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Surveillance Lessons Learned

​WHEN CLARKE COUNTY School District in Clarke County, Virginia, was evaluating what it needed before opening a newly constructed high school, one key consideration was a security surveillance system. Because the county had installed security systems at its other schools, it had definite ideas about what features were important. The new system would need to be user friendly and handle a large number of cameras both inside the two-story school and in the parking lot. The system was intended to be both a deterrent and a tool for carrying out investigations after an incident.

To ensure that the new system provided the latest technology while avoiding past pitfalls, Michael Legge, purchasing manager for the Clarke County Department of Joint Administrative Services, brought in help. Legge had hired AE Works, an architectural and engineering firm headquartered in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which he had worked with several years before on another project.

AE Works researched the specifics of this school’s situation, contacted vendors, and helped devise bid specifications that led to the selection of a system that fit the school’s needs.

Anthony Frassetta, PSP, security and technology specialist for AE Works, led the project. Frassetta researched possible solutions and brought Clarke County six potential vendors. “AE Works set up a series of presentations to allow each vendor to go over their products,” says Legge.

The presentations took place over a two-day span, with each vendor providing information over the course of one to two hours. The meetings were held in a school auditorium and vendors displayed their products and interface options on a big screen. One point of this type of presentation was to gauge how user friendly each option was.

Legge attended the presentations along with other representatives from the Clarke County administration, IT department, and purchasing department. Deputy Sheriff Gary Lichliter of the Clarke County Sheriff’s Department, the county’s school security resource officer, was also on hand. From these six choices, Legge and his team picked the three products that seemed best for the new school.

The next step was for Legge to meet with Frassetta to devise bid specifications to ensure that whoever provided the new system would meet all the county’s needs. Legge explains that, under law, the school must go with the lowest bidder. “So, it’s very important that the bid specification contain everything we need,” he says.

The winner of the bid was Vicon of Hauppauge, New York. The company provided IP-based HD cameras with remote autofocus and ViconNet video management software. Among the important specifications were that the system offer redundancy, centralized management, scalability, autofocus, and surge protection, and that the company offer training.

Another key criterion was that the system use nonproprietary technology that would allow for easy integration with other equipment. In previous projects, the school had tried to incorporate older cameras into newer systems, but it had not been able to do so. Legge noted that, from an IT procurement standpoint, the school wanted to avoid purchasing a system only to find that a software upgrade made the cameras obsolete. “In general, we don’t want to get locked into something where you have to buy a particular vendor’s cameras,” says Legge.

Redundancy was also essential to the school district. One of the problems with the county’s other systems was loss of data. “If the hard drive failed in one of our network video recorders, we lost all that data,” says Legge. The Vicon system uses distributed architecture, which stores information from the recorders across the network. If one recorder fails, the information from that unit is maintained and the system continues to record.

Another feature that Legge was looking for in a system was centralized management. The school wanted to be able to manage the system over the Web with a single log-in. Under previous systems, each recorder had required its own username and password, making management of the system cumbersome. The Vicon system allows users to access the system remotely from any PC or laptop using a single username and password. Images are stored for 28 days, and review is conducted manually with limited video analytics based on time and date.

Because the school system is constantly growing, scalability was a critical issue to Legge. Older systems could not be expanded, causing expensive upgrades and new equipment. The Vicon system, says Legge, allows new cameras and components to be added without overhauling the existing network.

Another technical feature Legge required was autofocus. “When we had cameras installed in one of the older schools, especially in the gym, the cameras would go out of focus all the time and would need to be readjusted,” says Legge. The Vicon cameras adjust on their own, which “helps a lot,” he says.

Past experience with lightning made it clear to Legge that the new system had to have surge protection. During one storm, cameras, converters, and other pieces of equipment were lost due to lightning. “At one point, we lost seven cameras at once,” says Legge. And, while it was clear which cameras were damaged, tracing them back to the network was difficult.

“We could tell which camera was out on which pole,” Legge explains. “But it was hard to find the connector to the network. Each camera had a separate box.”

With the new system, which went live in mid-2012, “it’s all in one place,” he says. In addition to surge protection, the Vicon system includes a rack-mounted unit that holds all the clearly marked fiber optic cards for the cameras. If a camera goes out now, the connection can be clearly identified and quickly replaced.

Legge also wanted to ensure that any necessary training was included for the system. The training was provided by Vicon and follow-up training and support is available upon request at any time, says Legge. In addition, Vicon videotaped the initial training sessions so that anyone who needs a refresher can just replay that session. Vicon provided a desktop icon on the PC in the security office that pulls up the video. “This is great because the training video is on our system, rather than at some generic location,” says School Resource Officer Lichliter. “We have used the training as a refresher three or four different times already.”

To improve police response in the case of an incident, Legge plans to have the new cameras connected to the Clarke County 911 system in the future. “This would give emergency personnel access to the cameras in an emergency,” says Legge.