Watching the city's video

A new video surveillance trend sees private companies monitoring public spaces
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Adoption of public surveillance has been slow to spread for a number of reasons. Chief among them is the “Big Brother” privacy argument. However, according to many, this aversion to widespread public video monitoring is changing, and that’s very good news in a slow economy for a struggling security industry. Not only does it mean more installations, but, in many cases, the municipalities don’t have anyone to watch the cameras, so they are contracting with private alarm firms to do the monitoring for them.

Communities like Atherton (where police are currently waging a campaign to tie in private, residential CCTV and IP-video systems to the municipal system) and El Cerrito, Calif., Birmingham, Ala., and St. Louis, to name a few, have large-scale municipal surveillance programs in place and indicate the genesis of a trend.

Ojo Technology security solution advisor Bob Kusche likens the increasing acceptance and quickening spread of surveillance at the municipality level to the explosion of Web commerce. “It is akin to when big business first encountered the Internet,” Kusche said. “Everyone was scratching their heads wondering how to use the technology. Security is only now starting to do the same thing with IP-enabled cameras, sensors, and other related hardware.” Kusche also points to public opinion as proof that acceptance will continue to increase.

“Polls show a 98 percent approval rating by the public for cameras placed in public areas,” Kusche said. “Ojo Technology presented a ‘Video 911’ presentation to 27 police departments last August in conjunction with the Atherton Police Department. That’s a lot of interest.”

According to California Alarm Association past president Jon Sargent, who is with ADT Industry Relations-West, quicker adoption of video surveillance solutions at the municipality level is a natural extension of a shift in priorities. Safety and security are now of paramount importance in reaction to heightened crime and more desperate criminals. “I have actually heard more people comment at city council meetings that they want more cameras in certain areas. Crime, and in particular violent crime, has gotten to the point where people are now willing to allow just about any tools available to fight crime,” Sargent said. “People just don't care like they used to about having cameras around and I think most have accepted that out in public areas there is no expectation of privacy.”

Further, communities are looking to the security industry to help fight that crime and monitor those cameras.

In early 2008, the Office of the Mayor in Birmingham, Ala., hired systems integrator ION Interactive Video Technologies, an IP-based video and security solutions provider, to install surveillance cameras in various outdoor locations across the city. According to Richard Cruit, vice president of ION, the city also asked ION to remotely monitor all of the installed cameras from the company’s own control center, a rare opportunity for a private monitoring company. “Municipalities normally set up their own monitoring stations within the police station,” Cruit said. “We’ve got a very unusual arrangement with the city of Birmingham. They basically thought we could do it better.”

Cruit explained that while the situation with ION in Birmingham is not industry standard, more opportunities are opening up, and the current expectation of public surveillance to promote safety is spreading rapidly into the private sector. “This is good for the industry. No doubt about that. With the municipal contracts come more commercial contracts. Because as the municipalities bring these systems online, there’s more awareness of it,” Cruit said. “Then the private sector takes a look at it and says, ‘Well golly, if they can do it, we can do it. We’ve got an apartment complex or a large facility and we want to make sure it’s surveilled.’ It’s a natural progression.”

Carey Boethel, vice president, business unit head for security solutions U.S., Siemens Building Technologies, sees increased opportunity given the new trend toward security-critical infrastructure, much of it controlled by local governments. “Today we’re able to capitalize on a couple of different trends in the marketplace that we see occurring, including the continued spending in the critical infrastructure space. We can aggregate all these technologies, and we’re doing that from our command centers. We’re monitoring critical infrastructure on behalf of municipalities,” Boethel said. “We’re also doing managed services from there, hosting access and video. The guard-tour scenario is something that we do every day … RMR is a by-product of that.”

Mike Hackett, CEO and president of St. Louis-based Hackett Security says the need for vigilance, especially in urban centers where many cities are revitalizing, is paramount. A rebuilt downtown does no good if people don’t feel safe, Hackett points out. “In most cities you have most of the growth in the ring of the donut. The center is so built out that they go farther and farther out, but now we’re rebuilding on the inside of the donut,” Hackett said. “So we put cameras up in coordination with local business owners and when the cameras start to see a group of people … [the business association will] just make sure that they’ve taken the assets of the guard force and deployed them around where the people are, while we alert the police. And when you’ve got police and lots of people watching what’s going on, if they’re up to something unscrupulous, they’re going somewhere else.”

Sargent agrees that citizens are continuing to realize the way to keep honest people honest and dishonest people away is to openly monitor their public activities. “There are still some people who are paranoid of ‘Big Brother,’ but the tide has turned,” Sargent said. “People who do not do illegal things have nothing to fear and look forward to a safer community. People who do illegal things should be fearful, and will move on to other areas.”

A recent case study by ION identified the challenges of securing America’s downtowns. The challenge, according to the release, is to efficiently and cost-effectively increase safety and security with limited security personnel in sprawling downtown areas. The solution is the use of VideoIQ, analytics-enabled video surveillance cameras throughout the downtown core, which allows for prompt detection and notification of suspicious behavior, enabling guards to evaluate the situation and dispatch police immediately. “The public now accepts, and in some instances expects this. The municipality views it as the force multiplier. They can do more with fewer feet on the street,” Cruit said. “It’s already starting to drill down into the residential market, and, really, anything that the U.S. citizen can do to help keep themselves or other people safe is good for the country.”

Security Industry Alarm Coalition director Ron Walters feels a time is coming where the industry and municipalities will work more and more closely together. “I believe that the future will be the industry uploading video to the 911 folks,” Walters said, noting APCO and the CSAA had recently worked together to pass a standard to allow direct digital communication of dispatch info between the security industry and police.

While these municipal installations have been largely closed to RMR opportunities, cities and towns will increasingly represent long-term customers who expect a partnership with private security companies. The successes, or not, of these early relationships will likely shape the future market.