September 30, 2005 By Dave Moseley
Lower the Boom
Pittsburg, Calif., is among the growing number of cities taking a different tack to discourage the millions of tons of trash illegally dumped in the United States each year -- shouting surveillance cameras.
City officials recently turned over film of illegal dumping activity to local police for possible prosecution. Laura Wright, senior administrative analyst of environmental affairs in the Pittsburg Public Works Department, is happy with just the deterrent results of the city's six cameras, installed in late 2004.
"We had a camera at one location in an undeveloped area -- a remote road at the end of a cul-de-sac," Wright said. "Almost weekly, especially on Monday mornings, we'd have to pick up all the waste. A couple of times it was so bad we'd have to put out a 20-yard bin. It was being hit every week."
The cameras, made by Q-Star Technology, were installed on Dec. 14, 2004. Since then, Wright said, there's been no dumping at the site.
"You can even see the street-sweeper marks," she said. "We had that happen in a couple of other spots too."
Urban areas across the country use more than 1,000 of the cameras to fend off illegal dumping and graffiti. Ken Anderson, Q-Star Technology president and co-founder, said when he began the cameras' development 10 years ago, he thought of them as a deterrent to graffiti.
"In the beginning, [the] system could hear a spray can go off and start taking pictures," he said. "We found out customers didn't really want that, they just wanted the problem to go away. Most of our customers don't want to prosecute because it's so much of a hassle. If you get rid of the problem, they're just as happy as pups."
The Camera That Roars
Q-Star manufactures two versions of the camera. The $3,495 battery-powered FlashCAM-530 uses 35 mm film, while the $4,995 solar-powered FlashCAM-770 produces digital images.
Anderson said the digital model is more popular because it can take up to 1,600 photos at a resolution of 3 megapixels -- or 770 at 5 megapixels -- while the film version uses 36-exposure rolls.
"Many customers don't bother with the pictures," he said. "We position the product as a deterrent. A large number of our customers don't even bother to process the film."
Perhaps one reason the film goes undeveloped is another attention-getting feature the cameras use to chase away dumpers -- the power of persuasion.
"Stop!" a voice loudly admonishes when a person triggers the camera. "You are in a restricted area. Your photograph has just been taken, and we will use it to prosecute you. Leave the area now."
The voice is human. Users can record their own messages up to 14 seconds long, and a motion sensor with a range of 100 feet activates both the verbal warning and the camera. When either camera snaps a photo, it emits a bright flash to illuminate the area. The company also said the cameras can capture a vehicle's license plate number at up to 100 feet in total darkness.
In a deterrent role, the cameras are virtually set-and-forget. Housed in 16-gauge steel with the lens and flash covered with 3/8-inch bullet-resistant Lexan plastic, they can be mounted by padlock-secured bolts to steel or wooden poles, or concrete walls. An adapter is available for those who wish to move the cameras from site to site. Film and battery status with the digital model are accessible via a key-fob remote.
"Out of the thousand [cameras], we've had
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