Houston's Game Day Solutions
Print Issue: July 2017
The city of Houston, Texas, was in a football frenzy during the days leading up to the 2017 Super Bowl showdown between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons at Houston’s NRG Stadium. A nine-day fan festival, pop-up clubs hosting acts such as Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift, National Football League (NFL) and ESPN activities, and other events were scattered throughout the sprawling metropolis, home to 2.2 million people.
Just four months before a million visitors converged on Houston for the festivities, Jack Hanagriff, the infrastructure protection coordinator for Houston’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, was tasked with expanding the city’s surveillance program and implementing a solution that would support emergency communications while overcoming the expected strain on the mobile network.
“Although our system is robust and can handle things normally, when you get a national event coming in, our cell service gets interfered with and then our cameras get hindered by blockages,” Hanagriff explains. Especially tricky was Super Bowl LIVE, the nine-day fan festival held in Discovery Green, a 12-acre urban park, and in five surrounding parking lots. The area is also home to the George R. Brown Convention Center and several hotels, high-rise condominiums, and businesses—all of which contribute to high usage of wireless and mobile networks, even when no events are taking place.
Hanagriff had to figure out how to deploy additional cameras to Discovery Green and other high-traffic areas such as team hotels, pop-up clubs, and the Galleria shopping center, while addressing the network strain that was sure to hinder communication and video feeds during the events.
“In public safety, we’re using other sources of technology beyond the actual emergency radio communications—such as cell phones and field reporting devices and cameras—and it works fine,” Hanagriff explains. “But when you start coming in with a mass of people and commercial carriers putting in their infrastructure and tents, the ecosystem of the venue changes so that our existing permanent solution is not adequate because it may get blocked.”
Hanagriff pulled together a robust team for the task, including vendors, wireless providers, and federal, state, and local players. Axis Communications donated 40 cameras to the cause, Vidsys provided information management middleware, and Siklu’s radios were used to transmit some of the video surveillance. Wireless carrier Verizon had already been working for months to beef up its network capacity in the city, and Hanagriff said it agreed to allow the city to connect its cameras to the fiber network it was laying.
While NRG Stadium and the Galleria already had robust camera networks established, the city had to prepare Discovery Green and its surrounding parking lots for Super Bowl LIVE, where more than 150,000 people were expected to attend each day.
“We were confident we would get some coverage, but when I saw the footprint of the event…Discovery Green is one thing, but those five additional parking lots? That’s a lot of coverage,” Hanagriff says. “We knew we needed some really big players.”
In the weeks leading up to the kickoff of Super Bowl LIVE, workers spent 480 hours deploying the solution. Several cameras were installed on permanent structures surrounding Discovery Green, but most of the installation occurred in sync with the construction of the Super Bowl LIVE infrastructure.
“As they built the gates and kiosks and stages, we attached the cameras to those structures,” Hanagriff explains. “But even while they were building, they kept moving things, so we kept having to move the cameras. We had to put flyover cables where they didn’t exist—we were literally dropping 3,000-pound flagpoles to attach cables to and run them across the street.”
Fixed cameras were installed at all entry and exit areas, and pan-tilt-zoom cameras were used at every gate to observe the outer perimeter of the festival’s footprint. VIP and high-density areas were also a high priority—Discovery Green’s main stage was expected to draw at least 20,000 people for its major events, such as nightly light shows and a concert by Solange Knowles. Hanagriff said the city worked with intelligence officials to set up cameras in areas where potential threats could be carried out. Cameras were also outfitted with audio sensors that could detect and triangulate gunshots, as well as a sensor that detects an elevated anger response in human speech that often occurs before an argument.
The 40 Axis cameras, as well as 26 of the city’s existing cameras, were brought together under one dashboard through Vidsys middleware and were connected with fiber because of Verizon’s infrastructure buildout. Additionally, the 40 new cameras streamed to the Verizon cloud, allowing for mobile access and redundancy. “If we lost our main system, we could still run the temporary system off the cloud,” Hanagriff explains. “The cloud gave us versatility to bring in mobile applications and partners that did not have access to our existing system.”
Hanagriff wanted to deploy a camera on top of a hotel a block from the Super Bowl LIVE footprint for an all-encompassing view of the festival, but ran into connectivity problems. The fiber did not extend to the hotel, and radio frequencies completely saturated the area, making a wireless network solution impossible. The city ended up working with Siklu to install a millimeter wave radio that used narrow beam technology to transmit the video feed on an unoccupied spectrum.
“There was so much radio frequency you could walk on air,” Hanagriff says. “The Siklu radio beamed right through all of it.”
Security officials set up an emergency operations center in the convention center next to Discovery Green, where the camera feeds—including setups at NRG Stadium and the Galleria—were consolidated. Although many of the existing cameras were part of a closed network, the temporary cameras could be accessed via mobile devices from the cloud, which was crucial in integrating new partners into security operations. Hanagriff described the operations center as a huge room with dozens of partners: event coordinators, Houston officials and first responders, the Harris County Sheriff’s Department, the Texas Public Safety and Transportation Departments, the FBI, and other federal agency representatives.
