Whether you have a surveillance system in place or are looking to develop a new one, the world of cameras and security equipment can be daunting to those who aren’t experts in the industry. When working properly, a surveillance system can improve your response to crimes or other issues that arise.
“If an organization has an on-site security force and a security monitoring center, a camera system can be used to leverage their capabilities,” says Michael Silva, Principal at Silva Consultants in Covington, WA. “One security officer sitting in a control room can monitor an entire campus with the video system. When used with other systems like motion detection and access control systems, it can really leverage what one security officer can see.”
However, when not installed and operated properly, a surveillance system will be of little help. Awareness of some key issues in video surveillance will ensure that you are keeping your facility safe.
Silva suggests starting with a security risk assessment that diagnoses a facility’s needs by examining risks and threats. He likens this process to having a physical at the doctor; the assessment is about finding problems and developing solutions to address them. Doing so allows you to determine the overall goals of your security program and identify how personnel, procedures and technology will contribute to achieving these objectives.
Specific areas and strategies need to be made clear from the beginning. Jason Maddox, President of Vulcan Security Systems in Birmingham, AL, first looks to identify the intended scope of the security system a client wants.
“On any building, some basics almost always apply. I like to secure from the inside out, and if you have a high dollar asset, we would like to put a camera on it,” says Maddox. “You want to have ingress and egress points to the building covered. That way you always have timestamped video of who came, who left and when they left. Immediately after that would be your server or mechanical rooms, so you know anytime someone’s coming in or out of there and have a record of it.”
Identifying the particular reasons you are installing cameras can prevent any disappointments. A statement of purpose that clearly defines your goals will help you communicate with surveillance professionals, and they can then address any misconceptions before it is too late.
“You need to communicate fully what you want to achieve in writing and let them design a system to meet those stated needs,” explains Silva.
Silva suggests establishing reasonable goals when you are planning a surveillance system. He explains, “A lot of people view a video surveillance system as a magic bullet, but once they’ve done this underlying planning and identifying what the solution should be, cameras may or may not be the correct solution.”
In fact, Silva contends that cameras have become one of the most misused types of security technology because they make people feel more comfortable merely through their presence. An overstated reason to get surveillance is that they provide a deterrent to crime. Silva notes that just because a person committing a crime sees a camera does not mean they will think rationally and worry about the consequences, so they might not be as much of a deterrent as many believe.
That is not to say that a surveillance system won’t help if something does occur. They can provide video documentation of security incidents that can be helpful when investigating crimes and identifying criminal suspects. In any case, it is important to keep in mind that no system is perfect, and that surveillance cameras – like any other technology – are prone to imperfections.
“Usually the biggest disappointment people have is an expectation that they’re going to be able to clearly see the entire area with crisp, high resolution and positively identify someone who on the screen looks to be about a quarter of an inch tall,” says Silva. “Most commercial video systems don’t do that, and if they do, they do it in a very limited area. One of the most important things you can do is actually define what your goals are.”
As with anything else, surveillance technology is going to cost more as quality increases. Therefore, if money is an object, you should identify where coverage is absolutely necessary.
Even if a surveillance system does not completely deter crime from happening in your facility, it is also important to consider how else a surveillance system might help to benefit your business or organization. Maddox has noticed an increase in facility managers approaching HR, life safety and operational issues like slips and falls and worker’s comp with security cameras. Most importantly, these kinds of considerations can help justify the upfront cost.
However, no matter the application of security cameras, you should know the technological advancements and concerns in the industry.
In the past, analog systems dominated the market, providing systems connected by separate coaxial cables that run from individual cameras to a central recording switch. More recently, IP technology has taken over surveillance, reducing the number of cables – especially in systems covering a number of cameras and buildings. For those looking to add or modify their existing analog system, the good news is that they are not obsolete, but the direction of the industry is and has been unequivocally IP-centered.
“The industry has done a pretty good job of maximizing what they can get out of existing coax cable; it’s basically given the analog systems an extended life. But at the end of the day, it’s still an old technology,” says Maddox. “If someone’s going new, then we’re almost always going to recommend IP because it’s newer, you can get better resolution and do more with it. But the industry as a whole has done a good job extending the life of analog systems.”
If you are looking to develop an IP system, all you need is a network cable connection, which is often accomplished with fiber optics.
