Eyes on You

Atlanta Public Schools depends upon 4,000 cameras to keep watch

Atlanta Public Schools (APS) is an enormous school system, as are the challenges that Ralph Velez, director of security operations, is tasked to manage. As one of the largest school districts in the state of Georgia, APS serves approximately 52,000 students across 87 schools. The District is organized into nine K-12 clusters with 58 traditional schools, 18 charter schools, six partner schools, two citywide single-gender academies and three alternative programs.

Operational Security Systems

Velez is responsible for managing and monitoring all the operational security systems, spanning video surveillance, electronic card access, fire alarms, intrusion alarms and all other systems such as metal detectors and related security and safety equipment that support APS.

When you’re securing the life and safety of some 52,000 students, along with more than 5,300 teachers and administration staff , you need a lot of eyes to keep watch. As Velez points out, there are more than 4,000 cameras deployed throughout Atlanta’s school system looking in and around buildings to see what is taking place.

This seasoned security expert chose Hanwha cameras. And, of the 4,000 in place, they are all IP except for a couple of hundred that are still analog, which Velez and his team plan to upgrade soon to Hanwha’s most recent IP models. APS has installed Hanwha’s Wisenet X series cameras inside its schools. Based on the Wisenet 5 SoC (System on Chip), it is Hanwha’s most powerful chipset ever incorporated into a full camera range with an advanced architecture that enables faster processing. This self-developed chip incorporates advanced features and delivers extreme performance suited to a wide range of video surveillance applications, which are ideally suited to the needs of Atlanta’s many public schools. The fixed lens gives wide angle views and the multi sensors APS deployed around multiple campuses gives added security. Velez also chose vandal-resistant cameras for outdoor surveillance.

A Model Campus

APS is an ideal model for other school systems that want to control their own network from points A to Z. This is groundbreaking, and APS accomplished it by creating their own fiber ring. This dedicated fiber ring connects all APS buildings via fiber so they can manage and record all their data back to a head-end centralized managing soft- ware. In essence, APS has their own Intranet, internal fiber network connecting their campuses managed by 24/7 IT staff , as well as their own storage system. APS constructed their own private data center to manage their data, which speaks to their foresight as an end user. They have opted to manage their own systems and not trust the Internet to relay video feeds back to them.

Velez reasons that, once you have your network centralized, the options are endless as to how you want to structure the system. “It’s just the right way to do it. Planning ahead for our school system’s potential for growth, we do have to look at where Atlanta is going to be five years from now. We need to potentially serve a larger population and I believe our system allows for that necessary growth.”

Under the direction of Velez, students and staff located across over 100 site (including schools, administrative and service locations, warehousing, facilities, bus depot, etc.) can take solace in the fact that Hanwha’s video surveillance cameras are keeping watch to keep them safe and secure. So, why Hanwha?

“I like the quality of the images captured by the Hanwha cameras and they are reasonably priced,” Velez said. Every institution wants to get the most bang for their buck, and Hanwha cameras have proven to be of very high quality, durable, lightweight, and easy to install. There are a lot of plusses that have been really encouraging us to keep using Hanwha.”

Being in Control

APS also has put in place their own control center - the Central Communications Room or “CCR” which they often refer to as “Dispatch,” is manned 24/7. Depending on the time of day and demands, between two and five dispatchers can view cameras and alarms, receive calls for assistance and can dispatch cars, monitor bus locations, report if anything is taking place at any location and essentially handle all calls whether situation related, or police related. APS is linked to the Atlanta Police Department, although they proactively have their own specialized police unit.

In addition to the physical security that APS has put into place, they also formed their own police department - which most school districts don’t have - the Atlanta Public Schools PD, wherein the officers are specifically assigned to a school. It’s a relationship that builds trust, as Velez explains, as important and confidential information is exchanged. The kids know they have a friend in the police and that they’re there to protect them. That has been a constructive relationship, he reports.

Hanwha’s video surveillance capabilities are setting a new benchmark for Atlanta schools to elevate their security and protect students and staff .

“We have been able to prevent some issues from escalating,” Velez said. “Because of video, we have been able to decipher if something that was alleged did or did not occur, and, if it did occur, how it transpired. We can decipher how it actually happened.”

This article originally appeared in the July / August 2021 issue of Campus Security Today.

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