Security Innovation Award Transit Project Winner: Driving Security Innovation Aboard Boston Buses

Dec. 11, 2014
Greater Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority extends video surveillance on buses and provides access to multiple agencies to enhance mass transit and public safety

Many people know the city of Boston for its historical implication in the onset of American liberty; yet, many are unaware Boston is also the birthplace of American mass transportation. It all began with a family-operated ferry service in 1631 which served to lessen the travel time between the Boston peninsula and other parts of the mainland.

Today, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, often referred to as the MBTA, operates a massive fleet of sophisticated vehicles including buses, subways, commuter rails and ferries in the greater Boston area. The entire mass transit system accommodates more than 1.3 million passenger trips each weekday, ranking the MBTA as the nation’s fifth-largest mass transit system.

When a Department of Homeland Security grant was secured to improve the security of its fleet, our mass transit organization appropriated the funds to a first-phase upgrade for video surveillance technology aboard 225 of more than 1,100 buses, which serve 180 routes throughout the city. The existing video surveillance systems onboard buses were much older and offered limited video quality.

Kenneth Sprague, Deputy Chief, MBTA Investigative Services Division, explains that retrieving the video was also a much longer process: “If an incident was reported, we would have to go to the bus to retrieve the hard drive, and then download it at the crime scene unit. We also only had 40 hours before the digital video recorder would overwrite video; so, if something happened on a Friday evening, we would have to send someone out over the weekend to retrieve the video. It was time-consuming and inconvenient for our team.”

With consultancy services from Jacobs Engineering Group, an international engineering, architecture and construction firm, a detailed request for proposal was submitted for public tender that stipulated specific requirements and the need for a working proof of concept. After careful consideration, MBTA chose the Genetec Omnicast video surveillance system proposed by Minuteman Security Technologies.

The Genetec Omnicast system offered by Minuteman Security Technologies met budgetary and technical specifications — the latter included access to live video from our operations control center (OCC), automatic offloading of video to long-term archiving when buses reached the terminals, police officer data access to nearby bus systems via cruiser mobile terminals, and a few other custom applications.

Simplified Video Access Provides Clearer Views on Buses

To date, the Genetec Omnicast video surveillance solution has been installed on 225 buses. Each bus is outfitted with two 360-degree cameras — one interior fixed high-definition camera and three external 720p high-definition cameras, all from Panasonic. Video is continuously recorded and stored on each of the bus’s network video recorders (NVR). To support the sophisticated infrastructure of this application, Ethernet switches from Moxa were selected for industrial-grade reliability, network redundancy and seamless integrated security. On the bus, a monitor displays a live camera feed to passengers, acting both as a public advisory of video monitoring and as an added deterrent against criminal activities.

“Leveraging the security technology to promote an innovative and interactive public advisory forum allows us to encourage passengers to report incidents on the bus,” explains Adam Peters, Transit Security Projects Administrator at MBTA. “A message displaying, ‘See something? Say something’ alongside a phone number for the MBTA police, is displayed below the video feeds. Passengers can also use an interactive app from their mobile device to anonymously and discretely report events. This gives our community a voice and allows them to become actively involved in keeping our city safe.”

Two departments within the MBTA have live access to the system from their own control rooms, including OCC operations and the MBTA police dispatch. MBTA transportation executives also have system access.

What makes the installation one of the most unique in the country is the dual-mode radio that allows for simultaneous wireless and Verizon 4G LTE connectivity. This has led to the most notable advantage of the surveillance system for the bus fleet — we have multiple ways in which the video can be easily accessed. For example, in the event of an incident, dispatchers and analysts can view video from the bus through the cellular Verizon 4G LTE connection, facilitating both real-time emergencies and investigations.

“Recently, there was a report of an assault on a bus driver and the dispatcher was able to pull that bus’s cameras up and quickly identify the suspect,” Deputy Chief Sprague says. “Within minutes, responding officers had a full description and were able to apprehend the suspect. Video surveillance onboard our buses has definitely made our jobs easier and has been an invaluable tool to law enforcement.”

Leveraging the LTE connection is also an invaluable part of the investigative process for customer service agents and operators who need to quickly identify the specific time periods of video for passenger disputes or criminal investigations. Instead of guessing or transferring massive amounts of data over the LTE connection, users can simply view video through the LTE connection, identify which segments are required and submit the transfer request.

The transfer itself is facilitated through a customized video requester tool that has simplified the retrieval of video on-board buses for long-term archiving. Once the bus is back at the terminal, the system will automatically offload the video to the central archiver through a wireless network and instantly email a notification to the requesting operator once the transfer is complete. Enabled by an Omnicast feature called Video Trickling, this automatic video offloading helps minimize bandwidth consumption and storage, enabling MBTA security teams to keep only the video they need.

“We do a significant amount of forensic video analysis for other agencies, such as the Boston Police and State Police to pull events that happen at intersections, bus stations or anywhere else around the buses,” says Jonathan Wing, Video Analyst, Criminal Investigation Unit. “It’s not just about the safety of the bus drivers and passengers, but really a benefit to the whole metropolitan Boston area.”