“If we’re doing a multi-building campus, we’ll run a single fiber optic cable from each of the buildings to the central building,” says Silva. “At the end of that fiber optic cable in each building, we’ll install one or more network switches. These switches will allow us to connect all of the security devices in those buildings. You need connectivity between buildings, which in most cases, you will have. Security devices can communicate over a segmented portion of the enterprise’s regular network (VLAN) or a separate dedicated network just for security devices can be provided.”
In addition to the sheer convenience of an IP system compared to an analog one, video and image quality are improving.
“You’re inherently capped at right around 2 megapixels for analog, but with IP the world’s really your playground as far as the resolution,” says Maddox. “Higher and higher megapixel resolution cameras are coming out every day.”
Bandwidth and data storage are two of the main areas the industry is looking to enhance. Balancing these two areas with the highest possible video quality can be a challenge under a budget, but solutions continue to become less expensive.
“If your whole system is recording within the building, bandwidth is usually not a problem,” explains Silva. “The other main factor is how much disk space you need to store it. With these newer cameras, you need much more storage, but the cost of storage is going down significantly. In the commercial realm, it still costs money for good storage, but if you want to spend the money, you can get super high-resolution cameras that pump out a lot of data, and you can make that work with high-capacity drives.”
Lighting and Indoor Cameras
Because of advancing camera technology, video quality continues to improve. In indoor settings, users will usually be able to get the best out of their cameras because the conditions inside best facilitate the technology.
“Indoor cameras are pretty basic because in most cases, unless the camera is looking at a door or a window, the lighting is pretty constant inside,” says Silva. “Generally, it’s much easier to do camera installations inside.”
Consistent lighting indoors helps with video quality, and cameras ultimately require less light than it takes for humans to see. Consequently, you can often get away with using a less expensive camera and expect good results.
“You can be guaranteed good video quality indoors probably 90% of the time,” explains Silva. “Outdoors, it is a little more iffy. You can get just as good video, but you have to do a lot of careful planning. You have the elements to worry about – weather, rain, snow, sleet and freezing. Cameras outdoors are usually more expensive, and you have to give a lot more thought to what kind of camera to use and where you’re placing them.”
Weathering the Outdoor Elements
Outdoor surveillance is frequently more difficult because of the variables that affect light quality, which include cloud coverage, darkness, bright lights shining directly into the lens and uneven lighting.
“When you’re talking about an outdoor arrangement, you have a whole different set of conditions because the lighting level outside is constantly changing from super bright sunlight in the middle of the day to a huge variation of lighting conditions,” says Silva.
For example, an outdoor camera on a bright, sunny day can give you a clear, crisp image of a parking lot. However, during the winter, heavy rain or at night, that camera will not be able to provide the same level of picture quality. That is not to say that the camera is unusable in those conditions, but it is important to know that there will be some difference. Lighting solutions can be a productive way to bridge this gap.
“You need to have decent lighting to get decent video,” notes Maddox. “The camera manufacturers are doing a great job when they claim the little light or no light cameras, but you still need decent light if you’re not using infrared or supplemental lighting.”
When you do have lighting within an outdoor space, you need to be aware of the light sources that might interfere with the cameras. For example, the bright headlights in a parking facility might prevent the camera from capturing vital information like a license plate number.
“In areas like parking lots, there are issues with lighting that typically make the design much more challenging,” says Silva. “Different cameras have different abilities to work in different lighting conditions, so in your written goals, you would state, ‘This is the parking lot. These are the light levels that are in the parking lot. Here’s what we want to achieve.’ Then, let the consultant or the vendor come up with the appropriate cameras.”
Planning and setting realistic expectations, like any other part in the surveillance process, will help you get the most out of your system.
Establishing a Surveillance Policy
Thus, when installing a new surveillance system or updating an existing one, it is a good idea to institute a written policy that will specifically outline what purposes the cameras will and will not serve. In this policy, you should be sure to address the basic functions of the system and answer questions of access to the video.
Some important areas that should be addressed include:
- Intended purposes of the surveillance system
- Proprietary rights of video
- Personnel who have access to video
- Proper channels to obtain video
- Areas that are and are not covered by cameras
- Cameras are only placed in appropriate locations
- Basic operations of cameras
- Details of archival video footage
- Covert cameras that may be in use
Justin Feit was an assistant editor of BUILDINGS.