Having a Video Surveillance System Might be Useless if Its Not Being Used Correctly
- By Amy Bolin
- July 17, 2023
Most schools and universities have video surveillance systems installed to protect students, teachers, and staff. However, it may be surprising to know that many of these systems are woefully inadequate for the critical tasks they are expected to perform. For almost every school, budgets are stretched to the breaking point, which forces them to make hard choices between something they can afford versus something that meets their actual requirements. In this article, we’ll talk about some of the important considerations around video surveillance that can make or break its usefulness when things get challenging.
In the world in which we live, a physical security system for a school can’t be just a checkbox item. Most schools don’t have the resources to monitor alarms or video surveillance 24/7. Even if they are lucky enough to have an allocated school resource officer (SRO), they are not going to be sitting in an office watching video cameras. There are too many existing duties and real interactions required. A big part of their job is to be physically visible. The rest of the school staff is equally busy, so they aren’t available to stare at a wall of video, either. So, the hard truth is, for the majority of video surveillance systems in schools, nobody is watching the video feeds in real time. No one is going to see an assailant coming.
Luckily, most of the use cases surrounding video surveillance in schools are centered around resolving behavioral issues that need to be verified and addressed. Video surveillance is great for forensic research because the camera never lies. It’s also a great deterrent because students know they will be held accountable for their actions.
How Can We Improve Our Use of the Technology?
If we accept the fact that no one is watching, how can we improve our chances of preventing an event from occurring? One way is to ensure that we are using all the capabilities afforded us by modern security cameras and video management systems (VMS). A VMS system should not be so complex that only a trained SRO, principal, or IT person can use it. In fact, the more people on staff that are competently able to use the VMS, the more likely the system can be of help during an actual event. To facilitate that, the user interface has to be easy and intuitive.
One of the ways to ways to simplify the user interface is to utilize a live map interface that shows a bird’s eye view of buildings, streets, and cameras in place showing coverage and any alarms that are triggered. This gives staff who aren’t routinely using the system a way to quickly intuit any alarm while vastly improving situational awareness for all users. When seconds count, having familiarity and confidence in the system is crucial. Likewise, many access control systems are unusually complex, and integration with security systems is weak or non-existent. Schools and universities can benefit greatly from a unified access control system that is seamlessly integrated into the VMS. Some vendors provide access control and VMS in a single package.
If things really hit the fan, it’s likely that no one is going to feel comfortable sitting in front of a security system that might be in located in a vulnerable front office area. That means that the system must be accessible by a web interface and via mobile devices to remain useful. Make sure that any VMS deployed can be accessed remotely through a browser or mobile interface so that staff and first responders can easily access the system from a safe location.
Analytics and AI Make a Powerful First Line of Defense
AI-based cameras can detect people and vehicles while also capturing the unique identifying characteristics of both. This means it’s possible to search for a student with a red shirt, wearing glasses and carrying a backpack. It’s revolutionary since such a search can be conducted in seconds compared to a manual search by a person. This ability for AI to detect known objects has made analytics (which reports the behavior of those objects) incredibly powerful as a first line of defense. Analytics let us know if an actual person is loitering or entering a restricted area after hours. For example, if our red-shirted student wearing glasses is in the chemistry supply room after hours, we might want to notify security. This ability to notify while events are occurring is a crucial advancement in campus-based video surveillance that no school should be without.
When adopting a more proactive security stance, such automated event notification is vital for early detection and warnings. With some VMS solutions you can isolate an intruder, register their face, and set alerts to show that face when it appears on any camera, correlated with maps, so responders can help neutralize any threat. Schools can share the highlighted video with law enforcement, so they have an accurate picture of the intruder before they arrive on the scene.
Audio analytics should also be included as standard in any campus setting. If a separate purpose-built audio system is beyond the budget, it’s important to be aware that many modern AI-based cameras also support audio analytics that can detect glass breaks, gunshots, screams, and explosions. These audio alerts can provide additional validation and verification about events taking place.
