolves so rapidly that it can be difficult to keep up. Some products are almost obsolete by the time they get installed. I strive to re-evaluate everything for every project I design, because companies are always creating some new product that drives us forward. At the same time, we want to ensure that a product will live up to expectations when deployed in the field. I’ve seen too many faulty devices that weren’t quite ready and too many rotten control panels that weren’t quite finished with care. A single flaw in a component of a system can gradually erode everything else, and, before you know it, the whole thing just falls apart.

These are the systems I often see when visiting a site for the first time. Devices may not be properly maintained, or were never designed with the proper concept of operations in mind. Nevertheless, a lot of equipment can go to waste. It is the responsibility of the design engineer to ensure that the client doesn’t just get a product, but that the client gets the right product that they will actually use. If it isn’t useful, it may become useless.

We had never designed a large scale automated license plate recognition (ALPR) security system before, because there just weren’t that many large scale deployments of automated license plate recognition (ALPR) anywhere in the world. Sugar Land knew this was a unique project, and that’s why our meeting had to be about the engineered approach we take at Shrader Engineering. It was about communications, infrastructure, and due diligence.

A few weeks after our second chance with Sugar Land, we heard that we had won the opportunity to design the Sugar Land License Plate Recognition security system.

Now it was time to actually do the work. Where would all of these specialized surveillance cameras go? Major intersections? On the police vehicles? That’s where everyone else puts them in their cities – granted at only a few intersections or a few vehicles. Sugar Land already had a few vehicles and a few intersections equipped with the cameras. We had to do something more meaningful.

Data, Data and More Data

You’d be surprised how much data is out there from these camera systems. Tow truck drivers use them to find cars to impound, and they resell their ALPR data they gather as they drive around all day to “big data” companies, who in turn sell that packaged data to law enforcement agencies. How else could you effectively track a criminal across the United States? Meanwhile, toll roads use ALPR cameras to bill customers driving down the road. College campuses, corporate campuses, and apartment complexes use ALPR to determine parking violations.

It doesn’t surprise me that even tech-savvy citizens can have privacy concerns with these ALPR systems. However, when you consider the far more frequent commercial use by so many other sources, the “privacy” argument begins to falter. Furthermore, when you consider that almost everyone is willingly walking around with a tracking device (mobile phone) on them almost at all times, or that the younger generation is posting pictures of themselves to Facebook (which recognizes your face and those of your friends with automatic facial recognition), you quickly realize that the privacy argument against ALPR is borderline illogical.

These systems are not the red light cameras or the speeding ticket cameras that almost everyone rallies against. These systems are simply an investigative tool for police officers – a tool that helps them do their jobs to solve crimes on behalf of their citizens.

The primary question that kept coming back to me was “Where in the city would these cameras actually be deployed.” Major intersections? Every other installation always focused on the ‘major intersections.’ Everyone was talking about getting the ‘major intersections.’ After all, that is where all the traffic is, right?

The budgetary numbers and product selections were starting to come into focus, but I didn’t have a master design concept I was satisfied with. We could cover traffic in all four directions at most major intersections, like every other ALPR deployment I’d heard about. It just didn’t seem that useful to me though. I wondered, “Is this concept really going to result in a useful security system for Sugar Land?”

We were running out of time to provide Sugar Land with our proposed installation locations. I lay in bed a few days before we would present to Sugar Land once again. Sometimes work isn’t always at the office, especially not in the design field. Sometimes you’re not even thinking about work when the idea comes, and usually it seems so obvious and simple afterwards.

Secure the perimeter.

Every road. Yes, even that little one that almost nobody ever drives down. Make it so that nobody can enter Sugar Land without having their vehicle scanned.

Perimeter Security

So instead of mounting all of the cameras on existing infrastructure (much less expensive per camera) at the busiest intersections inside the city, we would be mounting many of them on brand new poles on tiny residential roads – at some, a single vehicle might only go by once every twenty minutes.

But this way we got ALL of the vehicles. I jolted out of bed and ran the numbers. “It just might be within budget.”

The very next week, we presented the idea of the “Virtual Gateway” to Sugar Land’s top police officers, IT personnel, and detectives, and we never looked back. The Virtual Gateway was designed, competitively bid, constructed, integrated, and tested. Today, the system works exceptionally well.

A few months ago we learned that the Memorial Villages, some of Houston’s most prestigious neighborhoods, were interested in a security project. They already spoke with Sugar Land, and had learned of the success of the “Virtual Gateway” concept.

At the time this article is being written, it has been just about a week since the Memorial Villages hosted a town hall meeting open to the public to explain their own Virtual Gateway system. The city council, special committee members, and lawyers were up stage presenting facts and ready to field any questions. We were all admittedly nervous at what the public reaction might be. Would there be outcries from a vocal few against the system?

There weren’t any outcries. Instead, we got applause.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Security Today.

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