Extrasensory Perception

New trends in security: video verification systems

New Trends in Security: Video Verification Systems

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Shortly after midnight last summer, a motion sensor behind an industrial property in a semi-rural area did its job and detected something moving nearby. The sensor had been positioned near a fence surrounding a lot used to store equipment and vehicles when not in use. A video camera linked to the sensor captured an image of whatever triggered the sensor immediately and—in data form—relayed that image (a 10-second video clip) wirelessly to a response center. The staff at the response center took note of what had set off the sensor: a pair of deer grazing on plants near the fence.

Clearly it was a false alarm, so the police were not notified and neither was the property manager. Things were quiet at the site for a few more hours, but shortly before dawn the sensor detected more motion. Once again, an image went to a response center, but this time it was the shadowy figures of men who looked to be carrying some kind of tools. Whatever they had in hand, they had no business being there. The response center notified the police at once, as well as the property owner, and law enforcement went to the site with several officers and a K9 unit because they were certain a crime was in progress. Before long, two men carrying fence-cutting equipment were apprehended cutting their way into the lot, which they intended to burglarize.

Some of the details have been changed, but the above description is based on an incident that occurred at a commercial property monitored by video verification technology, which is becoming an increasingly popular tool against crime at commercial property sites. While not brand-new technology, because of improving data transmission efficiency and lower bandwidth and equipment costs, video verification technology is being used to protect more properties, both commercial and residential, than ever before.

“Video verification is one aspect of managed access control, and an increasingly important one for commercial property managers, including office, industrial and other kinds of properties, and also construction sites,” said Datawatch Systems’ Rich Rambler, who heads the firm’s operations center in Bethesda, Md. “They’ve become a cost-effective supplement, or alternative, to standard alarm systems.”

Moreover, the police departments see the technology as a method to help cut down on one of the banes of law enforcement: the false alarm. “Video verification gathers more information, in a more timely manner, than a traditional alarm system,” said Secure Pacific Corp. president Jim Payne. “It’s a highly sophisticated way to protect a property. Surveillance cameras and other more conventional technologies still have their place, but video verification is an up-and-coming technology that’s now within the reach of smaller property owners.”

Video Verification Basics
Video verification technology attempts to solve two problems at once. One is the age-old issue of protecting property, the other a problem that is nearly as old: false alarms. By itself, an alarm does not provide much information other than the fact that an alarm has gone off. Even if an alarm alerts security personnel, who then access visual images provided by a static surveillance camera, that might not provide much information, considering the speed at which a criminal incident can happen. The critical image would be simultaneous with the alarm, not a minute or several minutes later.

One longstanding (and partial) solution to the problem has been audio verification technology, in which microphones detect sound at a location and relay that to a response center. Commercial and residential properties nationwide have been wired with this kind of technology for some decades, since it depends on (relatively) low-tech listening equipment and communications systems. Moreover, audio verification has become sensitive enough to make a distinction between, for example, wind rattling a door and metal making contact with the door. Audio systems can also pick up human voices in places where they shouldn’t be, although they could still just be an unscheduled visit from, say, maintenance personnel.

“Audio systems have worked well in a lot of places,” said Payne. “Property owners have been successful in preventing burglaries with audio verification systems, but they do have their limitations. Video is the next step, and now the technology has come of age, both in terms of efficiency and lower cost.”

Video verification provides either still pictures or short video clips, routed wirelessly, to a response center. Until recently, transmission of images was a cumbersome business, requiring exceedingly expensive equipment. But as communications and networking have become more sophisticated, bandwidth can now support quick transmission of images and video. Video verification systems typically come with sensors for doors, other motion sensors for other places, cameras that double as image transmission units and a sophisticated radio frequency (RF) transmission platform, along with GPRS, a mobile data service, to transmit images to the response center.

Commercial properties often already have surveillance cameras, as the basis of CCTV monitored by guards, and one of the advantages of video verification systems is that they can usually be piggybacked onto the existing surveillance system. It is important to note, however, that video verification systems are not the same as surveillance systems, which are typically installed as an on-site tool for security personnel on some kind of continuous basis. Video verification depends on sensors to activate them on an as-needed basis.

Another important component of video verification is the protocol for what to do when images or video are transmitted to the response center. In some cases, the response center can act on the video information by not acting, especially if it is obviously a false alarm—those deer, for instance. But when the response center verifies a human presence, the information is relayed immediately to the property manager or owner in a predetermined way.

“We’re able to forward the image and other relevant information without delay to the right person, by smartphone or email, when they need to see the image to determine what to do,” noted Rambler. “In many cases, the answer will be, ‘Yeah, he’s supposed to be there—we’ve hired him to do this or that.’ That’s something a standard alarm system can’t do. It lets you know something is wrong, maybe, but you’re going in blind.”
“The system provides an extra element of information, another point of reference on an alarm event,” Payne explained. “That can clarify what course of action to take on an alarm event, and quickly.”

Dealing with False Alarms
False alarms have long vexed law enforcement, and it is easy to see why. According to a 2007 study conducted by the California State University-San Bernardino for the San Bernardino County Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Association, on average, an arrest is made in response to a burglary alarm 0.08 percent of the time. Traditional alarm systems generate alarms, in other words, but most of them have nothing to do with criminal activity or other threats to commercial property.

“A lot of the jurisdictions are encouraging video verification,” said Rambler. “Some departments require some kind of verification of an alarm—whether by security personnel, audio or video—but in more cases, police will dispatch quicker with video verification.” The Grand Prairie (Texas) Police Department put it this way in an official statement: “Grand Prairie will continue to respond to traditional alarms as it has in the past. However, video alarms will be dispatched at a higher priority as a crime-in-progress.”

The example at the beginning of the article, in which deer and then burglars were caught by a video verification system, illustrates how a functioning video verification system can improve property security. Under a more traditional alarm system, the deer might have elicited a response from law enforcement, who would have discovered the animals and chalked it up as another false alarm. When the second alarm came in later in the night, dispatch to the scene might not have been quite so urgent (with the assumption of it just being the deer again). That is not to say the police would ignore the second call altogether, but the response might be slower, especially if officers on patrol had something more pressing. In that case, perhaps the criminals would have enough time to steal from the site and leave, undetected.

One successful example of video verification used to protect property involves the Detroit Public School Police Department, which protects more than 200 facilities spread throughout the city. At any given time, some of the buildings are closed for renovation or, in some cases, sale to outside interests because the city’s declining population has made the facilities redundant. Such a building is a magnet for criminals, however, often looking to strip the structure of components such as copper wire, pipes and other fixtures.

Beginning with the 2010 school year, the department installed video verification alarm systems to protect its vacant buildings. Ultimately, the system helped the department make 70 arrests out of more than 100 incidents of burglary that year—a remarkably high closure rate.