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Town of Marshfield, Mass. balances safety and privacy in public buildings

 

When police unraveled a Columbine-like plot that included a planned assault on emergency first responders, it forever altered the psyche of the quaint seaside town of Marshfield, Mass. The town’s police department and emergency management agency recognized that they could improve public safety by installing video cameras in several high-risk public buildings. At the same time, the town also understood the importance of safeguarding the privacy of the community and employees if they placed cameras in areas where they weren’t historically permitted.

In researching their options, they learned that SituCon Systems of Port Washington, N.Y., had a solution that could help the town achieve both objectives: maximum safety while guaranteeing privacy. The system included the implementation of more than a dozen Axis Communications’ pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) network cameras in the town hall, recreation center, library and airport. Each camera, encased in a special SituCam Privacy Protecting Enclosure, provides a mechanical cover over the lens to guarantee privacy.

When a town employee activates a wireless Instant Alert button during a security event – also provided as part of the surveillance solution – the “eyelids” that block the cameras’ lenses open to enable dispatchers and police to remotely monitor the location and evaluate the situation before they arrive on scene. To prevent hacking or security risks, proprietary software ensures that the wireless network is only on air and accessible during an incident.

Balancing Public Safety with Right-to-Privacy

The dangerous and detailed plot that Marshfield police uncovered years ago included the targeting of a dozen individuals at the local high school. The plan also included detonating off-site bombs remotely to delay first responders and give the culprits time to carry out the executions. While the perpetrators were arrested and convicted, Marshfield’s Chief of Police, Bill Sullivan, said the event “forever changed the town’s perception. Now we know that these types of things can occur in any community, no matter the size.”

With violence on the rise in town buildings across the United States, Marshfield felt it needed to enhance its conventional 9-1-1 system to further ensure employee and public safety. Due to privacy restrictions, however, prime locations such as the selectmen’s meeting room in the Town Hall, were strictly off limits for installing a traditional video surveillance system.

Marshfield found its answer with SituCon Systems’ innovative Privacy Protecting Technology. The SituCam enclosures provide mechanical eyelid covers over AXIS 215 PTZ (pan/tilt/zoom) Network Cameras. In the privacy protecting mode, the eyelids remain closed to designate their inactivity. Once in awareness mode, however, the eyelids open to enable the camera to automatically transmit video and other critical information to 9-1-1 dispatchers.

Wireless Instant Alert buttons, which are small enough to fit on a standard key ring, enable town employees to instantly notify police of an incident and automatically trigger the network cameras to begin transmitting video. Simultaneously, information about the individual who initiated the alert – including their photo, cell phone number and current location – is displayed for the police dispatcher on video monitors at police headquarters. Marshfield also opted to automatically activate the cameras for after-hours use when town buildings are closed, using embedded intelligent video motion detection to deter vandalism and theft.

“This one-of-a-kind system solved our greatest challenge by allowing us to place cameras in sensitive locations where we never could before,” Chief Sullivan said. “It also saved us the time and expense of continually monitoring cameras all day long.”

Tapping an existing data network

Each SituCam enclosure comes with a “drop-in” ceiling tile and uses a single Ethernet cable to attach to the town’s existing network, making any non-Power over Ethernet (PoE) camera PoE-compliant. This design simplified deployment and enabled town personnel to install the cameras literally overnight while the facilities were closed.

“We specifically developed our software to instantly provide critical information about the person who initiated the alarm as well as automatically alter bandwidth usage depending on the event,” explained Seth Cirker, president of SituCon Systems. “This flexibility allows us to accommodate the varied capacities of wireless and wired networks at the different locations, and also provide law enforcement with the real-time information they need during a crisis situation.”

Acquiring Knowledge First Hand: Remote and Mobile Access

In a typical emergency, a 9-1-1 dispatcher’s job is to get as much detail about the situation as possible. As many in law enforcement know, information can often be scattered as victims find themselves under extreme duress without the ability to communicate clearly or find telephone access to dial 9-1-1. An individual’s Instant Alert button, however, is always at hand and the video becomes a first-hand account of the event as it unfolds. With the new privacy-ensuring cameras in place, Marshfield responders can monitor the cameras remotely to acquire direct knowledge of the situation. “It’s the difference between someone describing a Van Gogh painting versus seeing the painting for yourself,” Chief Sullivan explained.

