Cheap City Surveillance Case Study

By Carlton Purvis, Published Mar 10, 2013, 12:00am EST

City surveillance systems often cost huge amounts of money - $10,000 per camera deployed is common. One Pennsylvania city took a different approach spending less than $10,000 for the core network and adding on cameras for just $1,000 each. Unfortunately, this resulted in big problems. In this article, we break down the issues based on interviews with city officials, the integrator involved and a copy of the bids received.

The Setup

The Hazleton, PA project began in 2010 to allow businesses to join a monitoring system owned by the city, but regular outages have the police drafting an RFP for a system overhaul. The city paid $9,500 for “antennas, software, monitors and network video recorder,” from Northeast Remote Surveillance and Alarm (see the city's contract). Businesses could buy $1,000 kits, which included a camera and a transmitter that would connect them to a control room at the police station. To reduce bandwidth, the cameras would only record and transmit when they sensed motion. 

According to the integrator, the entire setup was customized at each location using Ubiquiti Networks transmitters (on 5 GHz or 3.65 GHz frequencies) and 1.3 to 3 MP cameras on the outside of their facility. Each location was able to use its own recorder. 

The businesses connect to the police department using a dedicated wireless link instead of a VPN /wired network. Cameras that faced internal areas at the police station or the jail would use VPNs, Northeast said, but all of the cameras on Hazleton’s public-private network faced outdoor, public places. 

Service Issues

The system's problems came from interference with nearby wireless networks, the Standard-Speaker reported, citing the police chief. Outages are common, and there is no way for end users or the police monitoring the cameras to make sure the cameras are transmitting correctly.

The system has enough outages that police log the incidents and notify the manufacturer after each shift. 

Reliability Problems Blamed on Budget

Keith Maxwell, CEO of Northeast Remote Surveillance and Alarm, says the company has completed similar projects for surrounding cities, but the Hazleton’s budget for the project is what limited the city’s options for better equipment. 

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While bigger cities like Wilkes-Barre and Allentown have the funds to install million dollar systems, Hazleton is working with a considerably smaller budget. Says Maxwell, “Their expectations are a little high for what they’re willing to spend. You can't buy a Nissan and expect it to handle like a Bentley."

“They wanted a setup but we had to keep it affordable. The problem is that they don’t have the money. So the service agreement will run out and they don’t have the money to continue the service agreement,” Maxwell said. The work he’s done recently on Hazleton’s system has been for free, he says. 

The Contract Analyzed

IPVM obtained the contract and bid results from the city, which raised a number of issues:

  • Only two bidders: Many municipalities require at least three bids.
  • Massive differential between the two bidders: The winning bid, at $9,500, was 63% less than the loser, at $26,055. This is a warning sign of problems, often that one bidder went with far lower quality components or missed something in the specification.
  • The 'RFP' was simply a bullet list of items without any details or explanation about the desired system. This frequently leads to confusion and omissions as bidders can interpret the request far differently.
  • The winning bid looks far too low for the items listed. For instance, the $9,500 winning bid included a 32 channel 12TB NVR, wireless equipment, 65" monitor and installation. It would be hard to buy the materials alone at that price, nevermind reselling and installing them.

The Architecture Flaws

Beyond the contractual issues, the design choices raise obvious concerns:

  • While Ubiquiti wireless is popular and respected for point to point links, using this for even a small city wide project is bound to create interference issues, almost by design. Even if each link would work on its own, scaling up many businesses increase risk and probability of failure.
  • Depending on basic camera motion detection, especially for detecting events outside, is problematic. The likelihoods for nuisance motion detection is quite high, making it hard to rely on those inputs.

Significant New Spending Planned

Now, the Hazleton police chief is developing an RFP for a system to enhance the existing system. The new system would need to be user-friendly enough that it could be run and maintained by city employees and will have around-the-clock monitoring and recording capability, he said. The city hopes the RFP will be complete by mid-March. The city is setting aside $85,000 for the upgrade.

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