Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Transit Bus CCTV - Budgets, Costs, Benefits?

Most transit agencies now realize the positive impact of using video surveillance technology in their vehicles. These cameras aid in protecting and reassuring the passengers’ safety and comfort by reducing vandalism and other criminal activity. Also, in today’s litigious society, they can reduce the liability of the transit agencies, municipalities and their respective insurance companies from false and frivolous lawsuits.

While the benefits of this technology are real, there are substantial costs involved in equipping an entire fleet with a quality surveillance system. With shrinking transit budgets, the question that must be asked is: do the benefits outweigh the costs? In order to answer this we must first consider all costs that will be incurred (present and future), such as purchase price, added inventory, installation, operational and maintenance costs.

Starting a Video Surveillance Program
At Waukesha Metro we are currently on a test pilot program utilizing a digital video recorder (DVR) with six cameras. We had been considering cameras for some time, therefore when a vendor offered to let us try their unit free of charge; we saw it as an opportunity that was too good to pass up. The demo system is installed in one of our 2004 Gillig low floor buses. In its first year of operation it has been an extremely reliable system as we have not experienced a single issue with the DVR or cameras.

All six cameras on our pilot bus are color cameras and are aimed at critical vantage points such as entrance door (which covers the wheelchair ramp and farebox), the right front windshield (covering the street and curb), the exit door and three other interior locations that allow us to view all of the passenger seats in the bus including the two designated wheelchair places. The cameras at the entrance and exit doors are also equipped with audio microphones.

The digital hard drive is a small and compact unit which is located in a locked box behind the driver’s compartment. By having the recorder locked, it is guarded against theft and vandalism, and equally as important, it is also protected from being turned off or otherwise tampered with.

Most camera system vendors are willing to let a potential customer demo their system prior to making the decision to purchase. I would suggest to any agency that is considering the purchase of cameras, interview a minimum of four vendors. Then, based on established criteria, i.e. price, options, timing, etc., pick two vendors to install pilot systems into separate buses for a set amount of time. This will allow an agency to see first-hand how well each system performs on their streets and in their specific conditions. Along with being able to evaluate each system’s performance and reliability, the agency will get a feel of how easy to use each system is with respect to viewing incidents and accidents.

With the installation of a demo system, ask the vendor to include available options. Some of the options that may be available include audio microphones, event markers, color cameras, sensors which record braking, speed of vehicle, flashers, turn signals, lights, etc. By including these options, it becomes clearer over time which options are absolutely necessary, and which ones are not. When faced with tight budgets, this knowledge can be critical.

Looking at the Costs
The initial cost of a six-camera system can vary between $3,500 to $6,500 per bus depending on manufacturer and options. In addition to the initial cost, inventory expenses will also need to be considered. These systems generally come with a one-year warranty, therefore stocking up on spare parts may not be needed right away, but will eventually need to be purchased at some time. A spare hard drive allows the user to keep the bus in service by swapping out a hard drive with a spare unit. The cost of a hard drive for our system is approximately $1,200. Our vendor recommends a 10 to 20 percent spare ratio on hard drives, with a minimum of two spares for smaller properties. Other recommended spare parts include microphones, cameras, and DVRs. A 2 percent spare ratio on these items is adequate.

There are ways to reduce costs. Some transit companies opt for fewer cameras per bus. Instead of six cameras, they may use three or four. This is a matter of preference and available monies. It is possible to cover the entire interior of the bus with as little as four cameras, but keep in mind, with less cameras come less detailed camera angles. Still, four cameras are definitely better than none.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, most, if not all camera systems are available with options, and just like when purchasing a new vehicle the more options that are included, the more the price goes up. Therefore, limiting options to only what is necessary will save money.
We have decided to do our own installation on any units that we purchase in the future as a way to save money. Our vendor has indicated that it would be willing to work with us when we install our first system at Waukesha Metro, and would continue to support us as our service technicians install any remaining systems. By installing the systems ourselves, we’re told we can anticipate a savings of approximately 10 to 15 percent per bus off the normal cost of installation. Unfortunately, this scenario may not be possible for all transit agencies. In part it will depend on how many camera systems are being purchased, as well as whether or not the time and personnel required are available to devote to this type of campaign.

I mentioned maintenance costs as another consideration for overall costs. So far, maintenance costs on our system at Waukesha Metro have been minimal. Our pilot system has been in operation for a relatively short time (about 14 months). As one would expect, we shouldn’t be experiencing many problems with a system this new.

Low maintenance costs can also be attributed to the fact that the system has very few moving parts, and the entire unit (components and wiring) is secured inside the vehicle, thus eliminating exposure to the outside elements. The durability of these units now means more reliability and less maintenance.

There is not a recommended scheduled maintenance program for these systems per se, however, like any computer, fragmentation may occur over time making the recorder work harder to write the drive. Cleaning this up may be necessary from time to time.
Operational costs on the other hand can add up quickly depending upon circumstances. Searching hard drives for incidents can be tedious and time consuming. On average, a person can expect to spend a minimum of 30 minutes removing the hard drive, searching, locating and viewing the desired footage on a computer, and finally, saving the material properly. Depending upon the circumstances surrounding the incident, this time could increase dramatically if copies are needed for insurance agencies or police departments, or if the exact date and time of the incident that is being searched for is not known.

