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An Inside Look

Written by James Careless

“What’s going on inside?” It’s a question that dogs every SWAT team member when they deploy outside a shooter-controlled building, especially if there are hostages inside. Knowing where the occupants are helps SWAT team commanders deploy officers with a minimum of risk to themselves and innocent victims. Knowing where everyone is inside allows SWAT team members to take down the shooter as soon as possible.

In an effort to provide SWAT with this advantage—in addition to regular police, fire, and EMS crews—Spotsylvania County, VA is deploying Internet-connected surveillance cameras inside their schools.

With this equipment in place, any first responder equipped with a wireless-capable laptop computer can not only access these feeds live, but switch between them at will using a Web browser. While designing a system that would meet the county’s needs for rugged, wireless laptop computing, the County chose CDW Government, a technology solutions provider that focuses on the government and educational market, to supply its mobile data terminals with integrated communications using CDMA.

The inspiration for this system was the April 20, 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Even though there were some surveillance cameras inside the school, responding officers had no way of accessing this video. “This meant that the police didn’t know where the shooters were, nor what options they had for taking them down,” Spotsylvania’s Information Technology business analyst for public safety, Greg Call said.

When Spotsylvania’s schools were given funding to install video surveillance, the County persuaded school board officials to choose IP digital cameras for their systems. Not only are these fixed-focus cameras relatively inexpensive, but they’re also designed to connect to a Local Area Network (LAN).

In this instance, each of the county’s five high schools has 20 to 30 cameras connected back to the school LAN, which is then connected to the County LAN. Local police can then access this video on their own computers, either in the office, or in Spotsylvania Sheriff’s Department cars equipped with Itronix GoBook MAX ruggedized laptops and Sprint 56 kbps wireless modems.

The cameras themselves cover high traffic areas such as hallways, entrances, and key schoolrooms. Because they are fixed in place, some areas are covered by multiple cameras in order to provide comprehensive coverage.

Since being switched on five months ago, the Spotsylvania video surveillance system has allowed officers responding to incidents—typically fights between students—to see what they’re dealing with before they enter the school. As well, since the video is automatically stored on an archive server for 30 days, the Sheriff’s Department has been able to use this footage as evidence when laying charges, and to support the charges in court.

The bottom line: Internet-connected surveillance cameras are a big help to police, including SWAT. This raises two questions: what locations should be equipped with such surveillance cameras, and what can SWAT do to convince politicians that these deployments make sense?

Selecting Internet-Surveillance Areas

Obviously, it makes sense to outfit schools in this manner, as is being done in Spotsylvania. Other logical locations include hospitals, courtrooms, holding cells and jails, and government offices accessible to the general public.

In the private sector, it would make sense to put Internet-accessible cameras in banks, common areas in shopping malls, and other places where either a lot of money or valuable merchandise is at hand, or where people tend to congregate.

Persuade Government Officials

Clearly, SWAT commanders can’t go to the news media and brazenly promote these cameras, because going public could put their careers at risk.

However, high-risk businesses that have had a history of criminal attacks—such as banks—might be convinced to trial such surveillance systems on their own, with the police being given the ability to tap into this surveillance video at will. Eventually, one of these businesses will suffer another incident—one in which SWAT access to Internet-connected video might mean the difference between life and death. As cynical as this sounds, it would likely work; especially if the business had decided to install Internet-connected cameras on their own.

Over time, as more lives were saved, the public would become accustomed to SWAT teams having access to an “inside look” when they needed one. Eventually, the public might even come to expect this level of response!

These are general suggestions, of course, but they lead back to the Columbine massacre and Spotsylvania’s efforts to prevent such a horror from occurring in its schools. One thing is certain—should SWAT ever respond to an incident in a Spotsylvania high school, they’ll be able to see what’s happening inside before taking action. This intelligence will provide a priceless opportunity for SWAT to save both civilian and police lives, and to minimize potential carnage.

James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He may be reached at info@tjtdesign.com.


Published in Law and Order, Jun 2005

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