Pennsylvania Police Departments Connect Wirelessly to School District Camera Feeds to Aid Incident Response

Pennsylvania school districts give police direct access to their video camera feeds to aid situational awareness in case of emergency.

by / July 25, 2010
Cameras focused on schoolhouse Illustration by Tom McKeith

School systems and police departments are community partners, and ensuring student, faculty and officer safety is a high priority for both entities. In Pennsylvania, police departments are being both innovative and proactive by using wireless technology to handle school safety. If there's an emergency, local police departments can increase situational awareness by directly linking to Pennsylvania schools' live video camera feeds.

About 128 cameras keep watch over the Franklin Regional School District's five schools - one high school, one middle school and three elementary schools. And the Murrysville Police Department will upgrade officers' in-car laptops with software that will connect to each of the district's live video feeds. Linking to these feeds could provide vital information for police officers in the event of an emergency.

"As with Columbine [High School] and things that have happened since then with universities and shootings," said Murrysville Police Chief Tom Seefeld of the impetus created by the grisly 1999 high school mass shooting and other high-profile student shootings, "we're trying to approach this in a manner that will provide the best safety for officers and firefighters, as well as students and faculty, if we should in fact have critical incidents at the school."

The police department received a $100,000 grant from the Community Oriented Policing Services technology program, of which about $45,000 will fund the purchase of OnSite Information Systems Inc.'s Responder Knowledge software.

After receiving the grant, the police department approached the Franklin Regional School District. "They thought it would be a good mix and a good partnership as far as implementing such a program," said Frank Muto, the school district's technology services supervisor. "The software and its capabilities lend themselves to including the school district in terms of safety."

The City Council approved the contract with OnSite, a Murrysville-based company, in January, and the system is expected to go live by January 2011.

Electronic Eyes

When the software is installed, police officers can log on through their laptops, most likely via a virtual private network (VPN), to access the software hosted from the school district's server. The software will provide a live feed from the schools' cameras, and also can load other information, like electronic floor plans to help police officers identify points of interest, such as stairwells and bathrooms.

Seefeld anticipates that the officer or firefighter in charge of an incident will use the video and floor plans to direct his or her subordinates about how to best approach a situation. "If we know of an area where something is occurring, we can punch that information in and bring that area up on the screen with the closest camera to that area," he said. "So we can relay to the responding officers or firefighters what we're seeing, which will greatly help them, I believe."

Murrysville's three fire departments - the municipality is divided into three fire districts - will each have a laptop installed with the software, and the municipality's emergency management center will have access through one laptop. Currently school officials can view the camera feeds while in the district's buildings, but they will be granted the same capability externally thanks to the software, Muto said. "It's just going to be an enhancement to what we already have."

The local schools are just the starting point for using the software. Seefeld said he hopes other organizations and businesses - like banks, hotels and universities - will take notice of the school district's implementation and utilize the technology in their buildings. Doing so would provide law enforcement with the best information when responding to incidents.

"I think it's getting our emergency services prepared to confront issues and matters, and provide the best safety as possible for first responders," Seefeld said.
Strict policies, Seefeld said, will ensure that the software is only

used for its intended purpose: emergency response. Also, when officers log on to the district's server, they will only have access to the camera system, which will eliminate any chance of them accessing student records or personnel information. The district also will establish policies regarding who will have access to the server and when it can occur, Muto said, adding that all access will be tracked and monitored.

"We anticipate during emergency situations would be the only time that it would be activated," he said.

Forging the Path

The Franklin Regional School District isn't the only education system in Pennsylvania working with the local police in such a manner. When Council Rock School District IT Director Matthew Frederickson attended a community meeting about two years ago, some police officers were discussing an incident that occurred at one of the high schools. Frederickson's response was, "We should really give you access to our security system cameras." And a new partnership was born.

About three years ago, the school district, located in Bucks County, installed a security system that included 48 video cameras in one of its high schools. Frederickson was hired by the district after the security system was installed, but he suggested that the network infrastructure be restructured using an IP-based system. He said the school district utilized Cisco Systems infrastructure, so the IT department added the company's Video Surveillance and Physical Access Control systems to integrate with the network. "The total cost of ownership would be less expensive than a stand-alone system and could be supported by network staff," Frederickson explained.

Thanks to the new system, school officials access the live video feeds wirelessly through a Web browser - and they wanted to open that access to police officers in case of emergency. "The superintendent decided what we really needed was a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the police department that basically says, 'You won't use the access that we've given to you, unless we request it,'" Frederickson said.

The MOU was made to quell the fears of parents who, during a board meeting, expressed concern that police officers would use the video feeds to watch their children if they suspected them of wrongdoing. Frederickson said the system hasn't been used by the police as of yet, and there also haven't been any further complaints from parents or other community members. The police access is mostly for after-hours use, when the building is empty and the school's resource officers are off duty. There also are security measures in place to keep the system secured - it requires a user ID and password to log on, and users must go through a VPN firewall to connect outside of the school district.

It tracks who accesses the network, which provides Frederickson with a view of how it's used.

"The concern is if something happens in the schools after hours and the police have to go onsite, and there's a possibility that they have to go in the building," he said. "It would be nice for them to be able to see what's going on."

The recordings also can be beneficial if there's an incident at the high school because officials can review what the cameras caught. In one instance, Frederickson said, recordings were burned to a CD to show the exact events that transpired in a criminal case the police were pursuing.


Elaine Pittman Former Managing Editor

Elaine Pittman worked for Government Technology from 2008 to 2017.

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