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Surveillance Never Folds

TAMPA BAY DOWNS is one of the oldest racetracks in the United States. However, it has also expanded to keep up with more modern gaming trends. Last year, when the facility decided to enlarge its poker room to meet player demand, it found that it had to upgrade its surveillance system to meet Florida state regulations.

Tampa Bay Downs, which is located in Tampa, Florida, opened in 1926 as a Thoroughbred racetrack. Since new owners took over the facility in 1986, it has added an additional grass track, as well as a golf practice range and the Silks Poker Room, a seven-day-per-week operation that hosts games such as Seven Card Stud, Seven Card Stud Hi-Lo, Texas Hold’em, Omaha Hi-Lo, Crazy Pineapple, and others.

Previously, there were 48 analog color cameras covering the poker room’s 30 gaming tables and common areas. Images from the cameras went to a surveillance room nearby, where they were recorded on DVRs and retained for three weeks. The poker manager used the system to verify jackpot hits and winning hands, and staff used it to monitor suspicious playing both live and in review.

When plans for the poker room extension were made, security “talked to the state and got some rules expanded to allow higher stakes,” says John Vacha, director of information technology at Tampa Bay Downs. “But to get that expansion, we had to revisit security here,” explains Vacha.

“The state wanted high-end, Vegas-style security for the poker room, yet we didn’t have the budget to do it,” he says.

After talks with state regulators, an agreement was reached. Under that agreement, the poker room’s existing video surveillance system was not acceptable. It used common interface format (CIF) resolution, but the state wanted the system to have a 4CIF (704 x 480 pixel equivalent) and no less than 30 frames per second.

The system’s existing cameras were in compliance but the DVRs were not. Last autumn, when Vacha tackled the issue of changing to 4CIF resolution, he found that “there was no easy upgrade path. It’s a dramatic change.”

Vacha researched the available products on the market and came up with six systems that might meet the facility’s needs, comply with regulations, and not break his budget. The ideal system, he explains, had to have active directory integration that provided a user’s log and security credentials; it could not conflict with other corporate applications; and it had to be expandable.

“I wanted something that we could grow into that was being purchased not just for the poker room but also for the corporation,” he says. Also important was that Vacha and his staff be able to install the system themselves to keep costs down.

As potential systems were reviewed, some were immediately excluded. “Some conflicted with other programs because of software issues. Then there were three of them that were very hard to work with—and they were also the ones where the company wanted to install it, and I can see why… [it wasn’t] intuitive,” Vacha states. Another system was rejected because of cost and another because it was still a prototype.

The system that provided what Vacha needed had hardware components by Axis Communications of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and software from Milestone Systems, Inc., of Beaverton, Oregon (Milestone XProtect software). The two are designed to work together.

“Software gives us a lot of functionality that we didn’t have before,” Vacha states. “We can hand a DVD to the state that has three camera angles on it, and it will play all of them at the same time for them; there is remote access, and there’s no top end on how many cameras you have in the system.”

As for the hardware, the encoders offered Vacha high compression that could reduce storage capacity without losing image quality. “We were able to keep the current storage,” he says. That was critical, because “replacing it would have been another huge expense,” he states.

Also important was that the system was installable by staff with telephone technical support by the manufacturers. Vacha and his team put in the system overnight. The work included the installation of additional cameras and loading the XProtect software to the servers.

The system hardware cost about $85,000. And thanks to the fact that they were able to do the installation with in-house staff, there were no labor costs.

There were a few technical issues with adjusting the system after installation, but “the problems were not because of the hardware or software,” says Vacha. “Everything just needed to be tuned, and we had to be methodical about it.”

The issues were resolved, and “Milestone and Axis were great to work with. We told them the problems and they came back with the answers,” he says. Later, Vacha sent the IT network administrator to in-classroom training at Milestone to learn to better tune the system.

The only hardware issue has been a blade that went bad. However, it was easily replaced. “One of the good things about a blade system is that one blade holds six cameras. If there is a problem with the blade, I can just pop it out and put another one in and we’re back up and running inside of a few minutes. You don’t turn off the power—you just pull it out with the power running and put the new one in. With the old system, the only way to fix it was to pull the entire DVR, which will mean many more cameras are down and it’s a lot more expensive to keep a spare,” he explains.

“We’re real happy with the system,” says Vacha. “It’s been a huge cost savings.”

(For more information: Axis Communications, phone: 978/614-2000; Milestone Systems, Inc., phone: 503/350-1100;