Security cameras and schools

Chelsea Mitchell Security Resources

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By Kerry Goodwin, Puget Sound Director of Schools

During my 13 years as a security consultant, I’ve received many of the same questions over and over regarding video surveillance systems and how to best use them in schools.  I’ve collected the questions and answers here as a sort of school security cameras “greatest hits” for those who haven’t had the opportunity to ask me personally yet. So, here we go…

Q. How do other school districts deal with concerns regarding privacy?
A. First, consider how your school board and legal people view this subject. That will provide some important direction.

Next, consider staff, students and parents. Experience tells us that keeping cameras out of “teaching areas” and other “private” areas will go a long way in easing this concern.

Finally, a written policy regarding the use of cameras in the district, including the purpose and intent is helpful in resolving these concerns. Teachers’ unions and others may express concerns about “Big Brother” tactics of using cameras to “spy” on their members is detrimental to relationships of trust and good faith. Head that off with a written policy describing how the system will be used for “safety and security” concerns. Specificity and clarity will be helpful, but use open language that allows flexibility.

Q. Where should we place the cameras?
A. Use determines placement. Experience suggests different uses for different schools. For example, in elementary schools the bigger concerns center around student safety from outsiders and vandalism. In middle schools, the bigger concerns center around safety from other students, bullying and the like, as well as outsiders and vandalism. In high schools, the concerns are expanded to concerns of student-on-student violence, student-on-staff violence, violence committed by intruders, vandalism to facility and equipment, and liabilities of after hour use by outside parties.

Here are some basic recommendations for school security camera placement:
Elementary schools: unsecured main entry points, bus and student drop off areas, lunch lines, playgrounds and other common areas where groups congregate.
Middle schools: unsecured main entry points, bus and student drop off areas, common areas, stair well landings, hallways outside of restrooms and gymnasiums.
High schools: unsecured main entry points, parking lots, bus lots, bus loading/unloading zones, common areas, stair well landings, hidden areas where students can congregate, hallways outside of restrooms, locker corridors, long hallways, cash rooms and registers, ball fields and gymnasiums.

Q. How many cameras do we need?
A. The answer greatly depends on your answers to previous questions regarding use and coverage. Determine the risk and the coverage needed to address that risk. Keep in mind that, depending on the system you select, various “multiples” come into play. Most Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) come in multiples of 16 cameras per unit, Network DVRs often referred to as NVRs also typically come in units that will accommodate multiples of 16. IP units that utilize either the network server or an independent server can often accommodate hundreds of cameras. Stay on top of the multiples to ensure you don’t over spend for capacity you’ll never use or buy something too small requiring you to constantly be adding to the surveillance system in order to meet your school’s security needs.

In my experience, an elementary school can often adequately be covered with 16 cameras or less. A middle school can typically receive adequate coverage from 32 cameras or less. A high school, depending on configuration, can require hundreds of cameras. If the school grounds have multiple buildings or an extensive campus more security cameras will be needed to get complete coverage. In contrast, a more compact campus with a single building, several stories tall, can be adequately covered with as few as 64 cameras.

Q. Is it best to use Pan-Tilt-Zoom Cameras?
A. Pan-Tilt-Zoom cameras (PTZ) provide the ability to observe a large area with a single camera. A PTZ can often replace as many as 2 to 5 fixed cameras and provide a means of enhancing the image for purposes of recognition and greater detail.  However, it is important to understand that this camera will only record the current view. If the camera is “zoomed in” on a subject, it is only recording that image. All activity happening beyond that view is not recorded.

The advantage to PTZ cameras is if you have a security officer or school resource officer that spends a significant amount of time viewing cameras live on a screen, these can be a huge asset.

These cameras tend to run three to five times the price to install and five to 10 times more costly to maintain than fixed cameras.

Bottom line, PTZ cameras are an excellent resource for the right application and can be a worthwhile enhancement to the overall video surveillance system. They cannot replace the need for fixed cameras though.

Q. Do I need “High Resolution” cameras for school security?
A. This is too ambiguous to answer. There is no real definition in the industry of “High Resolution”. Typically, when someone asks this question, what they really mean is one of two things, “what do I need to get a clear picture” or “what camera do I need so that I can come back later and ‘zoom-in’ or enhance the picture?”

First, industry standard cameras already provide adequate resolution to give you a clear picture. If you are not getting a clear picture it may be the result of an inappropriate camera for the use, a bad camera, a bad lens, a bad monitor, some bad cabling, poor lighting, etc., but rarely a “resolution” problem. The question of enhancement of the recorded image or “zooming-in”, is a feature either of the DVR/NDVR or a megapixel camera. Again, it really has nothing to do with resolution.

