Securing buses for the Maryland Transit Administration

Colonel John E. Gavrilis, the chief of police for the Maryland Transit Administration Police Force, runs what he calls a very safety conscious transit operation. With over 16 million passengers using his systems and an already low number of incidents, Gavrilis intends to keep it that way, and is doing so by implementing a video surveillance upgrade on the buses in his system.

To do so, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) has begun deploying new video surveillance systems that allow video captured on the buses to be remotely "dumped" to recorders at the bus depots using new technology from March Networks. The system synchronizes and downloads the video wirelessly when the buses arrive in the station thanks to capabilities in the March Networks devices.

According to Gavrilis, that makes the job of his investigators a lot easier. Prior to this latest, on-going upgrade, the system required manual dumps from the DVRs, which meant more work for officers working on a security investigation, and sometimes multi-day delays days before they could obtain video from the buses. Cameras certainly aren't new to MTA buses; Gavrilis says the system has used cameras on buses for almost 10 years. But now the video can be available almost instantly, he says, and that means that cases don't grow cold in the meantime. Getting video quickly means faster identification of suspects, witnesses and crimes, and allowing remote downloads of the video means officers are focused on investigations, rather than technical processes of obtaining the video. "In investigations, time is critical," says Gavrilis.

The technology uses wi-fi hotspots in the equipment depot. When buses arrive, they wirelessly authenticate themselves, and the video management system initiates a dump into the central archive. Depending on the configuration of the system, the system can dump all video or just video tagged by alarm buttons, accelerometers and other I/O devices. Tagged video can this be used to initiate priority downloads of the most relevant video surveillance footage.

Buses, of course, are not the most hospitable place for high-tech electronics, but the system takes that into account. Units are hardened against voltage spikes, fine dust particulates, vibration and moisture (the units are IP65 rated, which means they could be blasted by a fire hose and wouldn't allow moisture in).

In the future, Gavrilis says the system can take on entirely new value in the future. Plans are in place to expand the technology such that MTA officers in mobile squad cars could eventually obtain the video instantly, in real-time from a bus once a wireless network is in place to transfer the video and once receiving technology is put into the squad cars. The system has technology in place that can allow GPS tagging to alert nearby police officers.

"This is about making video accessible," explains March Networks' Vice President Peter Wilenius. "Once you can access that video instantly over a wireless network, you have another tool for crisis management."

Currently, the MTA and March Networks have installed the upgraded systems on 130 buses, and another 500 to 600 buses are planned over the next 12 months. It's a major project for a transit system that sees an average of 250,000 to 300,000 riders on its fleet of 700 buses each day.

It's all part of a system-wide effort to use technology as a force multiplier says Gavrilis. The MTA also has several hundred cameras spread across metro and light rail stations, with the video being sent back to a central location for monitoring. That command center ties in communications with police monitoring, a move which allows for immediate dispatch.

Video surveillance works, says Gavrilis. Along with use of surveillance systems, he notes that the MTA is very keen on deploying signage to let system riders know they are being recorded.

"Advertise very heavily you are being watched," recommends Gavrilis. "We saw a 31 percent reduction in crime from 2008 to 2009, and we think a large percentage of that can be attributed to increased advertising [about deployments of video surveillance on the MTA]."

Related: Mass Transit Security Webinar
Join and former MTA Chief of Police Doug Deleaver for a free webinar on transit security, Feb. 25, 2010. Register here. Reading this after the live event? If so, program is archived for one year.