Friday, March 12, 2010

Mobile Monitoring: Keeping Buses Safer

By Larry Mays

Surveillance cameras have been on buses for years. The video, recorded by a bus-mounted DVR or VCR, provides law enforcement officials with an opportunity to review criminal events. Transit operators can also look at the video to check on the driver’s performance.

The major problem with these reviews is they cannot be performed until the recorder has been retrieved — often long after an event has taken place.

The Maryland Transit Administration has plans to change that. The agency recently announced it will outfit its entire 700-bus fleet with video surveillance cameras and related equipment capable of downloading video at one of several depots. Upon arriving at the depot, the buses will electronically authenticate themselves then use a Wi-Fi hotspot to “dump” all video or just that tagged by alarm buttons.

The video will then be sent wirelessly to a central dispatch center. This way video can be available almost instantly, giving law enforcement officials a jump on indentifying suspects, witnesses and crimes. As anyone in law enforcement knows, time is critical in a criminal investigation.

The MTA, which plans to complete the project by early next year, has already placed the equipment on 130 of its new and existing buses.

Another goal for the new system will be the transmission of the downloaded video to MTA police squad cars in the field. That will still take an expanded wireless network and the placement of receiving technology in the cars.

We are not that far away from being able to transmit live, real-time streaming video from buses anywhere in a city. That would be possible by taking advantage of the latest security technology and the 3G networks or the wireless mesh networks that many cities across the country already have in place.

These networks provide a path for video to be transmitted from a surveillance camera to a central monitoring station operated by a school or transit authority, private provider or security monitoring company. Each camera on the bus is equipped with either a radio transmitter or 3G card. As the bus travels across town, the video is transmitted to the nearest wireless node and routed to the monitoring station.

By adding a GPS unit to each vehicle, a bus’ position could be pinpointed within a few meters. Then when an event takes place, a trained professional monitoring the cameras can see what is happening and knows where the bus is located. With existing technology, these coordinates are integrated in a way so the monitoring center knows the exact 9-1-1 dispatch number to call. Information can be shared with local law enforcement to provide a faster and more appropriate response.

Bus passengers and drivers get an extra feeling of safety with the cameras on board. Law enforcement will love the MTA system as the cameras act as a force multiplier for their officers on the streets. The video equipment also helps to harden the transit system against terrorists.

And the MTA officials aren’t stopping with video surveillance on buses. They already have hundreds of wireless cameras throughout Baltimore that cover metro and light rail stations. The video is transmitted to a central command center for monitoring. And they would like to add other detection systems, such as chemical and radiological devices, to further enhance the safety of transit passengers and other citizens.

”When trying to solve crimes, the first few hours are extremely important and this video capability allows us — literally at a moment’s notice — to respond to crime,” said Col. John Gavrillis, chief of police for the Maryland Transit Authority. “The MTA has really taken the lead among the transit agencies in utilizing video capabilities to secure their facilities.”

Indeed they have. They should be commended for taking new and existing technologies and combining them into a complete solution. Moving forward, we need to see this type of video surveillance expanded to other transit agencies across the country.

Larry Mays is group director for transportation and logistics for ADT Security Services. He brings 31 years of transportation information management experience, helping to develop strategic network-based solutions for companies such as Unisys and Pan American World Airways.