What Good Is Security Without Monitoring?

The problem

School security is a growing concern, and with good reason. It seems like we are continually hearing about incidents of violence in our nation's schools.

Knowing the gravity of the problem facing our schools, an army of federal, state and local authorities, administrators, legislators and others are trying to knit together a cohesive plan that ensures this threat is removed.

Community and district action plans are being designed and published to provide step-by-step procedures to communicate and define the emergency response appropriate to the event.

Federal and state funds are being allocated to permit schools to improve their physical security, hire additional security staff, underwrite their respective community plans for emergencies and provide added specialized staff who will address, in a pro-active manner, students and faculty about how they can alter behavior to ameliorate the incidence of violence.

This article will make a case for integrating the emergency action plan with improvements in physical security and communications to outside authorities that are poised to assist in an emergency.

Current Technology

Most schools have security systems that include protection of perimeter doors and motion sensors that monitor hallways and areas considered at high risk for theft of valuable equipment. Many, if not most, of the schools are equipped with 24-hour fire systems that include smoke and heat detectors, as well as pull stations for use in a fire emergency.

School administrators will tell you that they utilize the building security system at the end of the school day, when the building has emptied, all doors are closed and locked. Of course, the fire system is active, in a passive way, 24 hours a day waiting for signs of smoke, heat or activation from a manual pull station.

Many schools have already installed, or are just now in the process of installing, closed circuit video cameras, with multiplexors (used to switch and display multiple cameras on one or more monitors) and videotape recorders or the newer digital video recorders. But, when administrators are asked about the use and effectiveness of CCTV equipment in their schools, the most common responses are:

    • No one is watching the video monitors during the day.

    • When someone reports an incident, we can try to review the stored tapes to assess what happened, but the image quality of playback video makes it difficult to make out the perpetrator(s).

    • The maintenance of the tape recording gear; the process of replacing, labeling and storing tapes, and the need to replace tapes create problems.

For some schools the digital video recorder, which is a PC-based hard disk storage medium, has improved playback image quality and lessened the need for managing video that has been selected for long-term storage. The typical complaint here is that the storage is limited to only a few days, weeks or maybe 30 days. Typically, capturing fewer frames of video, and reducing the quality of images stored, serves to increase storage on a single digital video recorder.

There is one other underlying problem with the use of CCTV cameras. Generally, there are not enough of them distributed in buildings to provide a well-defined viewing area that will deliver a good close-up view of a person’s face or clothing. Using a long corridor as an example, the choice is either to set the camera's field of view to the immediate area, where you will get a good image, or set the cameras to look off into the distance, where only the distant target viewing area will be well defined. Most cameras in schools will have a fixed field of view. This means you will not be moving the camera with pan, tilt, zoom (PTZ) controls. Besides, as we stated earlier, no one is staffing the monitors or even watching. So why invest in PTZ equipment if you aren’t going to staff the observation of your school's cameras during the day?

Having said all this, the picture (no pun intended) looks pretty bleak. So, how can you solve the problem?

Solving the Problem

What if you could take the written emergency action plan, fold it into a computer system designed to manage the school building and act as an unattended smart security agent for each and every school in your community or district?

You would start by taking any combination of existing school security systems, access control systems, fire systems, camera systems and building floor plans from your emergency action plan book and integrate them into one computer work station in each of your buildings. We will call this workstation a web-engine (to be discussed in detail later). The purpose of this web-engine will be to provide a consolidated view of each of the component systems on a computer monitor. That’s right, on a single screen in the school office will reside a building map(s) with an LED representing each security, fire, access and camera point in the building. The computer program would provide an area for viewing one or more cameras that are called up during an event based on the area within the building reporting the event. A database is automatically viewed providing the name of the event, the date, the time and its severity (priority).

The building map would move to a zoom-in level, which would clearly denote where in the building the problem lies, and the exact point would be flashing with a text block to describe the event further. The video file would include pre-, as well as post-, event video that has been automatically stored in a rapid succession of high-quality digital images to the web-engine’s hard drive.

How would the building administrator know that a problem has just occurred in the building, if no one is watching the web-engine display? The web-engine would incorporate a unique voice message for each and every event that is announced, using PC speakers, intercom path or two-way radio interface. You would know, immediately, the nature of the event and have the opportunity to view all of the details on the web-engine monitor, or console.

First, the details of how this system works on a local level: The security system is not armed, but the web-engine can observe any state change in a door or motion sensor you have asked it to watch. Moreover, the web-engine collects all video resulting from detected motion through the camera lens. Regardless of whether an event is reported or not, the system is passively recording all movement within each camera's field of view for later investigation.

On a more global level, what if you could automatically summon outside authorities, trained to respond to specific emergencies based on the directives and procedures written in your emergency action plan? What if you could immediately download the building map with point of trouble, video files of the event and a voice announcement over the outside authority's speakers or two-way radio upon a building administrator’s assessment that outside help was needed?

By establishing a central repository (data store) with a console for a community you can move critical information over existing LAN/WAN or Internet connections to outside authorities in any emergency. This accomplishes several objectives. First, you have off-loaded and stored critical information from the local building reporting trouble to an outside location. Second, you have established a new means of communicating during an emergency using the institutional cable loop, DSL or other high-bandwidth Internet connection. Third, you have enabled those responsible for responding to a threat to receive up-to-date information on what is transpiring within the walls of your building on a continuous basis. Fourth, the procedure for handling an emergency is integrated into the web-engine’s programmed response, eliminating user error and reducing poor communications. Fifth, you now have the ability to staff for a full-time person to oversee a large number of buildings for a community or district. Sixth, multiple locations can subscribe to the emergency feed of critical information based on your plan requirements, all simultaneously. Seventh, where you are now distributing the storage of critical information and video events, the need for manually downloading video to CD-ROMs, DAT drives, etc. is eliminated or minimized. Long-term storage using web-engine technology will be months or years.

Finally, what is the definition of a web-engine? The web-engine permits the connection and operation of a myriad of local systems and devices like security, fire, accessCCTV, lighting, heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, electrical load center management and more. Now using a standard browser you can communicate with and directly control any of the interfaced real-world devices or systems. You can learn of their current state or condition and if given permission, alter their state or condition. Moreover, the web-engine contains another component we refer to as a rule engine. It is the rule engine that provides instructions and commands to the other connected systems to orchestrate how they should interoperate with each other. Web-engines can be distributed around a building or campus of buildings, throughout a community or around the globe.

Richard Spellman is vice president of sales for Savoy.