A Mass Transit Transformation
Inspiration can strike anywhere. Sometimes it hits you when you’re in the car on the way to work or the moment your head hits the pillow before you fall asleep at night, leaving you scrambling for a pen and paper to jot down a quick note before it seeps out of your brain and out of consciousness. In Bob Grado’s case, inspiration struck in the middle of lunch and he jotted down his thoughts on a medium that has been used for innumerable great ideas over time: a napkin.
What started as a general check-in discussion with Panasonic’s National Manager Don Stitt, turned into a brainstorming session for Grado’s employer, the Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD). Grado, the transit police commander of integrated security operations, was looking for a solution that didn’t exist to make RTD’s video surveillance system function more efficiently. But, were solutions providers ready to step up?
The RTD spans 2,348 square miles, serves a population of roughly 2.8 million in eight counties across Colorado, and has 101 million boardings a year on its bus routes.
Starting in 2001, surveillance worked like this: Crisscrossing the district at any given time would be 1,100 buses equipped with analog surveillance systems. The systems would record footage while buses were traveling, and then, when the bus pulled into the final station after a 20- or 22-hour shift, someone would manually pull the hard drive from the DVD to load the footage onto RTD’s network at its security command center.
The network used NiceVision software to store and share the video with peer agencies to assist in investigations and other claims. “We rely heavily on our video,” Grado says. “We use it for criminal cases; I call it alibi removal because sometimes criminals will commit a crime on our system, or they will use our transportation to get to the place they are committing the crime.”
Along with using video for criminal investigations, Denver also uses it for liability and Americans with Disabilities Act claims. However, because of chain of command requirements, RTD couldn’t simply send a video file via e-mail to the person who needed access to it.
“If you’re a division manager up in Boulder, we physically had to bring it to you on DVDs,” Grado explains. This meant numerous hours were spent transporting files back and forth across the state.
Additionally, the system wasn’t always reliable. RTD was “having a high failure rate on some of the buses because the old systems were more than twice their usable age,” Grado says. Furthermore, if cameras and recorders weren’t functioning properly, RTD had no way of knowing until someone manually pulled the hard drive and attempted to load the footage, only to discover that nothing was recorded.
Two years ago in 2012, at that lunch with Stitt, Grado was talking about ways to improve RTD’s system when inspiration struck and an ideal system emerged. What if RTD could take the current video management system (VMS) that it knew worked well and standardize it across the board onto its buses?
By making that move, RTD could have instant access to video footage from its buses and eliminate the need for someone to manually pull the hard drive storing the footage from the bus. It would save man hours and make the overall system more reliable and accessible to the command center.
However, a mobile solution to put the VMS on the bus didn’t exist at the time because of the massive power requirements. So, after lunch, Grado went back to RTD and pitched the idea to his leadership and RTD’s board.
After gaining approval from his superiors, Grado invited NICE Systems and three other manufacturers to propose a conceptual product to solve RTD’s problem. Each company invested time and effort to make the product work, but NICE was the only one to make its product work on the first try. “Our network is extremely secure,” Grado says. “It’s unique how we communicate with our buses—it’s proprietary—so in this case, NICE had to actually bring in some folks from the United States and Israel, and a pretty interesting team was put together.”
Once NICE was onboard, Grado reached out to Panasonic to help create a system that would leverage NICE’s VMS and turn it into the ultimate solution on the bus.
MOBILE TRANSIT SOLUTION
After the initial brainstorming session with Stitt, Panasonic’s Strategic Solutions Manager Steven Cruz was brought in to help develop a solution and manage the project. Panasonic’s goal was to turn the antiquated system that RTD was using into one that could support high-quality video and gather video footage from zones both inside and outside the bus, which could be uploaded remotely through a wireless connection.
“What we determined was we needed to have a system that…recorded the video and that was able to transfer video files to a remote location, and then be able to manage the video fi les,” Cruz explains. “Essentially, we ended up building an end-to-end mobile transit solution for RTD…using the foundation of our cameras.”
The cameras chosen for the project, the Panasonic SW155 and the SW158, were created and designed specifically for the transportation industry to withstand shocks and impacts. Both of the cameras are high-definition, IP 66 rated or dust tight, and vandal, water, and dust resistant. The one main difference between the two is that the SW158 comes with a microphone for audio recording.
Each bus in the RTD system is designed to have eight to nine cameras installed on it, depending on the configuration of the bus. Three cameras go on the outside, with one on each side of the front of the bus and on the back of the bus, all viewing backward.
However, Panasonic had to adapt the cameras placed outside the bus to Denver’s mercurial weather conditions—snow one day, sunny and 65°F the next day is not uncommon. The company created a shroud for additional protection for the cameras on the outside of the bus. “The shroud provides extra coverage against varying environmental changes,” Cruz says. This is crucial for Denver because “it’s cold, has lots of sleet, and lots of rain.” But the area is also hot in the summertime. The design of the shroud helps protect the camera and also helps cool it so the camera doesn’t overheat.
The remaining six cameras are placed inside the bus to guarantee full coverage of the interior of the bus. One camera goes directly behind the front bus window, an SW158 with a microphone above the driver facing the entrance of the front door of the bus, and the remaining cameras are spread throughout the vehicle. “There’s not an inch of the bus that’s not covered,” Cruz adds.
