Q&A: Lt. Eddie Lawhorn, Regent University

In the December edition of InAVate magazine Tim Kridel explores the surveillance market and the technologies needed to identify and catch criminals. Here, Tim talks to Lt. Eddie Lawhorn, tech services division manager at Regent University’s campus police department.

TK: I often see TV and newspaper stories about crimes such as bank holdups that include surveillance footage so grainy that it’s nearly useless. What are some tips and best practices for maximizing quality?

EL: My first recommendation to maximize video quality would be to update the recorder to a digital video recorder; and one that is good quality (not one that you can buy from a warehouse club for a couple of hundred dollars and includes 4, 8, 12, or 16 cameras). If you’re not using a DVR for recording video (from analog cameras), you’ve already lost the identification battle. Another tip would be to make sure your cameras are of good quality, with a wide dynamic range, and can provide clear video with the current lighting conditions. If that means some have to be replaced, the cost can be considered a trade-off from what you might lose in a robbery or theft that occurred while you were still using old, outdated cameras. Of course, making sure the area covered by the camera is adequately lit at all times, and that cameras are placed so that you can see faces of people either as they enter or leave, along with other cameras that might cover wide areas, always pays off. One big thing with placement and lighting is to try and avoid having a camera facing a light source, especially large windows or bright light fixtures. If you can’t avoid that, you definitely need to make sure your camera(s) have excellent wide dynamic range capability.

TK: Regarding your answer to question 1, let’s say that an organization does all those things. Then what should it consider on the control room side? For example, what kinds of product features and specs should it look for when choosing projectors, displays, analytics software and other infrastructure to ensure that the control now isn’t the weak link? Besides technological aspects, feel free to discuss the human element, such as ergonomics to minimize control room staff fatigue, or strategies for minimizing a sense of overload as the number of feeds increases.

EL: Moving to the back-end side of the equation, “control room” covers a lot of territory! Depending on the size of the organization, that could be a guard sitting in a little room or hut with a couple of black-and-white monitors he sort of watches while checks in vehicles, or a large room with a whole wall of monitors from floor to ceiling and a dozen people doing nothing but watching their assigned views all day. For most companies, though, a control room is more likely a small-ish room with one or two people looking at some decent sized HD monitors with multiple cameras on screen. Besides watching cameras, these personnel probably have to perform other duties, meaning the cameras aren’t watched all the time. In those cases, there are usually some cameras in areas that might be considered as higher priority areas, and those views should be able to be on dedicated monitors that can be easily viewed by the operators even when they are doing other things (answering phone calls, or talking on a radio). Reliable monitors, capable of having as high a resolution as your cameras, is the first step; mounting of the monitors, and the lighting in the room, should be considered with the knowledge that a person will be sitting (or standing) in that area for an 8-hour shift while looking at the monitors. You don’t want small monitors mounted far away from the operators, nor do you want large ones mounted too close to the operators – both situations cause eye fatigue (and I have yet to see a projector that puts up a clearer image than an HD monitor). You also have to keep in mind that a person can only watch a limited number of cameras, for a limited amount of time, before they lose focus and don’t notice things on the screens in front of them; you’ll want to make sure your video storage system records everything, and at a reasonable frame rate. You also want to make sure that, if you want to use analytic software, it will probably work better if it’s part of your storage system than if it’s built into the camera, at least for when you are reviewing footage.

TK: Are there any product features and tools, such as on cameras, that you’d like to see vendors add to help you maximize quality?

EL: Analytic software is one feature that I think can be useful, but, as stated above, I think it makes more sense to have it in your recording/playback system than on the camera, since your system is probably going to be made up of cameras from several different manufacturers, which probably won’t use the same analytics. Having optical zoom, whether manual or auto-based, is also a good feature, allowing you to maybe use one camera model for most of the places you want but still customize each view. A good auto focus feature is helpful, but so would having easy access to a monitor out port along with a manual focus adjustor.

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