Deploying a Successful AI-based Video Surveillance System
With all the power and potential of an AI-based video system, it’s important to realize that not all systems are the same. The implementation of the technology can vary widely between manufacturers and might not be appropriate for campus security use cases. For example, some AI-enabled cameras only detect objects but not the attributes that distinguish those objects from others. Make sure the system you invest in can detect colors and other attributes, and lets you store this data, called metadata, along with the video. The type and number of attributes that are captured also varies. There are very few systems in the market that can detect shoe color, for example, which has been a particular request for K–12 use cases.
Most importantly, the descriptive metadata captured from an AI-based camera is only useful if it can be interpreted and displayed within a customer’s chosen VMS or network video recorder (NVR). It’s imperative to ensure a “match” between an AI-enabled camera and the VMS. The VMS must be able to search or react to all the AI metadata it receives beyond simply displaying the video. For example, i-PRO’s Active Guard plug-in unlocks forensic search capabilities by delivering an unprecedented number of attributes to popular VMSs such as Genetec, Milestone, and Video Insight.
A new type of analytic called scene-change detection is perfect for campuses of all sizes. This type of analytic considers a scene in its entirety and catalogs what it normally looks like. If something in the scene changes and remains changed after a preset time limit, the analytic will then detect the anomaly and send out a notification. For example, a school might have a room with an outer door that is normally closed. While it’s not a problem if the door is opened occasionally, if the door is left open continuously for over 10 minutes, that might be cause for a notification to be sent to security. The possibilities are endless, and this represents the next evolution of intelligent edge-based analytics in security cameras that further extends the reach of a campus security team.
To Cloud or Not to Cloud
Cloud-based security systems have become very popular as a way to save money on on-premises hardware and infrastructure. For certain installations, cloud-based systems are hard to beat as there’s less worry about hardware becoming obsolete or requiring lots of maintenance. However, not all cloud systems are the same. When an intruder enters a school building, having real-time access to recorded video from any/all cameras enables school security to see not only where they were two minutes ago, but how they got onto the campus, where they entered the building, what path they’ve taken through the school, and what their trajectory is so security can anticipate and intervene. Any delay in analytics processing and bringing video down is unacceptable for real-time responses. So, it’s important to pay attention to any latencies inherent in such a cloud-based system. Using a hybrid approach that uses an efficient combination of both on-premises and cloud infrastructure is a popular way to mitigate latencies.
What If My School Doesn’t Have the Budget for a Security System Upgrade?
Additional funding for a school’s critical security needs might be out there, but finding it and acquiring it requires a special kind of expertise. Schools traditionally receive their budget allocations through a state legislature, via local funding, or from local school boards where they go through an approval process based on the calendar year. Unfortunately for most school administrators, they must squeeze into that allocation, and there’s never enough to go around.
Schools might wish to pursue additional funding from local infrastructure bonds or state/federal grants. Finding such funding requires the knowledge of where to look. Resources and time for such endeavors are severely constrained for many school districts where educators and staff are required to wear multiple hats. The Grant Support Program at i-PRO is an example of a program with no cost or strings attached offered to help schools navigate the grant process regardless of how the funds are used. The Grants Program sees itself as a clearinghouse or a gateway with trusted advisors from The Grants Office ready to help navigate an otherwise complex process. If you’re a school struggling to upgrade your security system, it’s important to know that help is out there. You don’t have to go it alone. It’s also important to realize that millions of dollars of grant money for security infrastructure improvements is left on the table each year unclaimed.
Administrators are under immense pressure to keep students and staff safe. They are navigating a complex set of challenges, often without security expertise or full-time safety staff. When updating or installing a modern security system, all stakeholders have homework to do to educate themselves on the differences and options available. Video surveillance systems can be a tool to that helps schools respond to threats in real time, but they must be designed, deployed, and used correctly.
This article originally appeared in the July / August 2023 issue of Campus Security Today.