Camera screw-ups are common. I’ve seen cameras blocked by hanging plants or knocked out of alignment to offer splendid pictures of the ceiling; I’ve seen images reduced to backlit silhouettes or fuzzy sasquatches; and I’ve visited countless schools in which no one knows how to retrieve or download recordings. One school kept their single, dedicated, black and white, live-playing monitor locked in a cabinet, at ground level, in the teacher’s lounge. All worthy candidates for the Camera Catastrophes Award (CCA) (pronounced Ca-CAH!). Believe me, you don’t want one of those!
Ways to avoid earning a CCA:
Tip #1 – Don’t do anything listed in the first paragraph.
Tip #2 — Check references. Visit installers’ previous clients. Arrange a tour of previous installations. Ask those earlier customers if they’re happy with the results.
Tip #3 – Be clear about your requirements. You might think that your desire for great equipment should go without saying, but it can’t. True, any professional installers worth their salt should want to deliver outstanding equipment and service, but many fail to do so. It really doesn’t matter what they tell you about fancy features, or how many megabytes, or that these cameras are state of the art. Tell them that’s fine but ultimately you want FORENSIC quality RECORDED clips under the predicted lighting conditions, that you can easily DOWNLOAD. Tell them “I want to be able to identify a person walking past the back door at 2 a.m., in the rain.” You can even put that in writing. If the picture quality falls short, call the installers back and tell them to make it right. I actually heard one installer claim with a straight face, “they never told me they needed high quality pictures.”
Tip #4 – Think long term. Anticipate the need for immediate maintenance and repair services down the road, probably on a Saturday night after a big game and a train wreck during a blizzard, or when anything else goes wrong. Notice I didn’t say “if”.
Tip #5 — Check once in a while. Cameras get bumped. Plants get hung. Lighting changes with the seasons or upgrades. Make sure the angle and quality are satisfactory BEFORE disaster strikes.
Tip #6 – Protect equipment. If vandals can easily mess with your cameras, that’s a problem. Options to consider:
• Mount cameras and cabling out of reach. This takes some advanced planning. The right lens is determined partly by the distance from the point of installation to the area you want to keep an eye on, so generic, one-size-fits-all approaches won’t cut it. Don’t buy your cameras before you’ve determined exactly where they are supposed to go, and what they are supposed to accomplish.
• Protective features. These most commonly include either hardened cases that are difficult to damage, or protective cages installed over an otherwise vulnerable piece of equipment.
• Buddy systems. Every camera should be captured in the range of another camera. If someone attacks camera A, the image should be captured by camera B.
• Electronic alarms. Cameras can be set up to trigger alarms if anyone does anything to them, ranging from spray painting the lens to detaching camera mounts from the wall.
Tip #7 – Outfox the vandals. Install a mix of overt and covert cameras. Overt cameras can be effective deterrents, and perfectly good for capturing images when offenders fail to pay attention. Portable covert cameras, however, can take your setup to a higher level, capturing images of offenders who are trying to hide while they pull on ski masks or commit offenses. As one example: students are clever about seeking out hidden spots where they can smoke cigarettes, fight or engage in other unacceptable behaviors. Hidden, moveable cameras can keep them on their toes.
Tip #8 – Think about the wiring. The images they capture have to go somewhere. Wireless technology continues to improve, allowing for greater flexibility, but there’s still room for improvement. As of 2015, hard-wired cameras are still less finicky. Piggy-backing on your school intranet is generally the most affordable approach, but running dedicated cabling to dedicated monitors and recorders is definitely an option, and can provide a failsafe if the primary intranet system goes down. In either case, at the construction stage, run sleeves everywhere you might eventually want a camera. Maybe you can only afford four cameras today, but next year perhaps you can add a few. If that opportunity comes around, it’s far more affordable if the sleeves are already in place, allowing you to painlessly run new cabling.
Tip #9 – Recording equipment is critical. RECORDED images must be of high quality, and easily retrieved. In many schools we’ve inspected, nobody on site knows how to retrieve the images, or download them, and there is no protocol for archiving recordings in suitable evidentiary condition. Clips might get copied to DVDs that get tossed in a drawer, with no consistent approach to securing them, or protecting confidentiality, or keeping track of them for retrieval a year down the road.
Tip #10 – Who’s watching? Is someone expected to be monitoring the live imagery 24/7? (If so, I pity the poor soul.) Some districts have control rooms, staffed continually by security staff, watching for trouble. In smaller districts, that’s likely not an option. At some sites, receptionists are expected to watch, while simultaneously answering phones, checking in visitors and filling in as the school nurse. To make it worse, if the school tries to save a few dollars by playing the security footage on the same monitor needed for all other computer functions, that live footage will get buried pretty quickly. (I noticed one receptionist playing Solitaire!) A dedicated security monitor is essential.
Tip #11 – Hedge your bets. Don’t rely on only one person watching the monitor. They can try, but they’re only human. Watching for more than 20 minutes will drive most people crazy. So make it easier for multiple viewers to share the load. Send live footage throughout your intranet system, or to a cloud site, viewable by all designated staff.
Tip #12 – Give high-risk locations special attention. Students who spend anytime outside the protection of the main building are more likely to be vulnerable to confrontation by trespassers, bullies, or the like. In such cases, cameras covering the areas nearby, with monitors inside the closest supervised area, can help. In portable buildings, for example, monitors playing inside classroom doors (at the back of the classroom, behind students, but within view of the teacher), enable teachers to spot trouble nearby and quickly respond.
Tip #13 — Take it up a notch. Video clips are great for identifying culprits after the fact, but maybe you’d like more out of your system. Strengthen your intercom system by integrating cameras, triggered by a push of a doorbell. Or step up your response capability by integrating cameras into any emergency triggers, such as hardwired or portable panic buttons or cell phone applications, which should immediately send images to School Resource Officers’ smart phones.
It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the enhancements coming on the market, but the above list should serve you well. At the least, it might help you avoid earning a CCA! And if you want to sleep well at night, either hire experts or pursue advanced training for your own staff tasked with purchase and installation. The video clip below may be helpful:
( This article was originally written for use by our partners at Safe Havens International. (www.safehavensinternational.org )