Alternative transmission mediums for leased fibre are allowing local government CCTV schemes to save money, and give more scope and flexibility regarding camera deployment. Luton Borough Council has used wireless transmission. Mark Rowe reports from the town.
Jason Butler, pictured, CCTV manager of Luton Borough Council, sat at his desk in a corner of the basement control room. Outside, weekday shoppers and lunchers walked the main pedestrianised streets and the covered mall stores. Nearby, work goes on to make Luton railway station a transport inter-change to take the guided bus way from Luton to Houghton Regis which is on schedule to Open May 2013. Like the town, life goes on with the town’s CCTV, despite the recession. A West Ham Football Club coffee mug sat between Jason’s computer mouse and some retail radios. Like so many public space CCTV managers, Jason has found himself taking on other, related community safety responsibilities, in this case the retail radios for the town’s pubs, clubs and shops. “The town centre scheme started as a 22-camera scheme from a Home Office bid,” he recalled of the days when central government of both main political parties offered money for council CCTV hardware. Those days have long passed, and CCTV has gone through the same austerity as the rest of local government. That said, Luton’s is still progressing. A refurbished control room is planned. In a side room, a purple-uniformed traffic enforcement man has flat screen monitors for traffic purposes. The control room is not entirely as it was in the beginning – a pair of flat-screen monitors have been attached to the wall of CRT monitors. At the back of room is the video ‘wall’ of 48 monitors; there’s a gap, then the long set of three desks to hold a row of 12 monitors. Planned instead is something simpler that will shrink the room by about a third, and leave scope for adding more capacity if required, for instance if neighbouring councils ‘plumb’ their CCTV for monitoring. On his PC Jason called up colour images of the new control room.
The town is making its CCTV money go further – literally. As in many places, the council’s system grew with time. Besides the 136 on-street cameras, there are cameras on tower blocks on the outskirts of town, covering car parks, depots and various other sites making a total of about 490, digitally recorded and transmitted over the council’s hybrid CCTV network. “And there are plans for additional systems; we are looking at a couple of locations. Because of the financial situation, we are looking at wireless [transmission], simply because we cannot afford to use leased fibre, unless it’s right outside the [control room] building.” The telecoms company BT, the fibre transmission provider, bases the price on distance, ‘so you pay by the kilometre. Some of our lines are over £1000 a year, the cheapest is probably £500.” Some lines date from the start of the scheme in 1998. Since it began using Wavesight wireless transmission, Luton has only been using wireless for new cameras; the town has not yet looked at old circuits going wireless, though some councils have.
Jason said: “One of the problems I found was that the council had a lot of stuff out there, but nobody watched it,” or people on a site watched the CCTV in an ad hoc way. Jason therefore suggested to the housing department that the stand-alone DVRs located in housing blocks can be added to the wireless network, thus giving the CCTV controller remote access to the CCTV footage on demand. This also meant a cost saving for the police who could remotely access and retrieve footage without physically having to visit any of the sites. Wireless transmission is a cheaper alternative to fibre; it gives the user flexibility; and, in some cases, the switch from fibre to wireless has been prompted by vandalism. In the Hockwell Ring part of town, 20 CCTV cameras were cut off for some months because the multi-channel fibre cabinet was set on fire. Leaving aside the cost of rental of the line, the council faced a cost of replacing the cabinet and electronics. The council spoke to Wavesight, a wireless transmission product company based in Luton, to see whether they could find an answer to their problem. Wavesight designed a network and submitted costs, which were then presented to the council. CCTV partnered with the housing department which agreed to share the costs. Cameras in and on the Hockwell Ring blocks of flats could be monitored by the council control room, which could dial into the digital recorders inside each block. Cameras on top of the 14-storey flats offer a bird’s eye view of the district. As a further result of using IP based wireless transmission the council now has the flexibility to deploy IP cameras and NVRs at their waste and recycling depot.
Another advantage of switching from fibre to wireless that Jason repeatedly mentions throughout our meeting is the marked cost savings the council has witnessed in terms of moving from an operational expenditure model to one of capital expenditure. Putting it in other words the council now owns the wireless elements of their network infrastructure, thus being in control of any problems if they occur, and any maintenance needed. Jason said: “This sort of saving by switching to wireless represents about one third of the cost of using leased fibre transmission.”
As for DVRs, Jason reported that over the last couple of years recorders have been upgraded with Samsung products: “They offer value for money, with a product specification, that produces high quality evidence and recordings.” He also made a point of how simple it was to save and then open evidence as a file, for the police. Luton’s on-street cameras on columns are – as in many public space systems, from Hemel Hempstead to Matlock, Norwich to Bournemouth – Metal Mickeys, formerly of Forward Vision, now part of Bosch Security Systems.
The control room staff are contracted to a third party. Jason came with the control room, as it were; he answered a job advert for CCTV operators, and rose to become supervisor and manager: “Everything I have learned has been very much hands-on.” To add briefly to that, he likes to talk with manufacturers, to see how products work, rather than be told how they work; and he has taken Tavcom Training courses. On the wall by Jason’s desk was a framed certificate naming him as a winner in the G4S security employee of the year awards in 2009; on the basement walls are many other such records of achievement; training courses taken, congratulations from local police commanders. As elsewhere, while different councils have different ideas of how their CCTV will develop, whether depending on the political party in control or geography, the neighbouring CCTV managers speak to each other: Maria Daubeny at Central Bedfordshire Council, and Danny Hendrickson at Bedford Borough Council. Wherever the CCTV control room, operators have become part of the loose team of public and private sector people whose job in any town is to police the place, in the widest sense. During Professional Security’s visit a uniformed PCSO came in, took his cap off, and stood between the two seated operators. The 120-camera system at The Luton Mall shopping centre sends live CCTV of incidents to the council control room, which can patch images onto the police. Likewise, the Galaxy centre with its 48 cameras. The saving there is that the retail malls do not have to connect to police direct; and the council control room can learn of any incidents inside the shopping centres, and know where to pick them up with on-street cameras, if the incident comes outside. LBAC (Luton Business Against Crime) runs a retail radio scheme, and Luton Safe runs a pub and club watch scheme, sharing the same radio link used by PCSOs, and the retail police unit. For the night-time economy, mainly, there’s an “SOS Bus’ and a van, staffed by volunteers, to offer assistance and items such as flip-flops to pub-goers who have mislaid their shoes.
What’s to come, besides promotion from the Blue Square Premier for Luton Town Football Club?!? The control room has been testing a video analytics package for a few months, with the aim of flagging up abnormal behaviours to operators. As in any town there are events to monitor. Luton has had its share of EDL marches; the Olympic torch passed through on July 9, carried by among others the Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton; as part of the three-day Love Luton festival. For that weekend the control room had extra staff. Jason recalled the festival footprint stretched from the town centre to Wardown Park: “Because of the high profile event the Home Office offered to supply four extra cameras to monitor the areas the fixed CCTV infrastructure doesn’t cover – this was achieved by Wavesight wireless bridging direct to the control room.” But to return to wireless transmission; it offers the prospect of installing cameras for short-term rapid deployment on demand. Jason demonstrated a similar example achieved by the schemes necessity to cover a disused bus station being used as a temporary car park, where the camera is mounted on a street light. As he summed up: “We have just tried to use the infrastructure we have got, and wireless gives us the ability to tweak it.”