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Surveillance Video Link: First Responders to Homeland Security

Written by John Bartolac

With all kinds of threats escalating on our own soil, first responders need the best possible tools to help them quickly assess the situation and coordinate response measures in concert with each other and the Department of Homeland Security.

One of the most effective weapons a first responder can use to combat domestic terrorism in a collaborative situation is surveillance footage, particularly with IP-based digital video.

Although there is still a significant amount of legacy analog equipment currently in use, we’re already seeing a migration to IP across the industry. One reason for this convergence is that analog systems require coax cabling to run from the camera directly to the head end (a master facility for receiving video signals), which limits how surveillance cameras can be deployed.

Additionally, only a few responders can access the video or maneuver the cameras from home-based equipment with analog. Furthermore, transmitting video via analog technology actually degrades the image quality, reducing the value of the video being captured. In an age where information speed and image quality are critical, analog is no longer an efficient configuration.

On the other hand, IP-based video platforms provide first responders with simplified access to video both at the scene and en route to the location, allowing them to securely tap into the network feeds from a variety of fixed and mobile devices. The digital nature of IP video allows network cameras to send crisp, detail-enriched images from a facility or a city street over wired and wireless networks.

This network accessibility creates an interoperability often referred to as a “federation” of data and system. It’s a critical element in homeland defense—whether the threat is a physical or cyber attack—because it gives law enforcement the ability to share and communicate among departments and agencies anywhere, anytime.

Improvements in digital video processors and better digital streaming methods using advanced progressive scan and H.264 compression standards (equivalent to streaming video over high-speed Internet) now allow first responders to view events in real time. Enhancements in network security also give law enforcement the flexibility to control the way the video is used and shared.

For instance, video can be streamed at different frame rates and resolutions to specific responders and also archived in full quality and full motion for evidentiary purposes. If high resolution, HDTV-quality cameras are deployed, they can capture those important forensic details and provide critical on-scene clarity through progressive scan technology, without the motion blur usually associated with interlaced analog video.

Additionally, robust network configurations can simultaneously transmit on-site video to multiple endpoints such as central monitoring stations, smart PDA devices, and even mobile video recorders on first responder vehicles (patrol cars, fire trucks, etc.). Establishing this federation of data and systems promotes more efficient sharing and collaboration across multiple departments and agencies, which enhances homeland security.

Increasing Situational Awareness

Ultimately, the goal is to increase situational awareness. Viewing and sharing live and recorded video at full frame rate and in crisp resolution gives first responders the critical intelligence they need to improve recognition and identification. This first-hand knowledge can answer crucial questions like: Who’s in the room? Is anyone injured? Are there any weapons? Are civilians involved? When all responders can view the same stream, it’s easier to assess the situation and mount a coordinated response on multiple fronts.

Intra-agency cooperation and interoperability have become the new bywords for homeland security operations. Today’s first responders are involved in a variety of homeland security situations as diverse as natural disasters, campus shootings and riots at sporting events. While law enforcement might take the lead initially, other first responders, such as fire and rescue, as well as local, state and federal government agencies, could also be called in to strategize a response. In which case, all parties need to be alerted promptly and have access to the video to assess the situation and coordinate effective, accurate communication as part of the response.

So how does this cross-agency coordination work? If we consider an event like a campus shooting, we can easily see how the number of responders can mushroom. Initially, campus police and public safety departments would step in to protect the students and faculty, often generating emergency mass communications through automated voice messages, e-mail and text alerts to inform everyone on campus (and parents of students) of the threat.

They might also use the campus WiFi network to trigger a network camera or a public address warning system as well as set a sequence of protocol responses into motion, such as sending alerts to outside agencies. Depending on the particular jurisdiction and the escalation of events, other resources such as local law enforcement, EMS and fire departments might be brought in to help assess priorities and coordinate an appropriate response.

And finally, a federal agency with local jurisdiction such as a bomb squad or a HazMat unit might have some level of involvement as well. In this case, streaming IP-based video over a shareable network would provide the crucial real-time intelligence needed to achieve this level of instant interoperability.

