Video verification comes of age

Pushed by ordinances, falling prices and ROI, video now plays a vital role in central stations
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

As the Central Station Alarm Association prepared to release for public comment its much-awaited update of the CP-O1 standard, to include best practices for incorporating video into alarm monitoring, there was a feeling throughout the industry that it would contain few surprises. Generally, most large-scale monitoring operations have now been incorporating video to help verify alarms for at least the past four years and the mechanics of it are fairly well established.
"It's still not everybody," however, said Greg Gilbert, marketing manager for Security Information Systems, an automation software manufacturer. His company is frequently asked to modify its software to incorporate the specific interface needed by yet another brand of DVR, but "the small guy," he said, "is pretty busy installing alarms and hasn't branched too much out into the video. It can be intimidating for the small dealer because there's no standard and the prices are all over the board."
When he talks standards, Gilbert does reference the lack of an industry standard for pairing video with alarm monitoring and dispatch, but he's also referring to the lack of standards in the video surveillance industry. "Every video manufacturer does things differently," he said. "Every single DVR is different. The common thread is that they show video, but they all come with their own tools ... Most of the video companies have an API that we can work with and we're just concerned with keeping it simple for the dispatcher. All we give our guys is the ability to play 10 or 15 seconds, or however long they want, before and after the signal."
Does most automation software that smaller dealers use sync up with DVRs as easily? Bold Technologies, DICE and other major brands likely wouldn't have a problem, but that worry is still out there, and might impede a smaller dealer from investigating video possibilites.
It's especially unlikely if a large portion of those monitoring accounts is residential.
Jim McMullen, chair of the committee developing the video monitoring standard and president of large wholesale monitoring company C.O.P.S., said , "Our experience is that we're not seeing any real significant growth in the residential market. We're really only seeing it in business. Real growth comes from a proactive approach to security and that proactiveness is coming from the commercial market."
Michael Hackett, president of Hackett Security, which monitors about 7,500 accounts, half of them commercial, doesn't disagree, but sees "the greatest successes in the areas where municipalities have really put into effect a false-alarm ordinance." He's not necessarily just talking about cities that have gone to video verification. He cites St. Louis, a city that narrowly decided against video verification, as a city where video has increased significantly. "If you do have video verification," said Hackett, "they will respond, but they also see it as a great tool. That's where the trend is white hot."
Right now, Hackett estimates that one in every 10 new accounts is requesting video monitoring, and that rate is increasing. "Any municipality with a false-alarm ordinance that they really enforce creates buy-in from the consumer," Hackett reasoned, "whether it's residential or commercial."
"It's a value add," agreed Jacqueline Grimm, director of security solutions at Diebold's monitoring center, "when you consider the false alarm fines that are possible. Typically, it's the local authority imposing fines on the local branch of our national customer, so sometimes that dollar amount doesn't percolate up to headquarters. They're stunned at the cost they're paying in false alarm fines. In some places, it's $350 per alarm, and, from a monitoring perspective, the more equipment you have, the more possibility you have for an alarm to be triggered. Each visit is two times [entry and exit] more likely? that you could have a false alarm. Now, multiply that by 20 sites, 200 sites, 2,000 sites, and that's a lot of money."
Further, noted Hackett, "These DVRs are becoming very affordable. We're no longer in that $8-to-10 thousand DVR environment--they're still out there, but for $1,000, sometimes a lot less, our end user has four cameras they can pull up and use for verification."
Thus, the argument for return on investment is easy to make, everyone interviewed for this story agreed. If you're a commercial enterprise racking up more than $1,000 in annual false alarm fines (maybe only three or four false alarms, in some communities), it's easy to be convinced that a $3,000 DVR/camera set-up and some monthly monitoring fees will be quickly recouped, and there are plenty of business-management incentives as well.
"Some of our customers," said Grimm, "decide that it's easier to change a back-end process than change the behavior of their personnel or vendors." Rather than train new employees or new cleaning staff how to use the access-control system, it can be cheaper and easier to let them simply set off the alarm and have the monitoring center quickly verify, through the use of video, that there's no need for police dispatch.
The addition of two-way voice often makes sense for companies going that route, said Diebold's director of monitoring services, Steven Ipson. "We've attached two-way audio with the video in a lot of cases," he said. "That gives us the opportunity to not only listen in, but also VoIP down and ask them to identify themselves to determine whether or not they're supposed to be there."
With this increased capability, however, can come increased responsibility. Though the people at Diebold and C.O.P.S. haven't encountered this much, Hackett said that when the local authorities know you're video verifying an alarm, they "have asked us to do a couple things. One, when we do spot somebody--say we have an auto-body parts lot, where people will come and try to take things--when they trigger motion, police have asked us to hold the camera up live until they get to the site, so that, two, when they're on site, they'll call back to the operators and ask whether we still see someone. We'll say, 'yes,' and they'll let the dog in on them. They love it, because they're not just wandering around a parking lot hoping that somebody's going to jump up and run away. That gets down to the grass-roots level."
Since there is a traditional tension between alarm companies and police departments, video might turn into one way to repair that.
McMullen, working on the standard, said this post-dispatch activity won't be addressed, but the standard will encourage monitoring centers to give the police as much information as possible.
For instance, said Ipson, Diebold's monitoring center doesn't have "a lot of interaction with the police, but we do try to provide as much information as we can. Once we've made that determination that the police should be dispatched, we'll capture as much as we can, and we'll relay the information. Did we see guns? What was the color of their skin and their clothing? But that's pretty much it."
Moving forward, it's possible that CSAA and other bodies will begin to develop standards about what is expected of monitoring stations when it comes to this interaction with the police.
Also, as DVRs and companies like OzVision make it more and more common for video to be delivered straight to end users' PDAs, email, and cell phones, monitoring stations will have to decide how best to use those capabilities to serve their customers.
"It's possible that the central stations would want [that ability to forward video simultaneously to end users]," said SIS's Gilbert, "but the DVRs have the ability to do that ... It's a little more manual of an effort than automated at this point."
Is it possible that central stations will lose business to end users self-monitoring alarm activity through their surveillance system's integration with alarm sensors? Unlikely, said Diebold's Ipson. "That technology is more desirable for latch-key programs," he said, like parents wanting to know when their children come home.
"We're not seeing any desire for that," he said. "Our customers typically pay us to perform the monitoring services for them."
And in the commercial market, where the vast majority of video systems are being installed, that's not going to change any time soon.