As of press time, Panasonic had installed cameras and NVRs in 10 new buses, and six were already in use in RTD’s system.
RTD was already using NiceVision software to manage video footage once it was uploaded at the command center. During a two-year process starting in 2012, NICE developed a new version of its VMS software that would be mobile compatible and allow footage to transfer to the command center via a Wi-Fi connection.
While a bus is traveling around the district, each camera is recording, drawing power from the bus. Those recordings are then saved on an NVR, also located on the bus, so they can be flagged for future use, says Mike Meader, sales executive for NICE.
While a bus is moving around, someone might call into the command center and say that he was riding bus 852 around 2 p.m. and his wallet was stolen. The operator could then pull up a task on the VMS and search for bus 852 and footage between 1:45 and 2:15 p.m., which would then be logged on the NVR and waiting to be uploaded, while the bus continued its route.
When the bus comes into the depot at night, or goes through one of seven Wi-Fi zones at bus stations throughout the Denver area, the NVR connects to the Wi-Fi and asks, “Do you have any jobs for me?” Meader explains. “The bus has to initiate that conversation. It’ll download a task if it’s in there and triggered, and all of the video and audio will download into NICE Inform, the offload service.” If the bus pulls out before the download is completed, the download will stop and will continue where it left off when it gets to the next Wi-Fi zone or the depot.
Once the footage has been downloaded into the NICE Inform software system, or as Meader calls it “the head and brains” of the system, the operator can see the camera views that were recorded during that 1:45 to 2:15 p.m. time slot. Inform will also identify each camera view independently and identify any audio recorded during that time period.
After the recordings are loaded, Inform organizes the information so it’s synchronized in real time and can be played back. This allows operators to “reconstruct the incident in real time and see exactly how it happened, everything that took place during that time,” Meader explains. Operators can also verify the footage to make sure that it has not been tampered with.
Along with the cameras on the bus, Inform can also pull in fixed camera footage from bus stations and stops that are connected to the network for an even clearer picture of what happened. Once this footage is assembled, RTD can share it with other peer agencies, such as the police department, by sending links to the video.
“If it needs to go to the district attorney, if the information needs to be shared with executive management, those files can be placed,” Meader says. Along with being able to share the fi les, RTD can also protect them, as Inform will maintain a chain of custody on the file, creating a log of who opened it.
In addition to sharing the recordings, the system also runs diagnostics every time the bus pulls into the depot at night. “It checks the NVR to make sure it’s working, checks the connection of all the cameras so RTD immediately knows that it’s working,” Meader explains. “The bus doesn’t go back out if it doesn’t have a healthy system on board.”
While the preferred format is to download video and audio footage when a bus goes through a Wi-Fi zone, RTD has the ability to turn on Wi-Fi on its buses through wireless routers. “We do have the ability to turn on Wi-Fi on the bus if we had to in an emergency,” Grado says. “If we had a major incident, we could retrieve the video without even boarding the bus. We don’t have to step through the crime zone to retrieve that video.”
RTD doesn’t plan to use this ability regularly, however, because of the cost, as it would be using 4G or LTE data minutes to complete the remote download. “With more than 1,100 buses, this would not be feasible,” Grado explains. “In most cases, the incident can wait until our bus arrives at a Wi-Fi zone or we could still remote in on a laptop if we are near the bus with clear line-of-sight.”
RTD currently has an order in for an additional 177 buses to have the mobile solution installed in the coming months. Over the next three years, RTD plans to replace half of its bus fleet—approximately 550 buses—and install the mobile solution on those new buses along with the cameras from Panasonic.
Once that is completed, Grado is hoping to move to phase two of the project by securing additional funding from the state of Colorado, federal grants, and local revenue to retrofit the remaining buses in the fleet.
Along with securing additional funding, RTD is looking to take advantage of features that can be added to the system later on. One add-on would be live remote access that could be accessed from the security command center while the bus is out on a route. This way, if there’s an emergency on a bus and a driver hits the panic alarm, the system will access a look-in system to show command center operators what’s happening on the bus.
RTD is also considering adding a talk-down feature to the system in the future. This component would allow an operator at the command center to address people on the bus in the event of an emergency and let them know that law enforcement or emergency responders are on their way.
Another feature in the works is the addition of phone calls and radio communication to the types of information that Inform can pull in when it’s creating a log of an incident. This way, RTD will be able to present a “complete picture, all the way from the 911 call coming in, from start to finish,” to show what happened in an emergency situation.
Additionally, RTD has an extensive automatic vehicle location system that detects when a driver applies maximum braking to avoid a collision, uses a turn signal, or performs certain other functions. This system is also connected to RTD’s network, so Grado is hopeful that this information can eventually be added into the case log “so if we have an incident, or something happens where we have a hard brake, all that data will be embedded on the system,” he explains.
“The goal is over the next three years to have the entire system done,” Grado says, adding that he is optimistic about reaching that goal, though inspiration can only go so far without persistence. “I’m getting a lot of support…we’re all trying to find a way to make this happen because it needs to happen.”