Professional video surveillance: From basic recording to advanced video monitoring

Today's users of video surveillance systems have a variety of choices related to how those systems will operate, and these range from traditional systems where a camera records to a DVR to new systems where video alerts are sent to cell phones and even to professional services that allow trained monitoring staff to remotely access video streams. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, but the general trend has been moving toward remote video guarding for commercial facilities.

The record-and-review model
Most if not all video surveillance systems use some method of recording the video for later playback and review. This is primarily a "forensic" tool as it only allows the user to see what happened after the fact. In spite of this, it is still the most common way that video surveillance systems are used.

The benefit is that the user can go back in time to see an event that occurred. Perhaps it was an act of vandalism such as the painting of graffiti on a wall or a loss of some property as a result of someone climbing over a fence in an area where goods are stored. When viewing the recorded video, the hope is that the person committing the crime or the persons involved in an incident can be identified.

The drawback to using only this approach to video surveillance is that it is indeed "after the fact". Even if the suspects can be identified via the recorded video, it may be impossible to find them. Also, at that point, the damage is already done. This is a reactive approach.

One of the primary considerations when recording video is where to store it and how far back in time you may need to go to review the video. Also of concern is the quality of the recording. If recording is done at a very low frame rate and/or resolution, the quality of the video may be insufficient for identification purposes. The higher the frame rate and resolution, the more storage is required. Another consideration is that if the video is stored at a single central location such as a DVR in the security office, there is now a single point of failure. If that unit stops operating, all recording ceases. If someone intentionally damages or removes the recording device, all video is lost.

Live, on-site monitoring of cameras
Some facilities will provide a live matrix view of all of the cameras on a screen of some sort and they will position someone to monitor those cameras in real time. The goal is that the person monitoring will see any threat as it occurs and be able to respond.

The drawbacks to this approach are high cost and low reliability. There is an often quoted study from Sandia National Laboratories which says that after viewing surveillance cameras for just 20 minutes, the attention of person responsible for the monitoring is significantly diminished. This coupled with the high cost of having someone viewing the cameras on a 24/7 basis makes this approach less than ideal. Most small- to mid-size businesses cannot afford to have their own "real time" video monitoring staff.

Remote video monitoring
This approach allows the facility to be monitored during any given period of time from a remote location. To do this, video is streamed over the Internet or via some other broadband communication method to a location remote from the protected facility itself.

This does not mean that the remote monitoring site or person is simply doing what an onsite person would. To do so would introduce the same issues as having someone perform on-site live monitoring and at the same time create an additional problem related to the large amount of video data that would need to be transferred to the remote location, typically via the internet.

Self-monitoring of video alerts
Some of the video surveillance systems available today have the ability to be programmed to send an email or some other type of notification when some event occurs such as a person entering a prohibited area. Users may think that by having these event notifications sent directly to them, they can be proactive and save the cost of having someone monitor the cameras for them. There are even apps for smart phones that allow someone to monitor their own video surveillance systems. On the surface, this can appear to be a cost-effective solution to turning a video surveillance system into a proactive security tool.

Users also have to consider the drawbacks and shortcoming of self monitoring. Depending upon the nature of the facility being monitored and the technology deployed, the number of alerts or notifications that might be transmitted can be quite large and will often become a nuisance to a user. They may be awakened in the middle of the night for what will often be a false alarm. If the user's cell phone is turned off -- i.e.,, if the user is on a plane, in a concert or simply not within range of a cell tower -- critical alarms can be missed. Cell data plans may not provide sufficient bandwidth to view quality video and even if they do, the cost to the user can be quite high.

If the security of the facility being monitored is not critical or the value of the goods being protected is low, this may be a reasonable option. However, the inconvenience to the user coupled with the possibility of missing an alarm makes this a poor choice for real security.

Professional remote video monitoring
A better choice for remote video surveillance is the use of a professional monitoring facility. Using this approach, the user is provided with what amount to be "remote guarding". Video notifications are sent to a facility which is staffed by trained operators who can identify if there is indeed a real threat and respond as necessary. They may need to contact an on-site guard, notify the local authorities (police, fire), make an audio announcement to the affected area affected, call the facility owner, or perform any other action required to aid in ending the threat and reduce potential losses.

A key element to making any video surveillance have real value is the ability to provide some intervening response in the event of a viewed threat. In some cases that might be accomplished by notifying local authorities or an on-site guard. The advantage of having a professional monitoring center able to connect to and view live video from a camera is that the operator can witness the event in real time and provide invaluable information to the responders, for instance, descriptions of the perpetrators or vehicles and which way they went upon leaving the scene. If the video surveillance system includes PTZ cameras (Pan Tilt, Zoom) the operator can remotely reposition some of the cameras for optimal views or to follow the threat as it moves throughout the area. This cannot be accomplished by simply sending a photo or short video clip to someone's PDA or cell phone.

Another method of response is to have the monitoring center operator make a voice announcement via VOIP (voice over IP) using speakers on the client's property. This can be of great value in cases where no immediate physical response is available such as remote locations. It lets a person at the site know that their actions are under surveillance and that authorities have been dispatched. Often, this can mitigate or even eliminate the threat before problems are created and damages occur.

Today's remote video facilities are staffed 24/7 with operators trained to use video surveillance and familiar with how to interact with law enforcement. A good remote video monitoring staff acts as a filter for false alarms by viewing video and determining if further action is required. This means that fines levied for the unnecessary dispatch of local authorities are reduced and often eliminated.

A professional monitoring center would certainly look at the video during alarm events, but the operators can also view the cameras at a facility on a scheduled basis, performing a "tour" as would be done by an on-site guard. During these video tours, they can look for security-related issues such as people and vehicles present in prohibited areas. Video tours conducted by professional operators can also enhance safety by identifying other hazards; they might identify fallen electrical wires, blocked stairways or emergency exits, and lighting outages. Those same operators can perform other services similar to guards; one common method is to use the available cameras to chaperone employees safely to their vehicles when leaving work late or to closely monitor the after-hours delivery of goods.

Professional video monitoring facilities themselves are designed specifically for this purpose. They are built to operate round the clock and throughout the year, regardless of holidays, power failures, weather events, etc. They incorporate technology to insure reliability and constant operation, even in the event of a disaster. Some even have a fully operational and remotely located disaster recovery site that can be used in the event that the primary facility is down for any reason.

Typically, the full video surveillance feeds are stored at a client's site, but the specific video clips related to events at a customer's site will be recorded and stored at the monitoring center's secure location; in some cases it could be stored for up to six months. The benefit of this is that even if that local recording unit at the customer's facility is damaged or stolen, the valuable video associated with a security threat remains available because it has been protected off site.

In summary, a user's investment in a video surveillance system can be significantly leveraged though the use of remote guarding by a professional monitoring center. In some cases, users will find that remote video monitoring can eliminate the need for on-site guards, particularly in cases where the physical location (remote structures such as cell towers, pumping stations, etc.) makes regular guard visits or full-time guarding impractical. In other cases, remote guarding can supplement and enhance the use of on-site guards by reducing the number of guards required. Users find that they can redeploy these guards for more efficient usage, and they can also use the video monitoring to improve response time for guards by rapidly directing them to the exact location of a threat.

About the author: Jerry Cordasco is vice president of operations for G4S Video Monitoring Support and Data Center. In his role, Jerry works closely with G4S Wackenhut Guard Services Division to help the company embrace technology and work together to form a technology based solution for the US security market. Previously he served as President and CEO of Compass Technologies, and his history in the security industry includes serving at InfoGraphic Systems (later part of GE Security) and Siemens. He has been active in SIA, ASIS and NFPA.