Networking video at Super Bowl XLII

Last month, on Feb. 3, 2008, football fans from around the world descended upon Phoenix, Ariz., for Super Bowl XLII. It was a massive draw in terms of football events, pitting the then-undefeated New England Patriots against the New York Giants. When it came down to the wire, the Giants edged out the "Pats" 17-14 in a tough victory.

The Super Bowl has become much more than a few-hour game. Football fever grips much of the nation, as fans pack stadiums around the country for months to watch their favorite teams go head to head and helmet to helmet. Nowhere is it more apparent that football is more than a game than at the Super Bowl, which is part party, part vacation, part sports industry "who's who" event. Even two weeks before the main event, thousands of people pack into the town (in this case, the Phoenix metro area), and with the high volume of people, the Super Bowl becomes a security concern. Of concern could be anything from rowdy party-goers to even an unthinkable terrorist act.

At the center of that for the 2008 game was the Phoenix Police Department, which had to ensure that the town enjoyed all of the festivities and little of the trouble.

As part of its preparation for this unique event, the city undertook a significant project of adding video surveillance, especially around the downtown areas where the NFL had set up shop to host the numerous accompanying events.

According to Chris Jensen, a detective in the Phoenix Police Department's surveillance unit, the police set up a 40-plus camera surveillance system themselves. The members of the surveillance unit even operated as specifying engineers, integrators, and even product designers to some extent. Looking back on it, says Jensen, he can see that it was pretty unique.

"At the time, we didn't think what we were doing was particularly unique," admitted Jensen. "But talking to other police departments, it's apparently really rare to have tech staff and bucket trucks and be able to do complex integrations yourself."

What was unique about the Phoenix P.D. surveillance unit's approach is that they have adopted a mobile mindset. After all, said Jensen, crime doesn't come to the police, so the police have to go to the crimes. They created unique camera enclosure units that included Sony's SNC-RZ50N cameras - network PTZ cameras in Sony's IPELA line that Sony's Marketing Manager Miguel Lazatin says work well in low-lux environments and also have the zoom capabilities to read a license plate up to 300 yards away. Phoenix outsourced the units' construction to IPVision, an interesting Arizona firm that is part manufacturer/part systems integrator. The company started as an information systems VAR before getting into network video back in 2003 with a single shopping center surveillance project.

IPVision's Ben Green, V.P. of business development, worked with Jensen's team to get the specs right and create a workable solution. What they came up with were units that integrated the Sony PTZ network cameras and Firetide's wireless MESH nodes to connect the cameras back to command centers. In some cases, an NVR for local storage was used. At the same time, the design had to withstand the scorching heat of Arizona's summers, since the units would be used long after the hoopla of the Super Bowl had left town in February. That, said Green, led to the recommendation of the Sony units, which the company had already found were able to deal surprisingly well with the heat. Fans, and lots of them, were also part of the enclosure design to beat the Arizona heat.

Complementing the camera systems was the ability to push the video over mesh links some 3 to 4 miles. It made the video accessible to two command centers and even a mobile SWAT command truck, had the need arisen.

That mesh design gave Jensen's team the ability to position the units almost anywhere they wanted, and to move them at a moment's notice via the department's bucket trucks. That "mobile" mindset was not a new theory, explained Jensen. The department had previously done temporary municipal surveillance installations to focus on problematic crime and drug-ridden areas.

"Once the criminals notice the cameras, they move around the corner," said Jensen, "so we had to be ready to move too."

He said the city is also affected by urban sprawl, and the expansive landmass meant the police would need flexibility in installations. The temporary design means the city could redeploy when necessary; Jensen notes that they've moved the cameras four or five times just in the month since the Super Bowl was in town.

Besides the 30-something pole-mounted units, the department also had four rapid-deployment tripod-mounted surveillance units. These devices could be rolled out in the backs of vehicles and set up in very short noticed for localized events. These units also featured solid-state, custom NVRs using OnSSI's video surveillance software. In addition, the department added an encoding and transmission system to move video from the NFL's temporary operations headquarters in Phoenix into the police department's video management system, in case the need arose with an incident at the NFL operations.

The department pushed the envelope even further when it came to mobile surveillance. Officers were dressed in plainclothes so they looked like any other football tourist and sent out with Jansport-style backpacks into the field. Inside the backpacks, says IPVision's Ben Green, was an Axis video encoder, a lithium ion battery pack and a cellular type wireless transmitter, all attached to a covert camera on the backpack strap. The design gave an "officer's eye" view back to command center.

While security overall for the Super Bowl was "very mellow" according to Jensen, the mobile, flexible nature of the surveillance system allowed the department to have an overall domain awareness. At the same time, it allowed officers to witness and respond to the more mundane crimes like ticket scalping or public drunkenness which might have been easily overlooked otherwise.

According to Sony's Miguel Lazatin, the use of municipal surveillance has been rapidly growing in the last few years as U.S. cities take a note from similar projects that have been common place in the UK. Lazatin noted that surveillance cameras have the ability to work as a force multiplier, by making more police "eyes" available. Lazatin said the growth in the municipal surveillance industry has been driven by two factors: IP/network cameras and wireless mesh systems.

"The Phoenix Super Bowl event," said Lazatin, "is a good example of a specialty event that is part of a larger municipal security initiative. And it's happening because municipal surveillance lends itself to IP systems. There are so many areas to watch, and the mesh networks really open the door. It becomes just a lot more cost effective (than physical cabling)."

As successful as the surveillance system was, it wasn't without its challenges.

"It really worked awesome," said Jensen. "It really worked better than I thought it would. Technically I knew we could do it all, but the challenge was the timeline."

Green, who worked primarily as their product-builder, consultant and integration partner, said that the timelines were indeed the biggest challenge, with everyone involved rushing to get the project installed some two to three weeks before the game. They had to deal with the challenges of working downtown (previous surveillance for Phoenix hadn't been in the downtown area), and that brought up issues with signal travel in an urban area - all new issues to deal with in a short period of time.

In the end it came down to the abilities of the police department's surveillance unit, which has so much in terms of integration skills that IPVision's Ben Green jokes, "I'd hire them anytime!" The team deployed the varieties of technology under the wire and had surveillance ready to go weeks before the kickoff.

Asked whether this was a once-in-a-lifetime type of deployment, Jensen said "No, we've got the NBA All-Star game coming up in 2009."