If you use encryption authentication measures in conjunction with H.264 compression when streaming, the video feed can be shared securely in real time from a variety of fixed or mobile devices. Highly efficient compression can significantly reduce the cost and footprint of video communication on the supporting network, as well as the recorders and storage devices. With this cost-savings, municipalities can afford to deploy higher resolution HDTV-quality network cameras, sophisticated video management systems and advanced analytics to improve situational awareness, including critical analysis of people as well as animate and inanimate objects at the scene.

Interoperability in Action

While interoperable systems continue to evolve, the city of Chicago’s Virtual Shield program stands as a testament to what’s possible in the area of intelligent video security with today’s IP technology. A unified fiber and wireless network connects hundreds of newly installed network surveillance cameras alongside legacy analog cameras that have been network enabled with video encoders. The advanced city-wide system captures, monitors, and fully indexes video for real-time emergency and disaster response as well as forensic investigation.

City officials and citizens benefit from the enhanced analytics which provide license plate recognition, trending projections and intelligent search capabilities. Advanced detection and notification systems allow the city to integrate covert and overt video surveillance, traffic control, and VoIP communications and also provide rapid database access.

Because Chicago’s technology is built on an open platform, sister agencies and other homeland security personnel can remotely access and analyze video streams from the cameras over secure network portals using laptops and other mobile devices. It is all part of a world-class dispatch system that gives police, fire personnel and other first responders the kind of timely information that makes the crucial difference in an emergency or disaster.

This kind of integrated effort is certainly laudable, and effective. But what happens when different departments and agencies have their own equipment and policies and need to share data or video with other departments or agencies in a broader scope? Can IP video truly bridge the technology gap? In a word, yes.

IP-based cameras with integrated I/O capabilities and network-enabled analog cameras are “addressable devices” that can be accessed over public as well as private networks. Streams can be encrypted to ensure secure access by authorized individuals across agencies and departments. And with assurance-based access, you can adhere to the individual policies of each department and agency.

Deploying a Federated Solution

There are a number of elements to consider in building a federated system to help homeland security’s first responders. The first step is to establish a common communication infrastructure for monitoring and sharing video, sending alerts, and triggering other equipment or devices on the network.

This infrastructure should be accessible from stationary and mobile devices used by your department and also be interoperable with devices used by other departments or agencies. With the IP backbone in place, the next step is to deploy a combination of network and network-enabled camera types, including fixed, dome and pan/tilt/zoom, throughout your city, campus or other critical infrastructure area. You could place high-resolution HDTV cameras in critical response areas and standard resolution cameras in lower-risk venues.

This IP network can also act as a super highway for other input/output devices, such as third party motion and audio detection devices as well as alert systems, to maximize capabilities across all sites. You could also equip your agency and other law enforcement and first responder vehicles with mobile video recorders, cameras and monitoring devices that can communicate across this digital super highway.

If all the cameras supported encrypted H.264 compression technology along with authentication measures, you could enhance the open, yet secure nature of the video feeds while reducing bandwidth and storage requirements as well as operating costs. This extremely efficient compression standard ensures that you retain high-quality, full motion video that can be used across multiple departments. In this configuration, when the video is streamed to a centralized storage location, any agency or department participating in the response effort could also access the archived or live stream through a secure web interface or biometrically controlled authentication device.

You could even customize access levels with simple user interfaces to restrict individuals to specific live feeds and recorded video operations. Furthermore, by centralizing storage and control, you would minimize the need for additional recording equipment at each location and still provide all parties with controlled access to the recorded video.

Budget constraints and the need for more interoperability will ultimately dictate the technology you should deploy. By combining an open IP-based video platform with H.264 streaming capabilities and high-assurance authentication, you ensure that you have the baseline structure that will support higher video quality while at the same time reducing network bandwidth consumption and improving your storage needs all in a secure environment. With this federation of data and systems, you will have a cost-effective solution that delivers interoperability today and in the future.

John Bartolac has more than 20 years of experience in enterprise-class IP video solutions and access control, 12 years of which have been focused on the government sector. Bartolac is currently Government Business Development and Programs Manager for Axis Communication.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2010

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