Donald Jans, director of operations at Waukesha Metro agrees that it can be time consuming and tedious when searching and viewing digital recordings but also believes that it is worth the time and effort based on the benefits of reducing or eliminating fraudulent claims and criminal behavior on public transportation. “Obviously, searching for an incident on the hard drive is easier when the exact date and time of the incident is known. If an incident has been marked — that is, if the operator pushed the incident button, the footage will be automatically saved and locked five minutes prior to and five minutes after,” states Jans.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. There can be times for instance, when a passenger calls in a day or two after the fact. He or she may claim an injury while riding a bus, due to a slip or fall. Most times it will be blamed on the operator for taking off too fast, stopping too hard or perhaps turning too sharply. Rarely will the passenger know the exact time and sometimes they’re even unsure of the date. It’s in these cases when searching footage becomes time consuming. “I am able to speed up the viewing speed, but if I go too fast, I run the risk of missing the incident entirely,” explains Jans. “Generally, I’ll view the video at two to three times the speed of the actual video.” This means if it is necessary to view four hours of footage, approximately one and a half to two hours will need to be allotted for watching the video.

Because of the time and energy that will be expended in this area, as well as the importance of following proper procedures when viewing or saving material, it is important to establish guidelines and policies for an organization. Questions will need to be answered such as: Who will determine when a hard drive is to be removed? Who will be the primary person viewing incidents? How and where will the footage be saved? Also, with more camera systems in service, more data will need to be viewed and saved. This can create another dilemma for the user. It is not out of the question to say not only will a computer need to be specifically designated for viewing and saving material, it is very likely this could become a large portion of a person’s time as well.

Benefiting the Operators
Richard Riley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union in Milwaukee, Wisc., whose union represents approximately 2,100 members, says, “In the past, installing surveillance cameras on buses struck a nerve with operators. Everyone felt as though “big brother” would be watching every move that they made while driving their buses.” But, while there is still concern regarding the use of cameras for disciplinary purposes, Riley states that the operators of his union have had a “shift in their philosophy.” He goes on to say that “in larger cities where assaults to passengers and operators can occur more frequently, union members now appreciate the added security.” It also helps to ease the minds of operators, given the fact that normal positioning of the cameras in a typical installation do not aim directly at the operators. In fact, unless an operator leaves his or her seat, the person viewing the recorded material will not know who is driving the bus.

Many operators believe cameras are a good tool that can be used to help solve crimes that occur on buses, but even more importantly, they believe that the cameras serve as a deterrent to criminal behavior which creates a more positive and safe work environment for themselves, while also providing the passengers a more relaxed riding experience. When people know their actions are being recorded, more often than not, their behavior improves.

Like the advancements made in the mind-sets of union members, there have been advancements made in the electronic surveillance industry as well. Cameras and recorders are not only getting smaller, but they are being built with technology that will someday, in the not too distant future, allow police or dispatchers to see live streaming video from inside any vehicle that is equipped with a system. In fact, with the use of wireless technology (Wi-Fi), this is already possible with some manufacturers. This type of technology is intriguing, but is it really something that we need?

In our post 9-11 era, there has been an increase around the world of terrorist activity aboard buses, subways and trains, and so this type of wireless technology could be a helpful tool for law enforcement, allowing them to identify exactly who the “bad guy” is, where he is seated or even perhaps to locate a bomb that has been planted inside the vehicle. While terrorism alerts have heightened recently, this type of situation is still an extremely rare occurrence; therefore most transit agencies would not reap the benefits of this added cost. But, benefits are being seen in the reduction and settlement of insurance claims.

Reducing Your Risk With Video Surveillance
Nancy Kreutzman, executive director of Transit Mutual Insurance of Wisconsin, likes the idea of cameras on public buses and states that “approximately half of the transit agencies that TMI insures operate surveillance cameras in their fleet.” With the cost of an insurance claim averaging around $3,000, Kreutzman says a system can virtually pay for itself with the elimination of one fraudulent claim. And there are fraudulent claims.
Vinny Licciardi, a field service technician for Verint Camera Systems, tells the story of an attempted fraudulent claim in a city that had just recently installed surveillance cameras on its buses. He states: “As the mechanic was test driving the coach, he rear-ended a car at a red light. After stepping off the bus to exchange information with the driver of the automobile, the mechanic returned to find 10 people sitting on the bus. They all claimed to be on board at the time of the accident. He tried to explain that the bus was out of service. No one on the bus would leave. He then pointed to the cameras and informed everyone on board that the entire incident had been recorded. Immediately, and without a word, all of the supposed passengers exited the coach.” As funny as this story is, it is unfortunately a true story that happens in cities all across the United States.
People ask, “Don’t you run the risk of having the cameras work against you by proving your guilt?” Yes, it is true that there will be cases where the cameras provide evidence against the transit system, but according to Kreutzman, she doesn’t see it as a double-edge sword, because, she says, “even in those cases it provides an insurance company the leverage of knowing whether to take the case to court or to settle outside the courtroom.”

As one can see, there are many things that need to be considered when deciding whether or not to install surveillance cameras in transit vehicles. After weighing all of these costs and benefits, it is Waukesha Metro’s opinion that the benefits far outweigh the costs.

Waukesha Metro continually strives to improve customer service. Installing surveillance cameras on buses is one way we are enhancing the service that we provide to our community and passengers.

Because of the overall satisfaction of our pilot system, we have ordered four more units for our paratransit buses.

It is because of all these benefits that surveillance systems in transit vehicles are growing. In today’s world they have become more of a necessity than a luxury. In the very near future, I believe we will be seeing cameras in all transit vehicles. So the next time you board a bus, you may want to smile, because chances are, you will be on camera.

John Peckels is the maintenance director at Waukesha Metro Transit.