Remote Guarding: Video's Future?

Most of us have invested in a CCTV system at some point in our career. The technology has become a standard and almost unquestioned tool in the bag of tricks. I wonder how many of us have actually stopped to think about what we hoped to accomplish with it before we purchased the system. I say this because the way most people seem to use CCTV today does not make a lot of sense.

The market researchers tell me that every year we install more than 4 million new cameras in the United States. Of those, less than 5 percent actually get watched in real time by a human. The rest get sent to a DVR to be dutifully stored, and in most cases the video is never watched. If you were to ask the average store owner or plant manager why they invested in CCTV, what would be the answer? In general, there are two thought processes going on; the most popular is “deterrence,” with “investigation” being a close second. Yet, when we look at the numbers, deterrence is a hard case to make.

The Campbell Collaboration, an international research organization, released a report in December of 2008 that studied the effect of CCTV on crime reduction. They surveyed 44 sites, largely in the U.K., looking at the before and after effects of CCTV installation. The 73-page report is daunting, but when you net it out, only the parking garage installations and mass transit show a significant reduction in crime. The other sites, such as city centers and public housing, show almost no significant impact. In this case, what the parking garages and mass transit seem to have in common is rapid response to an event and near 100-percent camera coverage. Both had dedicated guards to respond and large numbers of cameras.

When you think about it, that makes a lot of sense. If the bad guys know that they can do whatever they want, and it will either go unnoticed in a camera blind spot, unwatched in a bank of monitors or unresolved with a delayed response, then CCTV is no deterrent at all.

“Many sites have reached a point where they simply cannot afford to monitor their video and yet they are discovering that recorded video is not a deterrent” says Doug Marmon, CTO and vice president of products for VideoIQ.

But what about the recorded video, you say? Isn’t a permanent record of the perp’s face a deterrent? Most certainly — if the camera was pointed in the right direction to record it; the quality of the video was high enough to recognize the face; and if the perp did not just disappear into the night, never to be found again.

So, if your intent is to investigate and deter a known retail employee of taking money out of the till, recorded video using CIF quality may be a viable approach. If, on the other hand, the goal is to lower parking lot crime outside your big box store, we will need to do better than just hitting the record button on the old VCR.

The problem, of course, is that quality, coverage and speedy response cost money. And in today’s economy, we have everyone going “down market” — buying cheaper systems and reducing the staffing to monitor and respond. The risk is by moving to lower quality video and paying less attention to monitoring it, we violate the original reason we went to CCTV in the first place. There is no ROI on a system without measurable benefits.

A Fork in the Road

When you think about it, video in this industry is at an interesting point. Night watchmen transitioned into alarm systems when the industry figured out a way to make the systems reasonably reliable. Industry growth happened when the digital dialer enabled us to monitor the systems remotely at an affordable cost. We had found a way to take the expensive roving guard out of the building, and share him among many different buildings. Unfortunately, alarm systems only work well when an area can be locked down. Video can be an effective solution outdoors, inside an occupied building or other cases where guards are deployed today; but to move to a lower cost point, it must undergo the same transition. It must be provided as a service, be event-driven and be reliable.

The solutions lie in doing things differently. More cameras, more monitoring and more instant response are the answer, but the conundrum is how to do it at a reasonable cost. There is an organization that may just have the answer.

The Remote Guarding Alliance (www.remoteguarding.org) is composed of a group of eight remote guarding companies and technology providers. Its mission is to promote awareness and establish quality and performance standards for providers in this space. The service they provide may be the future of video monitoring: they combine the concept of centralized monitoring — with advanced analytics to provide cost-effective remote guarding as a service.

“We are seeing tremendous growth in our service,” says Michael Honlon, vice president of market and channel sales for ViewPoint. “In the past, all that remote guarding services offered were video tours. Now, we have customers who realize we can not only provide better security, but also value-added features, such as visitor management, after-hours video escorts in the parking lot or the eyes of the owner for retail.

“In this economy, security is being judged on the value of the investment,” he continues. “We don’t know of any company accepting project paybacks over 16 months. Remote guarding is a good way to solve the problem.”

Technology Solves Remote Guarding Roadblocks

While others have provided remote video guarding in the past, there were three key roadblocks that limited widespread adoption. The cost of video transmission over a network required huge, dedicated and expensive connections to each site. The Internet and low-cost “last mile” connections have changed that, but it is still difficult to move live video from a large number of cameras off-site. This pushed users to move to lower quality video to save on bandwidth. The whole equation changes, however, if you use video analytics on each site to watch the video streams. When the system actually watches its own video, there is no need to transmit it unless an event occurs.

“Moving from CIF resolution to D1 causes bandwidth and storage costs to increase by a factor of nine unless analytics are used,” Marmon says.

The second roadblock was the cost of monitoring. We all know that humans can not watch large numbers of screens at the same time or for very long. The result was limited cost savings for remote monitoring since it took the same number of people to watch your cameras no matter where it was done. This is an area where video analytics can really make a difference. It can allow dramatically increased efficiency and effectiveness, while allowing significant increases in the number of cameras per operator. This is also another area in which the technology has changed. To make this work, the analytics needs to be able to detect humans being in places they shouldn’t be while at the same time limiting the number of false alarms to a minimum.

“There are intelligent video systems now that have a false alarm rate of less than two per camera, per week. With those kind of rates, an operator can move from watching 10 cameras to monitoring 1,000,” Marmon says.

While intelligent video helps to find the events in live video, recorded video is still important and these services provide it. In fact, some would argue that analytics produces some of its best benefits when it is used to find events in the massive quantities of stored video. Still, the best approach is preventing incidents before they happen, and improving the quality of video monitoring is the area most ripe for improvement. “We believe the real value in video comes when it is used real-time,” Honlon says.

The third roadblock was the speed of response. As the Campbell study shows, immediate reaction to an event makes a dramatic difference in outcome. Previously, the only available response was police or guard dispatch — always slow and often unavailable. While there is some percentage of events for which dispatch is the only answer, most people will stop in their tracks if it simply becomes obvious they are being watched. That is why two-way audio or “voice down” has become such an important part of the solution. The ability of a remote guard to immediately talk to (or yell at) a perpetrator changes the dynamics of almost any situation. “Audio loudspeakers actually create a physical presence at the site and give you the ability to defuse a situation before it becomes a problem,” Marmon says.

Today’s remote monitoring, then, is moving in a much different direction than earlier versions. What we have now is a solution that allows intervention prior to an incident, not simply recording it for later forensics. It has much higher levels of coverage than guard patrol since the system watches all cameras simultaneously. It provides for immediate response while still keeping the operators out of harm’s way. And, it does these things using less labor than you could do yourself.

Many of us can remember the days when it was common for large corporations to have their own guard force and their own central monitoring station. For all but a few, those days are gone — the economics of letting a specialist outsource the work as a service became simply too compelling. With the advent of the types of services that the Remote Guarding Alliance are advocating, I smell another change in the wind.

Rich Anderson is the president of Phare Consulting, a firm providing technology and growth strategies for the security industry. A 25-year veteran of high tech electronics, Mr. Anderson previously served as the VP of Marketing for GE Security and the VP of Engineering for CASI-RUSCO. He can be reached at randerson@phareconsulting.com.

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