Robert Hellmuth, director of school safety and security for Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools (MCPS), understands the importance of securing more than 200 schools and facilities. “We believe that for students to learn and staff to be effective, they have to believe they are in a safe learning and working environment,” he says. “We must assure parents that we can take care of their children, and if there was ever a major incident, that we are prepared to take care of the situation.”
Hellmuth’s security philosophy is a driving force for what has become the Montgomery County Public Schools’ Comprehensive Security Program. From conception through the ongoing six-year roll-out, MCPS’ Department of School Safety and Security has been on an exciting, often challenging ride as it auditioned and then partnered with multiple players including the MCPS Office of Information and Organizational Systems (IT); Netcom Technologies, the integrator; Jim Gompers, the security consultant; and a host of technology and service providers.
The MCPS Comprehensive Security Program
The video surveillance, access control, visitor management and alarm systems that MCPS is installing at its elementary, middle and high schools are enhancements to the existing MCPS comprehensive security program.
The MCPS Department of School Safety and Security oversees more than 200 security staff members deployed in its schools and after-hours security program. The MCPS comprehensive security program includes emergency/crisis plans in place for each school and facility. The plans are reviewed annually and approved by staff from the Department of School Safety and Security. Schools are required to conduct a number of scenario-based emergency drills each school year and those are monitored by department staff and public safety personnel. MCPS also has partnered with the Montgomery County Police to assign uniformed officers to each high school and some of the middle schools with a future plan to expand the program to the remaining MCPS secondary schools. The department provides training to all MCPS employees on emergency preparedness and other security-related topics on an ongoing basis.
A Vision to Meet a Growing Challenge
With more than 200 schools and facilities, 138,000 students and more than 21,000 employees, security is a critically important undertaking for MCPS. It maintains its own alarm control center — monitoring perimeters, boilers, water flow, refrigeration, breakage of windows and more — that receives more than 36,000 separate alarms throughout the year.
Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the Montgomery County Council provided Hellmuth with funds to purchase security cameras for the high schools. “We put 16 to 32 cameras in each school along with a VCR,” he says. “We were surprised at how short the equipment shelf life was — the VCRs kept breaking down. Then we went to DVRs, but we knew we could do better.
“My vision was to have an integrated security system where we could do visitor management, access control, alarm monitoring and video surveillance and tie it onto a common platform,” he continues. “We talked about this for a long time, the question was, how do we get there?”
Enter the Experts
Hellmuth remembers when the project turned a critical corner: “This started off as a security project, but it has developed as a joint project between us and Technology (IT).” Michael Cady, a director in the Office of Information and Organizational Systems, laughs when he recounts how Hellmuth “found his way down here.” Over the course of a number of projects where Hellmuth’s security team needed Cady’s IT expertise, a partnership took shape.
Netcom Technologies had been working with MCPS for 18 years, and the integrators knew their way around. Netcom brought extensive IP knowledge to the project. “It’s all we do — strictly IP for access control, intercoms and video,” says John Murdock, vice president of Netcom’s security division.
In 2006, MCPS was introduced to Gompers, and Hellmuth presented him his security vision. Gompers was able to translate that vision into a practical plan. Murdock and Gompers were then charged with finding the technology vendors to supply the equipment and software to make the vision a working security system across the entire school district. All that remained was the minor item of funding.
Hellmuth worked directly with the COO of MCPS, who asked him to develop a strategic plan and budget, including time lines and expected outcomes. Dr. Jerry Weast, the school district’s superintendent, took the plan to the County Council, which funded the vision. “Our superintendent has always been committed to ensuring the safety and security of students and staff,” Hellmuth says. “He understands the need to for our security program to stay current, and that includes using the best available technology. His charge to us, as well as all of the departments in the district, is to constantly review our operations for opportunities to improve.”
The most challenging aspect of this type of initiative is the funding, so having the understanding and support of the school superintendent and the Board of Education was critical to Hellmuth. “Security has always been a necessary evil, and it is understood that the money should go to the classroom,” Hellmuth says. “MCPS has been fortunate to have enlightened leadership in the superintendent, the Board of Education and the Country Council, who all supported a major investment in advanced technology and trusted the security and IT teams to deliver.”
IQinVision and Milestone Team Up
MCPS has 25 high schools, 35 middle schools and 135 elementary schools, and the plan is for all middle and high schools to implement video surveillance. The most immediate need is in the middle schools. The high schools have existing surveillance systems that will be replaced with the new expanded surveillance systems, and while plans are not yet complete for the elementary schools, those locations will have a relatively fewer number of cameras.