To ensure the preferred connection mode is in use at all times, integration between Omnicast and the GPS technology was developed. The video system is able to automatically decipher which mode of connection should be in effect, depending on the location of the bus. For example, when a bus is driving through the city, the cellular network is used to transfer video; but once a bus is within the terminal’s vicinity, wireless communication takes precedence. The GPS integration is linked to the master OCC system and Google maps, letting operators know exactly where buses are within the city.

Custom Applications Ensure Continuous Uptime and Enhance Bus Safety

Implementing the full solution was a massive team effort from the start. The MBTA security department, Jacobs Engineering Group, Genetec, and Minuteman Security Technologies worked together to deliver the complete solution, combining engineering and development expertise to meet the very specific requirements.

Everyone came together to push the technological boundaries of the chosen solutions in the mass transit implementation. This was further enabled by the use of Genetec’s open and mature software development kit (SDK), which allowed for more custom applications to be developed.

From mobile data terminals (MDT) in police cruisers, officers can tap into a nearby bus’s video surveillance system in the event of an emergency. “It’s a great safety feature for the officers on the street because they know what they are walking into,” Sprague says. “They are more prepared to address the situation and to protect themselves.”

A bus scanning tool enables law enforcement officers on the road to identify buses in the vicinity of their cruiser. To enable this feature and protect the access privileges to this functionality, each bus is correlated to hidden Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which is stored in a database on MDT and automatically updated each time the cruiser returns to its station. Officers simply need to press a ‘scan’ button to retrieve a list of buses within a certain range of their vehicle. Then, they can select the correct bus number and automatically connect to the system to see what is happening before responding to an emergency.

Another application was specifically developed to help bus drivers alert OCC operators of distress onboard the bus though integration of a panic button alarm. The bus driver has control of the panic button which prompts an alarm at the OCC. Operators can then click on the alarm to automatically connect to video surveillance system to see what is going on.

Minuteman Security Technologies also developed a customized health monitoring and management tool called Transit Sentry. At a basic level, a health diagnostic report is automatically emailed to our team every day to ensure all bus systems are fully functional. This report helps MBTA plan for any required maintenance and ensures operators and analysts will always have access to needed video.

Beyond that, Minuteman Security Technologies uses Transit Sentry to provide remote troubleshooting and system maintenance for the various subcomponents in the bus from a dedicated support center as part of a comprehensive maintenance program. For example, Transit Sentry offers an advanced interactive browser-based interface that provides real-time alert notifications of system health, bus location, engine status, and the status of every camera and component within the surveillance system. The system also offers the capability to push firmware and software updates, to conduct remote system troubleshooting and to reset any system.

“The MBTA is able to tap into any bus system and address issues while they are moving through the city from a web-based client interface or smartphone, ensuring a very high degree of reliability and service,” explains Joe Lynch, CEO of Minuteman Security Technologies.

Onboard Surveillance Leads to Greater Operational Efficiency and Safety

While all the technical details of the system were met, the most advantageous aspects of having video surveillance onboard our buses are experienced on a day-to-day across all of our agencies. In the first five months of having this system implemented, 500 cases were facilitated by the video, leading to a significant organization-wide impact, from a police, legal and safety standpoint.

“The new onboard video surveillance system has helped us improve our customer service and general operations,” Peters says. “Upon receiving a customer complaint such as a slip-and-fall claim, our customer service agents use the video as a tool to verify if the events had or had not taken place, and to validate the details of the incident. With this process in place, we operate the bus service in a fair, ethical and safe manner for the public.”

From a safety standpoint, the onboard system represents a constant reiteration of the following advantages:

  • Immediate access to video onboard buses in the event of an emergency.
  • Instant access to nearby buses for responding officers for better preparedness.
  • Quicker and easier investigations for criminal activity or claims.
  • Improved bus driver and passenger safety throughout the fleet.
  • Deterrence of vandalism and random acts of violence.
  • Enhanced investigation abilities for increased city-wide safety.

“We might not see the actual crime take place, but there is usually activity that leads up to a crime,” Sprague says. “Whether it’s identifying a car in the vicinity or verifying a suspect’s alibi, we have the ability to view, validate and retrieve information in a timely manner. That’s a huge asset for our team’s ability to gather video for forensic evidence and keep this city safe.”

Gradual Expansion Continues to Benefit Multiple Departments

While MBTA is in the process of upgrading another 60 buses, our long-term objective is to gradually enhance the video surveillance systems on all 1,100 buses. Meanwhile, Omnicast’s Federated architecture has been extremely beneficial to our organization, helping us to manage all systems as one from two centralized locations while still preserving departmental autonomy in their day-to-day operations. This capability encompasses fixed and mobile video surveillance systems across our entire organization and all fleet, reaching terminals, yards, administration buildings and other mass transportation vehicles for a bird’s-eye-view of our entire operations.

“All of our service and technology partners have played a pivotal role in providing our mass transit organization with impressive capabilities,” Peters says. “This concerted group effort has allowed our departments to respond to various incidents at moment’s notice, and to see what is happening in real-time. This system is vastly more effective than what we had before.”

The amount of cases that we have been able to close in such a short period of time truly proves the value of this system. Furthermore, customer and driver feedback shows that they feel safer. Being able to keep people safe by deterring various types of incidents or to extract evidence — it is invaluable.  

About the Author:

Randy Clark is Senior Director of Security and Emergency Management at MBTA.