Dragging casino surveillance into the 21st century

As the Surveillance Director for the Eastern Shawnees' "Bordertown Casino", I inherited a system with inadequate equipment and a department that had no training program in place. The agents had no idea what basic strategy was; report writing was done by hand and was very dismal.

The CCTV system relied on 19 Toshiba DVRs that were not designed to be used in a gaming environment. Hard drive failures were a weekly occurrence and the DVRs would dump time randomly. We could not maintain seven days of continuous recording as dictated by the NIGC.

Another problem we faced was that we had two different operating systems being used. Some DVRs used Windows XP and some used Windows 2000, and they would not communicate with each other. We had to burn our video at the individual DVR; they were not networked together.

All in all it was a very inefficient design and we were not in compliance with this system. Most of our time and energy was spent in trying to keep the DVRs operating and playing "musical chairs" with our camera cables whenever a DVR went down. My agents and supervisors were getting very frustrated with the way things were.

In March of 2007 we received an NIGC advisory bulletin outlining their recommendations for a surveillance system. The CIF rates, retention time, frames per second and an authenticating "watermark" were all discussed. Our system at that time did not meet any of the recommendations. For our DVRs to comply with these new recommendations for recording and retention, we would have had to remove 12 of the 16 cameras on each DVR unit. This would have required me to purchase an additional 57 DVRs as well as the support equipment. Not only did I not have the budget for this, but I also didn't have the room. Finally, the existing DVRs did not utilize a "watermark", so we still would not have met that part of the recommendations.

Since my surveillance vendor at that time had no other suggestions for me, I informed him that I would look for equipment and support elsewhere. He got upset and stopped supporting us altogether. Over the next year I researched several systems, met with many vendors and salesmen and learned more about CCTV than I ever thought possible. In this article I will address the things I did right and the things I did that were not so right. I hope my experiences can help someone during their search for a system upgrade or replacement.

The first thing I did was to go to my general manager and explain our needs and how we could not meet the new NIGC recommendations should they ever become regulation. He supported me from the beginning and I kept him updated of my progress and research. My first suggestion is don't ever leave your GM in the dark; you need that person on your side.

The next thing I did was to go to accounting and pull all the invoices for our current vendor. What I found shocked me. We pulled the last 27 months of invoices and I found that we had paid the vendor over $720,000 in that time. This was mostly service calls with no significant equipment purchase. My next suggestion for someone who is looking for a replacement solution is to find out what you are paying your current vendor and use that as a benchmark. Even if you're not in the market for a new system, it still is a good idea to know how much your system is costing you.

When I began emailing surveillance companies, consultants and vendors, I had no idea how popular I was going to be. Within days I was receiving phone calls wanting to set up meetings, wanting me to order equipment over the phone right then, wanting to bring demo units in so we could test them. It was a bit overwhelming and confusing. I ended up sitting through sales meetings, phone conferences, four demo units in my office, four trips out of town to visit installed systems and numerous sales calls. In all I looked at 13 different vendors and systems.

My first big mistake was that I naively thought that all the vendors would be upfront and honest about the strengths and weaknesses of their systems. It didn't take long to figure out that vendors are not going to clue you in to the weaknesses of their systems. I eventually took to educating myself and I suggest to anyone going through this that you educate yourself on each of the products or solutions being offered. Learn everything you can about DVRs, HDVRs, blade systems, switches and power supplies.

My next mistake was thinking that all vendors and salesman were experts in this field. I met with people who were experts in CCTV, experts in surveillance equipment and with people who had no idea what they were talking about.

In one case I received a phone call from a gentleman who wished to demo a DVR for me. He was located 8 hours away by car. We had a conversation about what I needed. We discussed CIF rates, frames per second, video compression and more. He assured me he had what I needed.

He arrived the next day and hauled two very large boxes up the elevator into my office. As he began unpacking I asked him about retention. He said they could do the 14 days, just like I needed. Good. I then asked about the frame rate, and he assured me it would be 30 frames per second. Better. When I asked him about recording at 4CIF, he got a blank look on his face and asked me what that was. Uh-Oh. I went on to explain how the "CIF" rating defined the horizontal and vertical pixel resolution. He called his boss and asked him. The sales guy in my office ended up having to explain it to his own boss. After he got off the phone, he said that the DVR "probably didn't have that ability." I shook his hand and thanked him for coming down.

Some of the people I met were genuinely nice and I felt really wanted to help; others were overzealous and came off a little creepy. In one case of an out-of-town sales meeting, my first shift supervisor and I was offered the services of a "female companion" during our stay. We laughed at that and thanked him for the offer but told him we would need to call home and ask our wives permission and we didn't think that was a call we wanted to make.

That wasn't the only odd thing to happen to us on that trip. Our new travel planner booked our hotel room. She put us up in the city's only hotel that caters to the gay and lesbian community, and it had two gay nightclubs and a gay massage parlor. Now I have nothing against the gay and lesbian community, it's just not our lifestyle and we felt a little out of place. To this day our casino travel planner claims it was an accident but she laughs each time she says it.

My next suggestion is if you have to travel out of town overnight, stay in a chain hotel or motel. It may be a little more expensive but it's a more conservative crowd. Overall my search for a new surveillance solution was a positive experience. I learned more about CCTV than I thought I wanted to know and have ended up with some good business relationships and long-term friendships.

After sitting through the sales calls and meetings for several weeks I sat down with my surveillance shift supervisors and began to discuss the pros and cons of each product or solution. I decided to narrow down the list to the top five possible solutions for my presentation to the Tribal Business Committee. The list was made up of the five top solutions based on price, scalability, ease of use, maintenance, and customer support.

The five on the list weren't necessarily the cheapest solutions I came across. That would be my next suggestion, take all factors into consideration. Don't choose based solely on price. You usually get what you pay for. Also understand that the first and usually the second quote you get from a vendor is not the final price. They are all interested in making a sale, so price is very negotiable.

The final list of five was Instek, Synectics, NICE Systems, Datacom, and Pelco Endura. I felt that each one met with most of my requirements in one-way or another. Some were strong in customer support but required too much power or space; some were very scalable but the user interface was a little complex. I sat down and charted each of their strengths and weaknesses.

In the end the Datacom solution was clearly our best choice. It is an IBM server based solution and comes with IBM's outstanding customer support. It will easily grow with our needs and is extremely user friendly. It was also very budget friendly.

Since the focus of my staff is no longer on a dying system they can now concentrate on their job. In the seven months we have been live on the Datacom system I have tracked an almost 20 percent increase in reports. Also we have done some timed studies that show a 50 percent drop in time required to do a multiple DVR/camera search.

Since we are no longer expending so much time, effort and money on trying to maintain our system, my focus has been on staff training. We have been able to get the staff up to speed on perfect basic strategy, money management systems, table games cheating and slots cheating. With the new training and direction we have taken the surveillance department our casino is now better protected and the surveillance agents morale has vastly improved and along with it their job performance.

My last suggestion would be to review your current system and see how well it meets your needs. Research what is available, even if you're not able to or inclined to replace it at this time. See what technology is out there. Educate yourself in all areas of CCTV, Pelco has a good online course in CCTV; take advantage of it.

About the author: John Ervin is the surveillance director at Bordertown Casino in Missouri. John can be emailed at johne@bordertowncasino.com.