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School Seeks Uniformity

Florida’s Escambia County School District didn’t need uniforms, but was in search of uniformity. The problem was not with the pupils, but with the schools’ CCTV systems, which had been put in piecemeal by principals or PTAs and not security technology experts. To solve the districtwide problem, IT stepped in, became educated in CCTV technology, and crafted a solution.

Escambia is the farthest western county in Florida, located at the tip of the state’s “panhandle” and sharing a border with Alabama. It includes the city of Pensacola metropolitan area. The school district includes 35 elementary schools, nine middle schools, and seven high schools, as well as specialized centers and administrative buildings and facilities.

“We have, roughly, 50,000 students,” says Brian Johnson, network systems analyst for the school district. There are about 6,000 employees. “We’re one of the largest employers in the county.”

In recalling the state of CCTV affairs, Johnson states, “We had at least 10 different systems by about eight different manufacturers. All of them had been purchased by the schools using internal funds such as PTA dollars, so there was no oversight from the district, and no one took ownership of the systems.”

Some schools had purchased consumer-grade components that were not meant to be housed in unventilated equipment closets. Others installed indoor cameras outside. And when they put the indoor cameras where they belonged, they were often installed improperly. For example, he says, “I’ve got pictures of cameras with balls of cable hanging off of them that anyone could just grab and yank down.”

Some of the schools had also signed expensive maintenance contracts that did not include many of the issues that commonly crop up with CCTV systems. As a result, the schools began to call IT for help. “They’d say: ‘Our system is down, and we don’t know how to operate it.’ It looks like a computer, so it has to be an IT issue,” he recalls.

When IT did, in fact, become tasked with overseeing the CCTV systems in all district schools, “We thought, ‘wow. We can’t manage this beast. If we’re going to do this, then we’re going to do it right and start from the ground up and do an enterprise solution,’” Johnson says.

In late 2007, IT put out a Request for Information (RFI). “We didn’t have a clue what was out there,” Johnson states. “But we knew we wanted one unified system; we knew we wanted one manufacturer; and we knew we needed some type of hybrid system to support the analog cameras [that were in place]. And we needed something that worked across platforms and had centralized management from one location so that we could have better oversight.”

IT received eight responses to the RFI, and from those, three were selected as contenders. Johnson jokes that the IT department then “brought the vendors in for a bake-off.” The three systems were placed in “one of our high-risk schools that had lots of analog cameras. We had a school resource officer (SRO) there, and we thought ‘What better way to test the systems than to let the SRO test drive it?’”

Of the three possible systems, one was immediately eliminated. “It didn’t last a day,” Johnson states. “The SRO couldn’t operate it. The ease of use was just not there.” Of the remaining systems, the one that stood out was by March Networks of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

Describing it as “light years above the other competitor,” Johnson says that the system includes March Network 4000 C series hybrid network video recorders (NVRs) and Command Enterprise video management software. IT was also impressed with March Networks’ commitment to its products. Unlike some companies, the company supports its old equipment, and that was important because placing the new systems in Escambia’s schools would be a years-long project. (It began in 2008 and is still ongoing.)

The next step was to prioritize which schools would get the upgrade first. “We originally sat down and put together a threat matrix and had the administration weigh in,” says Johnson. It was decided to start with the high-risk high schools, then the rest of the high schools, then the middle schools, then, finally, the elementary schools.

As of the first half of 2013, all of the high schools and middle schools were equipped with the new systems, as well a few of the elementary schools that had available funds from other construction projects, but the rest of the elementary schools are still waiting.

As the installations began, functioning legacy analog cameras were kept and integrated into the new system. Cameras in new positions or damaged or dying cameras were replaced with IP digital cameras by Axis Communications AB of Lund, Sweden.

“Some legacy equipment was preserved, but I don’t know if that was a good thing,” Johnson states. “I feel it was a mistake.”
At one high school, the new system was put in place with the legacy cameras incorporated, some of which were more than five years old. Shortly thereafter, IT began receiving calls from the school. “They said: ‘This new system is awful.’ But it was the old cameras failing,” he explains. “My philosophy now is that if cameras are three years old or newer, we will keep them. If they are older than that, we’re not keeping them.”

IT is working toward having all IP cameras. “The picture quality of IP cameras is light years beyond analog,” he says. A typical high school in the district has about 50 to 60 cameras; middle and elementary schools have slightly less, for a total of approximately 1,200 cameras across the school system. Almost all the cameras are fixed, with pan-tilt-zooms only in some special locations. The cameras record from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. After that hour, the cameras are triggered by motion detection.

Of the cameras at each school, Johnson says about 20 percent are exterior and 80 percent interior. “One of our standards is to cover every single exterior door in the facility so that we get coverage of every point of entry,” he states. “Then we bring the administrators into the loop and let them give us some insights. They know the campus better than we do. We let them help us place the remaining cameras because they know the trouble spots and where the kids hide.”

All camera feeds are recorded by the NVR and are retained for 30 days. Johnson praises the Command Enterprise video management software. “It’s a Web interface, so there is no client to install on a user platform. The data is very easy to retrieve.”
When the project began, there was no cloud component, but after March Networks began to offer a cloud service, the school system took advantage of it. March Networks’ Cloud is an enterprise-class service that provides an unlimited number of users with secure access to live and recorded surveillance video via their mobile devices.

Video retrieval “can be done from any location on our network,” explains Johnson, who manages user rights, and those authorized can also view what is happening live. “If our superintendent needs to see a situation at school, he can pull it up on his computer or laptop…. If he is off campus, he can pull it up on his iPhone.” Other authorized users are school principals and vice principals, deans in secondary schools who oversee discipline, and SROs.

Law enforcement from the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office and the City of Pensacola can also see live and recorded video from anywhere in the county. Johnson says, “They can use an iPhone or Android, or the laptop in their cruisers, and police dispatchers can use their monitor at the Sheriff’s Office—wherever they need access, they can do so,” including the agencies’ mobile command centers.

Of bumps along the way in this five-year project, Johnson recalls, “We’ve had a few tech problems, but that wasn’t unexpected…. And the maintenance issues have been just budgetary—getting the district to understand and buy into the project. These systems are no different than an air conditioning system in a school. We have to maintain them and keep them going. There are components that will fail over time, so you have to have a maintenance schedule set up.”

Meanwhile, the systems prove their worth almost every day, Johnson states. “There are many examples of how the system has helped solve vandalism incidents—catching kids breaking windows or blowing fire extinguishers.” It has also helped in cases where students accuse teachers of improper behavior. For instance, “Susie says that the teacher dragged her down the hall, but the video shows that the teacher was 10 feet in front of her the entire way,” he says.

The systems have also helped solve theft incidents. In one example, at a new-build elementary school, the system was being put in while workers were still on site. “We had a half million dollars in technology [temporarily stored] in two rooms, so I went and grabbed two IP cameras and set them up on top of boxes. We recorded the video to a remote video recorder. Sure enough, one of the carpenters took a couple of laptops and put them in a five-gallon bucket, threw a rag over them, and walked out.”
Johnson says that once the elementary schools are complete, “We’ll start this whole process over.” They plan to stay with March Networks, as they update schools that had their equipment put in when the project began in 2008. He says that, potentially, 360-degree cameras may begin to be installed in some situations.