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​​​Illustration by Anna Godeassi​​

Should You Be Watching?

​A gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on 14 February 2018, killing 17 students and staff members and injuring 17 others. 

In the aftermath of this latest tragedy, many school systems across the United States began to reassess their overall security strategy. Some U.S. states and local jurisdictions even addressed the problem legislatively, allocating money for school resource officers and technology upgrades. (For more on the response to this tragedy, see “Solutions Post-Parkland.”)

As a result, many campuses installed comprehensive camera systems and access control equipment and renewed their focus on keeping bad elements out of the educational environment.

Shortly after these installations were made, one of the authors was asked to tour one such campus and provide feedback on the improvements. 

After assessing the state-of-the-art camera and recording system, the noticeable increase in access control measures, and the presence of an armed law enforcement officer, the author asked the school administration: How are all these cameras being effectively monitored in real time to stop or mitigate any potential threat?

Unfortunately, there was no response. The question illustrated a major deficiency in the overall security plan for the school. 

While virtually every square inch of access points, parking lots, and common areas was covered by the new camera system, the live feed went to a bank of monitors in an unoccupied office. School administrators would occasionally look at the feeds and were assured that incidents would be recorded for use later during investigations into disciplinary issues or criminal conduct. But there was no effective way to be alerted to suspicious activity or imminent threats before it was too late to prevent them.

The scenario that played out in this school has been repeated numerous times in industrial settings, commercial building​s, hotels, and residential settings. Cameras are an effective recording and forensic tool. But what role could—or should—they play in preventing criminal activity from occurring in the first place?

Not all situations are alike, and a camera monitoring strategy cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution. Sometimes a property’s needs are relatively simple, and the solutions are easily identifiable and available. Other times, the security needs of the property may require a significant amount of time to assess and determine if monitoring will be an effective prevention tool. Often it comes down to a simple question: Can it wait until tomorrow?


Video monitoring services typically fall under one of two categories: event-based video monitoring or patrol-based video monitoring.

With event-based monitoring, an alarm is generated—perimeter breach, motion detection, burglar alarm, and panic button—and received in a command center. A monitoring agent, often in a location that might be hundreds of miles away from the property, then investigates the alarm and its cause to determine if any action is needed, such as calling the police to respond to an intruder. This process is known as video verification.

With patrol-based monitoring, an agent looks at each camera to check for unwanted activity. The agent conducts proactive announcements as he or she goes, notifying an onsite security officer to investigate any suspicious activity that is observed. 

Much like a security officer conducting patrols on foot, the agent is following predetermined protocols outlined by the property owner or security provider, including providing video escorts, reporting lighting deficiencies, and monitoring sensitive areas.

With each type of monitoring, agents address suspicious activity, track and log events, and create reports, as needed. Both are dependent on the performance of trained professionals and combine human intelligence with technology to form a comprehensive solution.

If there are no exigent circumstances surrounding the activity being recorded that would dictate the need to be proactive, then there is typically no need for real-time video monitoring. 

To determine which approach to take, security managers should ask themselves: Do you want to prevent something from happening? Or are you more interested in piecing together events after the fact from recorded videos? In these situations, cameras are used as forensic tools.

Examples of this include toll booth and traffic light cameras that issue citations after the fact; cameras that are used that perform automated tasks, like counting visitors or shoppers for research purposes; specialized cameras, like license plate readers; or interior cameras within a monitored perimeter. 

For instance, if a security manager oversees a production facility that has a monitored perimeter at a high level, then he or she may consider not having the second level—including interior cameras—actively monitored. This hybrid reduces cost and workload.

Going Live

All the examples listed above are useful functions that an unmonitored camera system, or a partially monitored one, can serve. But if there is a need for more than these applications provide, only live video monitoring will work.

Distribution centers. A beverage manufacturer needed a security solution for several distribution centers in the northeastern United States. Fully loaded tractor-trailers were being stolen from sites, emptied of their contents, and abandoned, causing heavy losses for the manufacturer. The distribution centers were also victims of property damage, including vandalism. 

Traditional security solutions were ineffective for the centers. And because each site had several authorized daily pickups, it was difficult to distinguish between thefts and normal operational activity.

To address the problem, the property owner installed cameras at all the distribution centers and programmed highly customized rules for alarm generation. Alarms would only be triggered if certain vehicles were moved—and only if they moved in a specific direction of travel.

Prior to the installation, each center was experiencing—on average—about one theft per month. Since implementing monitoring services, zero thefts have occurred, and all instances of vandalism have been eliminated.

This is because the property owner was able to take a proactive approach and intervene when suspicious activity occurred. A monitoring strategy was set up and analytic alarms were also implemented to alert personnel if a trailer began to move or if a person was in the vicinity of a fully loaded trailer. 

When an alarm went off, personnel monitoring the camera feeds would make a call to the site to confirm if the activity was authorized. If it was not, monitoring personnel could use voice technology to communicate with the individual and on-site security or law enforcement could be dispatched to the scene.

Remote areas. A large energy production company was faced with growing security issues commonly associated with remote well sites, such as theft, vandalism, and environmental damage at production and storage locations.

Recently, a vandal had opened a valve and left the site. This resulted in the loss of thousands of gallons of oil and a costly clean-up process. 

Traditional security strategies such as fencing and on-site guards were not viable due to the remote and isolated location of the well site.  

The property owner, using a security monitoring company, conducted a site survey and put together a custom solution. The system featured solar power with a five-day backup power supply, cellular Internet, full audio, and a camera layout covering the entire site perimeter.

The system was designed this way because detection was not enough; the system needed to provide the property owner with the capability to intervene and stop intrusions from happening in the first place. 