Gompers and Murdock recommended Milestone XProtect for IP video management. The software gets high marks for ease of use and minimal required training. The proof of performance is in the level of use and excitement by the schools in feeling empowered to solve security incidents on their own.
Gompers had recently conducted an extensive competition among IP camera manufacturers for a different major university project. IQeye cameras from IQinVision won that competition and Gompers recommended the cameras for MCPS as well. The district has standardized on IQeye megapixel cameras. “We would go with nothing less than megapixel cameras both for image quality and for coverage,” Hellmuth says.
Completing the Overall Security Lineup
On the consultant’s recommendation, MCPS chose MAXxess NS for the access control system. “The system brings everything together — it is the main user interface,” Murdock says. “The system is agnostic — we still have Pelco DVRs on the system as we switch over.” To complete the picture, a Bosch system manages all the burglar alarms. All the systems run on the MAXxess interface.
The MAXxess system offers a powerful user interface, and its mapping capabilities are as intuitive as they will be effective in directing staff to the source of any alarm or problem.
Hellmuth continued to expand on the project vision: “Whatever we do, whatever we buy, I wanted to use the same equipment in every one of our schools. Our administrators move from school to school throughout the county, so whatever system they use at one school, they should be able to use at another school.” Through a pre-qualification process for vendors, MCPS has been able to standardize on the technology provided by their four main vendors — IQinVision, Milestone, MAXxess and Bosch.
Standardizing on the four key technology components has provided top performance, standardization of procedures, ease of moving from one school to another, economies of scale and overall superior system functionality.
“The goal now is to continue installing all these cameras systems into the high schools and middle schools, and get the access control and visitor management into the elementary schools,” Hellmuth says. All schools will eventually be monitored and managed using interactive maps with clickable icons that will direct operators to school, floor and exact alarm for their attention.
To understand the degree of change that the new system represents, consider the more than 36,000 alarms received in the monitoring station each year. “Up until a few years ago, an alarm generated a run of old-style computer paper, which the operator scanned to locate the alarm code within that ream of printed paper, and then turned to a series of alarm code books to look up what had happened,” Cady says.
The Security Plan in Action
The MCPS command center runs at all times, receiving all alarm and data feeds from a growing number of schools as they come online. At the end of 2009, there will be 60 middle and high schools with functioning alarm, video and access control systems. Each school monitors and records its own video. When the project is fully rolled out, video will pop an alarm or other trigger in the command center for timely, effective back-up for the schools when in-session and to cover the district when school is out of session.
MCPS security is now highly data driven. Staff used to make decisions based on gut assessment, now it’s all objective data. This has driven more accountability: when there is a problem, the staff knows exactly what door or alarm it is and where to follow up—this is a major improvement.
“We do not monitor the cameras live at all times, so if we have an incident, we need to be certain we have got good images,” Hellmuth says. “We are very pleased with the quality of the images. Our administrators, as well police and fire can, under certain conditions, have access to system data — which is vitally important.”
The Montgomery County Police recently visited the MCPS Alarm Command Center and were impressed enough to ask for closer cooperation. “Greater cooperation with the police and fire departments is not only a very good idea but it also is beneficial when we go to the County for funding,” Hellmuth says. “We are able to say additional funding is not just for the school system — the police and fire departments and the county all benefit.”
Currently, about 70-80 cameras are being installed in the high schools, but they are being wired for 120-150 cameras, so the path for expansion is already established when funding becomes available. The middle schools are getting about 50 IQeye megapixel cameras per school. Coverage objectives for the middle and high schools include all entrance doors, public areas, hallways, lockers, cafeterias, stairwells and gyms. Each school monitors and stores its own video; cameras are on 24/7 and record on motion.
The video has proven very useful in showing clear images to students suspected of mischief. “They just melt,” Cady says of the students when shown images of their actions caught on camera. “We are getting calls on a regular basis from the schools that they are using the video to positive effect in investigating incidents.”
Two terms that came up time and again when listening to all the project players were “partnership” and “collaboration.” It is the relationships between end-user, consultant, integrator and technology providers that built a strong foundation to support such a highly innovative, ambitious project.
“There is a synergy between Mike (Cady) and Bob (Hellmuth) that wasn’t there five years ago,” Murdock says.
Then there is the collaboration between MCPS and Netcom. “They come in, they learn our business, they understand what’s going on in the schools, and when they see new technologies or methods that are important, they bring them to us,” Cady says.
The technology providers have earned their place at the table as well. “We hear from them all the time wanting to know how things are going,” Hellmuth says.
This story was honored as the silver medalist in the annual ST&D Security Innovation Awards competition. To learn more about this year’s winners, see page 10.
For information on entering next year’s awards, contact editor Steve Lasky at firstname.lastname@example.org.