Besides triggering the Axis camera to initiate recording and identifying the individual who pushed the button, the Instant Alert transmits a signal to the 9-1-1 dispatcher’s monitor that indicates the exact location of the now active camera. At this point, the dispatcher and the responders can remotely control the Axis network camera’s pan/tilt/zoom controls to identify who is in the room – town employees, innocent bystanders and potential perpetrators – and other critical details such as weapons or suspicious packages present at the scene.

Once officers arrive at the building, they continue monitoring the camera through wireless handheld devices before entering the room. “Providing responders with a real-time view of what’s going on has the potential to save lives and diminish the amount of damage done by the people who may be acting out,” Chief Sullivan stated.

Giving Town Employees a Greater Sense of Safety

When town employees were polled for their feelings about the new system, they agreed that they felt very comfortable with a privacy-ensuring system that remains “asleep” unless there is an incident. Town treasurer collector, Nancy Holt who often works late, said the cameras make her feel more secure – particularly at night when there are very few people in the administrative office area. Holt shared that there have been occasions when she’s left her office and noticed suspicious individuals wandering the hallways or loitering outside the building.

“There have been times when I’ve left the building and felt threatened,” Holt said. In those instances, she has returned to the building. Holt concluded that having access to the Instant Alert button makes her “feel more comfortable when I’m in the building alone or when there aren’t many other people around.”

Ellen Riboldi, director of Marshfield’s Ventress Memorial Library, insisted that “in this day and age, security in public buildings is essential.” She pointed out that her building doesn’t have a security guard and the entire staff is female. “If we have a disturbed patron, we have to deal with it ourselves and, on occasion, we will have to call the police department to inform them that someone is out of control or in violation of our behavior policies.” With the Instant Alert button, she can activate the cameras and send the police a distress call simultaneously.

“I’m sure some libraries might see these cameras in the context of Big Brother – an invasion of privacy,” Riboldi said. “But I don’t see it that way. My job is to protect people, whether it’s my staff or our library patrons. And this surveillance system gives me the tools to do just that.”

Defusing a Highly Charged Situation Quickly

Within months of the installation, Marshfield police found themselves responding to an incident at Town Hall. At one of several meetings taking place that Monday night, an individual, unhappy with the outcome of a town decision, aggressively confronted the committee member who cast the final vote. Rocco Longo, the Town Administrator, happened to be attending another meeting in the building and overheard a scream. Rushing downstairs to see what was happening, Longo pushed his wireless Instant Alert button. The police dispatch video screens immediately displayed a message that identified who triggered the alert and where: “Rocco Longo, Emergency Activation, Town Hall First Floor SE.” At the same time, the Axis cameras, which had been set in privacy protecting mode while the meeting was in progress, were activated to provide police with real-time video of the scene in progress. The Police Captain also received an alert on his cell phone and, recognizing the explosive potential of this situation, immediately accelerated the police response and called Longo on his cell phone to let him know help was on the way. This all happened so quickly that Longo was still out of breath from his sprint when he received the captain’s call. Patrolmen quickly arrived on the scene and resolved the incident before it could escalate.

“Axis network cameras with SituCam Privacy Protecting Enclosures provide us with the situational awareness we need to protect first responders and citizens in an emergency situation. Now we can see what we’re up against before we arrive at the scene,” said Bill Sullivan, Chief of Police for the town of Marshfield. “That helps us respond quickly and often deflate a highly charged situation before anyone gets hurt.”

Fredrik Nilsson is General Manager of the Americas for Axis Communications and author of the book Intelligent Network Video. He has authored numerous articles about networked video surveillance systems and cameras.

Published in Public Safety IT, Jul/Aug 2010

Rating : 9.8


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