Making the Case for Wireless Video Surveillance

Public safety agencies face a few challenges when deploying wireless video surveillance. Being a fairly new technology, many are not aware of the fact that reliable video surveillance can often be performed effectively and more efficiently with wireless technology.

by / January 23, 2008
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For several years, the residents of the Rockford Housing Authority in Illinois faced a peculiar security challenge. They often witnessed strangers loitering in the vicinity selling rugs, drinking, or otherwise engaging in offensive behavior. And despite various security measures, such activities continued unabated because, they discovered, the vast majority of these people engaged in such activities were not residents at all.

Officials of RHA realized that on top of all the measures already taken, another security layer was needed - ubiquitous video surveillance. But how? With 15 properties that include 2100 housing units, RHA is the third-largest public housing authority in Illinois, and wiring the whole area was neither cheap, nor easy. "There were a few regular wired cameras (called the CCTV cameras) installed already but those were not flexible and couldn't provide very effective surveillance because RHA had a lot of trees," says Paul Hackerson, security director of the Rockford Housing Authority.

The solution came from Montel Technologies, a provider of wired and wireless networking systems, that installed a new security monitoring system with IP-based video cameras and a wireless mesh network from Firetide, Inc., one of the leading providers of mesh networks for industrial and municipal applications.

"Crimes plummeted by 20 percent soon after we installed the wireless cameras," says Paul Hackerson. "And now we monitor the property not only from the monitoring office but also from our homes if need be, and we use the cameras for a lot more than security surveillance. The cameras also tell me if the property in being maintained properly, if the grass is getting mowed, or if there are any hazards I need to hamdle."

If Paul Hackerson is using wireless video cameras for checking crime rate and also to keep an eye out on the maintenance of the large property under his care, others such as the Phoenix Police Department -- reportedly the first police department in the country to use wireless video surveillance for time-critical investigative deployments - is already moving on to the next step. The department, according to Chris Jensen, a detective with the city's Drug Enforcement Bureau, is trying to develop new uses of wireless video surveillance so that the cameras do more intelligent things like reading the number plates of cars, crime suppression through interpretation of movements, and as an officers' safety tool.

Indeed, following the 9/11 terror attacks, as homeland security initiatives gains immense importance in America, wireless video surveillance is fast emerging as the most preferred video surveillance tool for police departments and municipalities.

"Video surveillance over Internet Protocol is accelerating very fast with numerous law enforcement and public safety agencies across the U.S. adopting wireless video surveillance in order to make their jobs more efficient and cost effective," says Bo Larsson, CEO of Firetide Inc., the California-based developer of wireless mesh networks that claims to be the largest player in wireless video surveillance market in US.

According to Larson there have been over 40 installations of IP-based video surveillance in the past 18 months systems in the US, "and soon, you will see some very big announcements too."

Firetide estimates that out of the global $1.5 billion IP-based video camera market in 2008, the US alone will account for well over $650 million.

Several factors are driving this trend. But foremost among them is the fact that wireless digital video cameras are easy to install. "We were pleasantly surprised at the speed of implementation [of a wireless video surveillance system]," says Tom Lawrence, deputy police chief of the Dallas Police Department.

Dallas has a population of 1.2 million and spans 385 square miles. Downtown is an especially busy zone with hundreds of thousands of people coming into the area during the day. And thousands dine at the district's restaurants or spend an evening at the many clubs and entertainment venues. The police department's

budget constraints limited the number of officers who could be deployed and this forced the department to resort to wireless mesh technology for effective monitoring.

The Dallas City Council and the local police department implemented a wireless video surveillance system consisting of 32 Firetide mesh nodes and 40 Sony cameras in the "troubled" Central Business District.

Lawrence says that with 24/7 wireless video monitoring, the system has proved to be an almost instant deterrent to crime while improving the police department's detection and investigation capabilities.

"While we did not go into the project with the concept of wireless, the benefits quickly became obvious: the mesh enabled quick setup of the network without a complete overhaul, while providing excellent bandwidth and security for video streams," says Lawrence

The other important driver is cost. The cost-benefit ratio of IP-base wireless video surveillance is 10 to 1," says Larson. Admittedly, traditional video monitoring and surveillance applications employ analog CCTV (closed-circuit television) cameras that are hard-wired via coaxial cabling to a centralized monitoring and recording facility. This arrangement, dating back to the 1960's, still works well enough today within and around a closed environment- like around a building, a few blocks, or even in campuses. But the high cost of cabling comes as a significant hurdle for very wide area and flexible networking.

By eliminating any dependence on wires, IP-based warless cameras on the other hand can be placed- easily and cost-effectively- virtually anywhere with a mesh network infrastructure. "The compromises of the past [through analog CCTV systems] that neglected locations or spots impractical or impossible to wire before, can now finally be remedied with IP-based video surveillance," says Larson.

Still, public safety agencies face a few challenges while deploying wireless video surveillance. "Being a fairly new technology, tons of people are not even aware of the fact that reliable video surveillance can performed effectively and more efficiently with wireless technology," says Larson, "and more importantly, the technology's critical success factors are not known widely."

Therefore advises Larson, while deployment an IP-based video surveillance project, authorities should keep the following tips in mind, which Larson claims, Firetide has formulated through its vast experience [over half of the IP-based video surveillance projects in US] of implementing wireless video projects.

Tip 1: Draw From Multiple Sources of Funding
Investigate various sources of funding, which may be available from departmental budgets, homeland security grants, and even private grants. Additionally, a public safety network can be securely augmented to provide more services such as public Internet access and voice over IP.

Tip 2: Address Privacy Concerns Head-on
For overt surveillance, adopt written surveillance guidelines and ensure personnel are properly trained. Inform affected constituencies - residents, businesses, and media - ahead of time; open communications and public demos are well received. For covert surveillance, reassure the public and the media that the surveillance is conducted strictly within the law.

Tip 3: Anticipate Staffing and Training Needs
Police personnel need training on the new monitoring technology, for example remote camera management or mastering the video management software. Learning curves may vary; allow for this in the training process. For large surveillance projects, a creative approach is to hire retired police personnel who may be interested in working part-time in the monitoring room.

Tip 4: Partner for Success
Seek out system integrators and suppliers who are comfortable with wireless and IP technologies and who will support you. Interagency cooperation is also essential for rapid deployment.

Tip 5: Consider the Total Infrastructure
Identify the backhaul options (how you will connect the wireless mesh to the monitoring station) early in the planning stages. Wired and wireless are both viable options; backhaul can be dedicated or shared with other local government applications.

According to Larson, with the paradigm shifts in security needs of the day, IP-based broadband wireless video surveillance appears to be the only solution for avoiding the snags that many public access deployments are now facing. "Authorities would be wise to consider this technology seriously," he says. After all, most traditional video surveillance has so far identified a crime after it has been committed. But now, the need of the day is "intelligent" monitoring that can detect and prevent a potentially undesirable event before it happens.

Indrajit Basu is the international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.