Do-It-Yourself IP Video Surveillance in Arkansas


When the need arose, Arnol Shaw, IT director for Fort Smith Public Schools in Arkansas, knew exactly who should tackle the work of implementing an IP video surveillance program in the district: his own IT team. After all, his two wiring technicians had worked in the buildings for years, so they knew the construction compositions and layouts. And his two network administrators were both familiar with what the network could support. "We were prejudiced," he said. "We really wanted IP-based technology."

Arnol Shaw, Fort Smith Public Schools

That experience is paying off. A recent installation of 14 cameras in one secondary school took only about a week. The building was already networked--as are all the schools in the district--and the technicians "knew where to run the new wires, knew where to put the surface mounts," Arnol said. "It's not like a vendor coming in and having to drill a bunch of holes."

Video cameras of the analog variety first started appearing in Fort Smith schools four to five years ago, just a few years after the district had installed a fiber cable backbone to run its wide area network. Those early video devices were managed by the maintenance department, installed by a myriad of integrators and came in many different brands. At that point, IP systems were considerably pricier than analog, so the schools went for immediate cost savings over long-term return-on-investment and extended functionality.

But in the intervening years, costs for the equipment have come down. When Shaw's team did an evaluation of potential IP-based options, they discarded some of the big-name vendors in the education space and chose equipment and Windows-based software from Wren Solutions after visiting Bentonville High School, which deployed 190 of the company's cameras in 2007.

As Shaw recalled, "The solution they were using looked as good as anything I'd seen. It was easy to use. The solution for conversion of analog cameras was good. Training was good."

Shaw took three staff members to three days of training to learn about the types of cameras that were available and how to configure them and returned to the district with a fairly good sense of how to design the setup for a school.

The Process of Installation
The process now consists of sitting down with the principal at the school where the installation will go to map out what the perceived needs are. "They put down what they think they want," said Shaw. "We're able to give them different vantage points and pointers." For instance, the principal will often want a camera pointing straight at a door, and Shaw's staff will suggest a slightly different placement to survey more area.

Shaw usually advises against pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras. "The more they move," he said, "The more they break." He said he prefers a fixed camera with a zoom function placed strategically or a Pantel camera that work as a fixed camera until it's needed for motion.

Once the school design is done, it goes to the administrator in charge of the district's crisis committee. That person controls the budget for video surveillance. The two sides--school and district—negotiate, and, as Shaw put it, "We come up with something in the middle."

The technicians go into the school, do the installation of the video server, install and configure the cameras and plug them into the network.

Wren Solutions software surveillance interface

That 14-camera installation cost the district between $22,000 and $23,000 for equipment, which included the cameras, a computer acting as a video server, battery backups, power-over-Ethernet devices so the cameras wouldn't require separate power, and a couple of infrared devices to allow particular cameras to capture images in the dark.

The server includes a hard drive of between 60 GB and 100 GB. Shaw estimated that capacity will hold about six to eight weeks worth of recording. While full motion video is 30 frames per second, Shaw said he usually recommends the schools run them at 15 frames per second, unless it's an area where surveillance needs to be non-stop. The video format is standard MPEG-2. Once the drive is filled up, the system records over the oldest data, which is the same scheme used by the older analog cameras still in use at the district.

Where analog cameras are still in use, the IT department adds them to the network through an encoding process that allows the video output to be viewed online.

One of the advantages Shaw sees in running an IP surveillance system over analog is that when the analog cameras broke down, the recording stopped until the unit could be repaired by the vendor. In the IP scenario, when the computer that maintains the recordings goes down, the IT staff can replace it with a duplicate server pulled from inventory.

How Surveillance Works
The cameras are typically situated in high traffic areas: around lockers, hall intersections, cafeterias, gymnasiums (including the stands), stairwells, and entrances. If a particular area is a common target of vandalism, a camera goes there as well--though, as Shaw explained, "You have to think about the security of the camera too."

He said he hasn't discovered a magic number of cameras for any given size of school. "The optimal number is whatever it takes to cover whatever you need to see," he said. But he has learned that users often believe they can monitor more cameras than is practical, especially when they have other jobs to do. His recommendation is to have different people on a campus in charge of different camera "sets"--a grouping of surveillance views--and even then to limit it to four or six per person. A secretary in the front office may monitor cameras in the elementary schools, while principals, assistant principals, and other designated people may handle the job at the secondary schools. Wren's software allows the user to pull up any number of sets, which all appear on the monitor as small windows that can be moved around and "parked" on the screen.

Divvying up the work also prevents bandwidth drag on the network. "We try to educate [users] on that," said Shaw. The network configuration they've set up at the schools keeps most of the data stream local to the campus, said Shaw. "If they're hurting themselves, they'll know it."

But his network administrators also monitor network loads. If a school is showing a steady drain on bandwidth, somebody from the IT crew will investigate to find out what's happening and see if some education on network usage is in order.

Shaw can pull up views from campuses himself from the central district offices, and eventually he expects the campus views to be opened to other agencies as well. "Say a school goes into lockdown," said Shaw. "A school district or police unit with the correct security clearances would be able to link into it to see different areas of the school."

A "watchdog monitoring system" introduced in version 3 of Wren's Video Management System software informs the IT team when a camera isn't showing up on the network or is having other problems.

By this summer, all of the district's secondary schools will have IP-based video surveillance. At each installation, Shaw, who has worked in education for 38 years and is set to retire this summer, has seen the difference surveillance makes. "It's all focused on student and personnel safety," he said. A by-product is that the truth of a situation is uncovered more quickly. "Before [video surveillance], you could call on witnesses, but then you have a minor testifying against a minor. They're hesitant to do that. With a video clip, you pull it up, and anyone sitting in the room can see what happened." He's heard stories of students denying what they've done until shown a full facial view that's been captured on the network. "It'll change the behavior of students. They know it's there."

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About the author: Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at [email protected].

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.