Using this monitoring system, the property owner was able to provide an effective security solution at a fraction of the cost normally associated with traditional security guards. Through the implementation of a video-voice system, the property owner was able to eliminate unwanted activity at the well site. 

Retail. A retail store was facing security challenges that were not adequately addressed by a traditional burglar alarm system. Off-hours staff in the store were setting off the alarm, resulting in a police response and financial charges.

The standard burglar alarm panel was insufficient to meet the store’s needs. And it was racking up thousands of dollars annually in overage charges with its monitoring company. Despite attempts to reduce false alarms and improve security, efforts had failed. In the one instance in which a true alarm went off, police responded seven minutes after the intruder had left.

To address the problem, the property owner installed a video verification system. The store’s burglar alarm panel was set up to send trouble signals to a video monitoring company’s command center, and cameras were added at alarm points so all signals could be visually verified.

This new approach allowed the property owner to visually verify the cause of alarms, eliminating false alarms and unnecessary police dispatches. The new system eliminated all false alarm response and resulted in better overall security for the store.

Residential. One of the leading residential management companies in the United States was dealing with theft, vandalism, drug activity, loitering, and noise violations. Overseeing hundreds of properties, it needed a security solution that would not only be cost-effective but also efficient.

Various video and security systems were already in place at some of its properties. The company collaborated with a video monitoring firm to evaluate each site and develop action plans. 

For some sites, the task involved modifications or enhancements to existing systems—such as additional cameras, recording devices, video analytics, and audio. Other sites required full proposals for new installations.

Intelligently designed systems to allow for maximum site coverage were installed with an emphasis placed on areas designated as trouble spots, such as stairwells and building entrances. 

Door access systems were installed or updated at several sites, complemented by audio and video to allow for controlled entry to the complexes. Voice technology provided both proactive and reactive solutions to reducing and eliminating undesired behavior, like loitering. 

Through voice technology, the remote monitoring agent could speak directly to the individuals in the environment that he or she was monitoring. For instance, an agent could use the voice ability to direct people lingering at a closed pool to leave the area—instead of sending someone in person to address the situation.

Common Mistakes

Camera monitoring is a valuable tool in a comprehensive security program, but it does present some common pitfalls that should be avoided. 

One of the most common mistakes made in implementing a camera monitoring strategy is the fact that human viewing of a video monitor is not adequate—or ultimately productive. In many security operations centers, security officer duty stations, or front office environments, you will find a bank of camera monitors. In some cases, a single screen is filled with multiple camera feeds. 

When someone is asked about the purpose of this, the response is often “the security officer is monitoring the cameras.” But is this approach effective?

The National Center for Biotechnology Information recently conducted a study that investigated how long individuals could concentrate on a task without becoming distracted. 

It found that in 2000, the average attention span was 12 seconds. In 2014, that number dropped to 8 seconds. Most experts cite the advent of social media and increased stimulation in day-to-day activities as the reason people are losing their ability to stay focused.

Another recent study from The New York Times found that among people who watch videos online for entertainment, 19.4 percent abandon most clips after 10 seconds. After a full minute, only a little more than half of the original audience will still be watching. Even when people are not working, they struggle to see things through to the end. 

These statistics and concepts reiterate and reinforce that video monitoring should be a team effort. One set of eyes is too easy to fool or to distract. And no method of training and education can overcome human nature.

Other mistakes that can negatively impact a monitoring strategy include installing improper or inferior equipment, and not having adequate camera coverage to detect suspicious activity and unfolding security events. 

Budget concerns have also given rise to one recurring topic in the legal world: the dummy camera. This is nothing more than a plastic housing designed to look—and in some cases act—like a real camera.

Many home improvement stores offer consumers a four pack of decoy cameras, complete with blinking lights and signs that read “caution, video surveillance in progress.”

Some security companies and installers will also offer this as an option to customers who don’t want to invest in a real camera system. While this may seem like a quick and cheap alternative to accomplish the goal of deterrence, it raises legal and safety questions.

By installing dummy cameras, business or property owners risk creating a false sense of security, especially if they are on notice of a dangerous condition.  

Owners also must consider the message these fake cameras send to employees, visitors, and others who come onto the property and observe them. Is there a reasonable expectation that these cameras are preventing, or at a minimum recording, any incidents that take place? Or do most people use them to scare off bad actors?

If a major security incident occurs in or around a dummy camera, and a lawsuit is filed, this will likely be unpopular with the jury when it is deciding whether reasonable steps were taken to secure the premises.

The bottom line is this—if security needs are so pressing that an owner is considering installing a video system, he or she should spend the money necessary to do it right. Installing dummy cameras may save a few dollars in the short term, but in the long run they could become much costlier.

The security industry is enjoying a technology revolution like it has never seen before. One of the main benefits of this is improved and enhanced camera capabilities.

In the future, camera monitoring will continue to be part of the overall security plan. With the proper strategy that includes a blended approach of analytics, security officers on site, and proper installation and coverage, camera monitoring can be a significant force multiplier for virtually any property.

When security planning and discussions are held, security managers should ask how they can improve their overall program through effective camera monitoring—and if it can wait until tomorrow.


Eddie Sorrells, CPP, PCI, PSP, is the CO and general counsel for DSI Security Services. He is the past chair of the ASIS International Security Services Council and currently serves as an ASIS council vice president. Bradley Gordon is the CEO of Viewpoint Monitoring in Lowell, Massachusetts. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps and holds a J.D. degree in Criminal Law from Boston College Law School. Gordon is a member of the ASIS Security Services Council and has been an ASIS member since 2013.