Getting the Record Straight at North Carolina A&T
- By Dian Schaffhauser
A young biotech grad student calls into campus police to report the theft of a knapsack. The victim shakily recounts that the assailant came from behind and grabbed the bag from her while she was fumbling to answer her cell phone on her way out of the laboratory. She's lost her wallet, an iPod, and a $160 textbook. Video of the incident is captured at the building entrance. The dispatcher notes the details and broadcasts the vague description of the thief as well as a detailed description of the stolen bag, which included a fabric rainbow patch across the outer pocket. Video of the call and radio dispatch are recorded. Campus police radio in to report that a person carrying a pack matching that description has been seen entering the parking garage. Video of the suspect is recorded there as well. The suspect, outfitted with an ID card previously stolen but not reported, is stopped and questioned. A match is made between the ID card and access control records for the lab building. An arrest is made.
At North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro, when public safety officers recreate the details of campus security incidents, they're able tap into multiple streams of recorded data--video, audio, and access control--in order to solve a case or build a case. Their work has become easier with the help of Nice Inform, an orchestration product from Nice Systems that reconstructs the data collected from multiple sources, synched by time and accessible from one screen, according to John Matherson, manager of the Aggie OneCard Center on campus and primary technical person for the security system.
Gradual Adoption of the Technology
The university began using Nice equipment in 2003 and 2004, when the public safety division decided it was time to consolidate onto a single platform a bunch of separate video systems maintained all over campus by individual departments. Public safety went through a competitive bid process, and Nice surfaced to the top of the vendor list. The institution implemented NiceVision Digital, digital video recorders--specialized PC servers with, as Matherson put it, "tons" of disk space for recording the output from the cameras. Cameras, initially located in 43 places around campus, have since multiplied to 300.
In 2007, that vendor relationship grew with the purchase of NiceVision Pro, which combines video recording with audio recording. The latter was formerly done, but only for voice calls. The Nice offering allows A&T to record voice like it was previously doing, Matherson reported, "but also allows us to record radio transmissions from our dispatch office." That encompasses 16 "channels," as he termed it, a combination of incoming phone lines and radios covering both public safety and facilities.
Then, shortly after adding enhanced audio recording to the mix, A&T installed the newly released Nice Inform, which gathered all of the recordings together under one console. "What's neat about the application is that you can bring in all the video channels, all the audio channels, and the access control locations into that application," Matherson explained. "So you can pull up your timeline and do a search on a time [segment] when something took place and see the respective activities and play them back."
Since Nice already had an integration agreement with the company supplying A&T's campus card system, The Cbord Group, implementation of Inform consisted of installing the software on the server, then having a Nice engineer configure the application to integrate the various audio and video feeds. Card access was already built in.
Besides providing a front end to view data recordings as a cohesive unit, Inform also provides a "last message replay" function that has proved a boon to dispatchers, said Matherson. The capability, which lives on the user's desktop, allows the person taking the call to go back quickly and reply to it to confirm location or phone number details immediately after the call has ended, "in case they didn't hear the radio or phone call right." Also, he pointed out, senior officers use it as an evaluation tool. "They can listen to see what kind of customer service is being delivered through the telephone or radio."
Now the university has adopted NiceVision Analytics, which provides the ability for users to monitor for intrusion detection, unattended baggage, and people counting. As Matherson described the software, whatever is shown on the screen from the video cameras can be painted with "hotspots." When a change occurs within that hotspot, it'll trigger an alarm. For example, "We can essentially take a view and paint a hotspot where we don't want somebody to park. If a car comes into that location and sits there for two or three minutes, that'll trigger an alarm that our dispatch folks will see, and they can dispatch an officer to that location."
Matherson said he likes the way that the software can be used to monitor multiple locations--up to eight at a time with A&T's current license. When a special event takes place, the hotspots can focus on those areas of video surveillance. Or, for more routine surveillance, parameters can be planted in the system to always monitor specific locations viewed on certain cameras at designated times. "We've used it at our ATM locations," Matherson said. "We've used it in the treasurer's office. Why would somebody be going into the treasurer's office at 7 on a Saturday night? We use it in key locations like that."
Sticking with Analog Video
Although IP-based video cameras have seemingly become the darling of campuses with ample bandwidth, A&T is sticking primarily with analog cameras for new deployments. The reasons are twofold: storage costs and functionality. "When you store video from the IP camera, it has bigger storage requirements than analog," said Matherson. The current standard is Honeywell video cameras. Cameras deliver their video signals from individual buildings over a fiber network to the police department where the recording is done. Recordings are saved for 30 days, and then the data is overwritten.
However, the campus has begun experimenting with IP-based video cameras in situations where there's a need to cover a broader area. "A good example would be a football stadium," Matherson said. "That would be a good application for a megapixel camera. You have the ability to cover a broader area, and for the bandwidth it's recording at, you can get a whole lot of information." Currently, A&T is considering placing IP cameras in its stadium, which has no video cameras.
What impresses Matherson, he said, is how efficient the Nice technology is at compacting the recordings. Thirty days of video and three years' worth of audio, the current practice, can be stored on a few terabytes, he said.
Sticking with the Standard
The security setup has become a necessity--so essential that A&T has adopted them as part of the planning for any new construction or renovation projects on campus. When a new building-related project is declared, Matherson said, a meeting takes place consisting of a representative from the police department, facilities, IT, and "stakeholders in the building." During that meeting, the police department will go over the drawings to determine the best location for cameras from a public safety standpoint. "But we also gather input from the departments in that building. If there are special concerns about certain areas of the building, we try to get those addressed."
That assessment results in two lists: the nice-to-have and the need-to-have. "One is an assessment on the minimum requirements public safety has to have to consider this building safe and secure for everyone that's going to use it," he explained. "Then we have a second standard: If money wasn't an object, what would you like to have?" From there, facilities sets aside budget for the minimum requirements. If budget is freed up later, that may be used to fill the gap toward the ultimate standard.
A Wise Investment
Matherson won't cite specific results regarding the value of the investment A&T has made in its security equipment. But he has heard the public safety department applaud the use of video surveillance. "In areas where we do have some video presence, the rate of determining the cause of an incident and subsequent arrest or apprehension is higher than in the areas where we nothing at all," he said. "It also acts as visual deterrent because most of the cameras are in plain view."
Overall, he said, he's convinced that the security technology has been a wise investment. "It's a testament to buyin from the administration that we have a budget carved out for us on every renovation effort and every construction project, that we'll have a combination of electronic security and card access, and in some cases built-in alarms."
But the expansion of the solution--that, and the economic crunch--has also strained the campus' budget, Matherson said, especially for covering the expense of adequate spare parts for the cameras. On the infrastructure side A&T's support contract covers equipment failure, which has been rare.
The allegiance to Nice products is always under scrutiny, Matherson insisted. But that initial decision back in 2003 to go with Nice was fortuitous, since it led to easily deployed and ongoing improvements in the security infrastructure that have subsequently served the campus well. "We're always open to new technology that helps us make our campus safer for everyone. I take it as personal pride to give our sworn officers the best tools we can to make us all safe. If in some small way I can help them by giving them the best technology, that's what I'm going to do."