School Surveillance System On Life Support

By: Carlton Purvis, Published on Mar 17, 2014

It might be time for a new system. After a decade, this school is finding it hard to keep hundreds of cameras running.

In just the last three months, at least two incidents would have been recorded if the cameras were working. One was an altercation between a student and a teacher. The other was a fight between two students. In both cases no one knew the cameras were broken until Tuscaloosa City Schools administrators wanted the footage.

This led to questions for Jeff Johnson, executive director of facilities, the department overseeing camera maintenance. We talked to Johnson about the cameras and why even basic repairs sometimes take as long as three months to complete.

After an audit he reported that around “10-15 percent” of the cameras in the 23-campus system were not working. Each school has 75 cameras on average. 

The Cameras

The school is using a Bosch system (cameras and DVR) but was unable to recall the exact models. The oldest cameras were installed 11 years ago. The newest are seven years old.

He says the number of cameras down across the school system is 15-20 percent primarily because of the age of the system and from lightning strikes and storms which are common year round in Dixie Alley.

“Some schools it may be 20 percent down, but other schools it may be 5 percent, but at elementary schools you have less cameras so that’s a lot,” he said.

Elementary schools also have less incidents where cameras need to be reviewed so they are less likely to have a reason to view them. Johnson’s department gets requests for footage about once per month from school administrators and once every three months from police investigating incidents that happen near school property.

In many cases the requests from schools are false alarms from stray animals.

“We have PTZ cameras that pick up motion and zoom in to see it,” he said. “We’ll have an alarm go off at night between 12 and 3 am and we find that it’s a mouse or a cat in the building. That will come up a lot of times. The principals have to answer the alarms and meet the police out there.”

The low frequency of actual evidentiary use of the system led him to establishing a maintenance plan that involved a monthly status check of all cameras.

Maintenance

Now, each month administrators are supposed to login and look for issues. They are compiled and sent to the local contractor responsible for maintenance. They now keep a log of all issues. In the past they would only send requests to the contractor, but there was no way of tracking ongoing issues to look for trends in equipment failure or camera status.

The lenses and imagers on the older cameras sometimes stop working. Often gears will break, and repairs for some of these cameras can take as long as three months.

“What was state of the art years ago might not be a stock item anymore, so it might have to come from the manufacturer. Sometimes it’s just a weird part," he said.

Replacement cameras can cost as much as $2800 for the outdoor PTZs and $800-$900 for the models being used inside the schools.

For more on specific maintenance issues with cameras in schools, see our post titled School Surveillance Maintenance Problems Revealed.

System Overhaul

Johnson he’d like to overhaul the system, but has to get funding and approval and that process has only begun in the last few weeks. The school system wants to move to a central server (currently each of the 23 schools has its own) and use cameras with a higher pixel count, he said.

“There are a lot more options out there than Bosch now. We’re going to look for cameras that produce a better picture, better pixel counts and better color and the software is much more powerful now that it use to be,” he said. The estimated cost of an overhaul is $6 million.

For now, though, they will continue to replace the parts piecemeal as they fail.

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