Q. Should I use digital cameras or IP cameras?
A. This security camera jargon is misleading.  All industry standard cameras store and transmit digital images. Within the Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) industry, there are essentially Analog Cameras and IP Cameras. Analog cameras transmit images to a storage device which may have the capability of connecting to a network, whereas, IP Cameras connect directly to a network and storage is on the network or other assigned server.

Q. With the rate of technological improvements in the industry, how do I ensure I don’t get a system that is already outdated?
A. In my opinion, this is one of the best questions to ask.  The answer doesn’t have to do with technology or advances in technology. The answer lies in the up front research that was performed and the maintenance of the existing system. If adequate research was performed and the use and needs for a system are determined for today and into the future, then a quality system that meets those needs and allows for future expansion will be adequate for years to come. Maintaining the system is imperative to keep a functioning, usable system. A maintenance agreement that includes regular preventive maintenance and coverage of parts and labor will ensure you have a system that will work when you need it to work and take care of your school’s video surveillance needs for years and years. Without a maintenance agreement, you should expect that within two years you will have a system that does not meet your needs.

Q. How much storage do I need?
A. Another of the better questions, but the answer depends on your use. If someone will check the recorded images daily, you should only need 48-hours of storage. On the other hand, if, during breaks, there may be times when nobody is available for a week or two to check the stored images, you’ll need at least three weeks of storage. The actual size of storage is dependent on number of cameras, number of Pictures per Second (PPS) being recorded and the programmed rate of resolution. All of these have an impact on the size of storage. A good rule of thumb:  16 cameras, recording 24/7 at a minimal level of 1-picture every 4-seconds (the reason you would want to do is another story, for now let’s just say liability issues), and recording at 7-PPS when activity is detected, can be adequately stored for approximately three weeks with a 600-GigaByte Hard Drive.

Q. How will the Video Surveillance system affect my network?
A. Yet another excellent question.  An analog system connected to a DVR will have NO network interference whatsoever. If you choose to connect to the network from the DVR, you can find DVRs that provide compressions at a level that will limit your bandwidth use, however the number of users that can access the system at the same time will be limited. IP cameras, that connect directly to the network, depending on the number of users permitted at a time and the number of cameras, expect the network will be significantly and noticeably slowed and inevitably it will crash. If you choose IP cameras and you have limited network bandwidth, I suggest installing an independent network for the video surveillance system.

Q. Is remote access to my school camera surveillance system something I should consider?
A. Remote access is essential if you want to allow viewing of live cameras or stored images from off site locations or by police. This can raise issues of privacy, so if you choose to include this feature as a resource, be certain to include this in your written policy.

Q. What is “Video Alarm Monitoring” (VAM) and what advantage is it?
A. Perhaps the best question I get.  With the installation of an alarm triggering device, live video is streamed to an off site monitoring center and viewed as it happens. What advantage is there to this capability? Vandals can be caught in the act on live video, and an operator viewing them as it happens can dispatch the proper authorities. It’s great for catching vandalism and tagging.

Q. Will the use of cameras help stop school vandalism and “tagging”?
A. This is related to the earlier question. No, cameras will not stop vandalism, but they can significantly reduce the incidents and help catch suspected perpetrators, especially if VAM capabilities are employed.

Q. What additional costs are involved in the ownership of a video surveillance system?
A. Build into your budget monies for maintenance, repairs, replacement.  Either budget for a maintenance agreement or plan to pay for it as it comes up. Those that don’t budget for upkeep end up with a very expensive system that doesn’t work. In my experience, a well-vetted maintenance agreement is the most cost effective option.

Q. What other considerations should we be thinking about for school security camera systems?
A. Liability! Amongst the most expensive considerations is the liability that comes with video surveillance. Recorded images that find their way on the internet can be an expensive lawsuit. Once security is established, it must be maintained. Cameras that no longer work but are still in place have resulted in millions of dollars awarded in lawsuits because the “expectation of security” was established and now that a video record of an incident is not available for prosecution the victim sues successfully.

Now that you have stored images of activity, expect an increase in the costs associated with reviewing and investigating these events. You now have it, someone is going to use it. Because they are spending time reviewing video and researching and investigating these activities they aren’t doing other things. VAM is helpful in controlling these costs.

Recorded images used solely for the purpose of discipline will become union issues.
Avoid this costly mistake, be certain to provide a written policy and adhere to that policy.  Keep your system operational and in good condition and you’ll be very satisfied with your decision to incorporate video surveillance into your security repertoire.

In conclusion, it is important to remember that video surveillance is an additional resource to aid in protecting your facilities and assets. Other resources should be in place prior to considering video. An effective intrusion system with complete perimeter protection and alarm monitoring should be your first step, video surveillance can then be utilized to enhance your protection.

With the limited resources available, and the high cost of video, it is important to ensure you select a system that will work for you and fit your operations, not just for today but for years to come.