Charlie Pierce: How Video Surveillance / CCTV Has Changed

By: John Honovich, Published on Sep 09, 2013

Charlie Pierce is a legend in CCTV and surveillance, having taught generations of new professionals. Pierce, the founder of LeapFrog Training and Consulting, has been in the industry for almost 40 years. We interviewed him to understand how the industry has changed, and how things have gotten better as well as worse.

Early Cameras Were High Price/Low Quality

Surveillance cameras and CCTV in the 1970s was vastly different than it is today. Now it is widely seen as the biggest and most powerful market segment but, back then, Pierce notes that it was, "the bastard child of the industry." Then it was primarily used by the government and on a limited basis, Pierce said. “It was expensive, bulky, and untried.” In the 80s, industrial security applications started up. In the mid-90s, retail stores started using cameras.

“If you were looking for a camera that could give you good night vision, it was either Panasonic or RCA ... but by the time you got done installing and putting everything in place, you were looking on average about $5,000-$6,000 per outdoor camera,” he said, noting that cameras were so expensive that it only made sense to put them on pan tilt motors.

However, those were nothing like the speed domes of today that can do a full 360 in a second. Pierce explains, “It would move at 11 degrees per second. If I’m looking at a scene 40 feet wide and I wanted to pan from the left edge to the right edge, it would take me about four seconds, so tracking was not as easy thing back then.”

Of course, $5,000 30 years ago is the equivalent of $10,000 to $15,000 today. Even 'cheap' interior fixed cameras would cost $1,200 installed at that time.

Recording Barriers

Even with cameras in place, VHS recording was incredibly limited. Pierce notes that VCRs 30 years ago could record in "time-lapse," but the longer you stretched out a video, the fewer frames per second you had. Add that to analog switching and the math becomes a designer's worst enemy. For example, a VHS recorder set to 400 hours of recording would have 1 frame every 2 seconds. If you had just 5 cameras connected, that would mean 1 frame per camera every 10 seconds, a huge gap for things to happen."

Conservative Deployments

When cameras were more expensive, Pierce noted a positive upside. People were more conservative and practical with their camera layouts. They were much more careful how they designed. But 10 to 15 years ago, as equipment became more available at less cost, people started getting carried away, he says. Projects are deploying more than enough cameras, but they are not deploying them in a way that meets the needs of the application. "They're selling cameras, not security application or support," he said.

Fixed Product Lists Facilitate Bad Design

“Integrators can only design against what’s in their sales books. So they continuously band-aid [applications] because they don’t have the available camera or compatible interface products to do the work. This limits their ability to do the job right.” Major integrators often work from preset equipment lists so if the best fitting camera is not in their sales book they can’t sell it, he says.

Cameras Overused

“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in the industry as a whole is that we’re forgetting that our job is for security and to produce visual evidence,” Pierce says. “Now, the thought is ‘let’s watch everything and sort it out in the end.’ Many companies are making money off of selling equipment and service contracts so they don't do a thorough job of looking at where or why cameras are actually necessary to the application. It comes from a lack of training, experience or possibly a need to fill the bottom line of the ledger page," he said.

Additionally, he sees cameras increasingly being used for jobs that should be done by people, like managing employees. The industry has shifted its concerns away from security, and video is now used more for surveillance of individuals, Pierce said. Some of this expansion of CCTV is driven by cheaper cameras,and some of it is driven by fear, he said.

End Users Should Hire Consultants

The typical end user is not educated enough about video surveillance to know what is going to work best for their application. “It’s a mistake not to hire a consultant - the people who have the training and the background to do this stuff. Most of my jobs come from people who just spent $1 million and want to verify they got what was in the contract and that they did the right thing,” he said. “Unfortunately, they usually have what they bought, but it isn’t what they needed … just not enough upfront discussion about the application, needs and concerns of the client.”

Education and Standards Needed

Surveillance has always been the “bastard child” of the security industry Pierce says. While physical security guidelines are popular and there are a number of certifications related them, surveillance is an area that has not seen much growth as far education goes. “We’ve got this tremendous technology, but we’ve got no standards. We’ve got not rules,” he said. Standards would make sure people at least had a minimal knowledge base when putting together systems. He noted that the security industry in the U.S. seems to be much less interested in standards than the industry in Europe. Pierce and others worked with SIA to put together a surveillance certification process and baseline standards but says it never took off among security professionals (and was already out of date, see our review at that time).

Final Comment

“I am not of the opinion that our industry is bad or even in trouble … I am concerned that we are losing sight of our real purpose for providing visual support to; Security, Productivity, Safety, and in general taking advantage of the amazing low cost, smaller and advanced technology that is available. Visual technology without restraint, education, morals or purpose is just another form of invasion and in the end will cost us all our general and specific, needs and rights to privacy and freedom. I have been saying it out-loud for forty years. Do cameras help in the overall cut down and/or documentation of crimes? Yes and no. Think about it.”

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