Whether they were at the center itself or out in the city, officials could access the camera feeds via mobile devices. The Harris County Sheriff’s Department set up a mobile command post at the Galleria, where more activities and protests were taking place. It was able to use the mobile application to review the Galleria’s camera feeds and correspond with the main command post, Hanagriff says. And during the Super Bowl game itself, several groups were able to access the city’s cameras at NRG Stadium, including NFL security directors and another mobile command post closer to the event.
While Hanagriff’s role was coordinating the technology infrastructure ahead of the festivities, Patrick Hagan, technical specialist and engineer operator for the Houston Fire Department, saw firsthand how the camera setup helped emergency operations in such an unpredictable environment.
During Super Bowl LIVE, members of Houston’s police and fire departments were dispatched via portable devices that operate on Band 14, a broadband spectrum reserved for first responders. The devices can run active GPS for an entire 16-hour shift, serve as trackers for the officers, and share information, location, and images from the field to command center or vice versa.
“Because of the nature of the footprint, Super Bowl LIVE was closed off with a hard barrier, so we had to have teams inside that didn’t have vehicle apparatus,” Hagan explains. “Because of that they were on foot or on bike, so we dispatched them via GPS, which was new to us.”
A few weeks before the Super Bowl events, first responders tested out the devices to communicate via Band 14 during the Houston Marathon. “We gave the GPS a run for its money—we tried to max out the system, wanted to see what it would do under a lot of traffic, and never got any failure points,” Hagan says. But that wasn’t the case for Super Bowl LIVE.
Due to the massive amount of radio frequency traffic in Discovery Green, which Hagan agreed was the most he had ever experienced, the officers’ GPS signals experienced reflectivity and weren’t totally precise.
“Our GPS wasn’t quite true,” Hagan says. “It was off in some cases by 150 yards, which when you’re in a sea of people, is a few thousand people. We had to work around that.”
Hagan and others in the emergency operations center were able to coordinate with officers in the field by using the video feeds and verbal commands to guide them to called-in emergencies.
“We’d leverage those video systems to give our bike teams a better location,” Hagan explains. “We could see the officer’s blue dot with the tracking system and I’d compare it to the map of where I knew the patient was by looking at a video feed. Then I could verbally walk them there via radio and cellular communication. I can’t just say that the patient is over by the food truck when there are 80 food trucks.”
Using GPS and video feeds for dispatching was a first for the Houston Fire Department. “We don’t show up when things work. We show up when things break,” Hagan notes. “It’s a very fine line that we walk between using cutting-edge technology versus tried and true methods that are much lower tech. We have to utilize the technology to our advantage when we can, but when it fails we need to have contingency for that, and still be practiced in that contingency.”
Hagan made sure that contingency plans were in place during the Super Bowl, explaining that officials were prepared to resort to voice and radio dispatching if the GPS or video feeds failed. The dual capability of the video feeds allowed even the giant command post to be completely mobile, he notes.
“Everything in the command post was done on a laptop and broadcast on these giant screens, so at a moment’s notice we could drop and run and take all that with us and still have all our capabilities,” Hagan says. “We could still share data…still communicate—that’s the point of the redundancy. We had the hard connection but we wanted to be able to see all of our video streams and everything on mobile if we had to.”
After nine days of fans, football, and a Patriots win in overtime, Hanagriff and Hagan agree that the technology-forward security approach was a success. And while the pop-up clubs have been deconstructed and Discovery Green has reverted back to an urban oasis, the technology used remains in the city. Verizon’s citywide enhancements will continue to benefit Houstonians, city businesses and public officials will continue to strengthen their partnerships, and the 40 cameras Axis provided will be part of what Hanagriff calls a technology playground.
The cameras will be redeployed in high-traffic areas such as Discovery Green and the Galleria, and businesses, first responders, and industry partners will test ways to further integrate security technology into Houston. Hanagriff plans on forming a partnership with everyone invested in the project to determine the direction and scope of the testing.
“We all get exposure to all these different technologies, and there are benefits for everybody, and it’s all done by in-kind services,” Hanagriff says. “Everybody gets a big bang with no buck.”
Public safety officials will be able to learn more about video analytics and other cutting-edge technology without disrupting their current camera system, industry partners who provide the equipment and software will be able to conduct research and development and receive direct feedback from subject matter experts, and private businesses that allow the city to put equipment on their buildings will have access to systems that are normally out of reach.
“Most business partners are usually on the inside looking out, and this system gives them the ability to be on the outside looking in on their property,” Hanagriff notes.
Hagan says that in the past the fire department has only had access to the city’s camera feeds and has been unable to manipulate them. Being able to take full advantage of the cameras’ capabilities during the Super Bowl events showed how helpful they could be during dispatch, and he hopes the fire department can continue to access the city’s camera infrastructure more fully.
“We have a lot of the same goals and a lot of people doing the same exact job,” Hagan notes. “If we as a city can get three or four people who can perform that function and share that information with each department in real time, that would make sense. If someone calls into this joint operation and says, ‘I need eyes here, do you see anything?’ those people can give immediate feedback to any department. That’s the plan.”