Putting a stop to false alarms
Putting a stop to false alarms

Sep 1, 1999 12:00 PM
Randy Southerland

It's past 3 a.m. on a lonely commercial street in the big city. From behind the iron burglar bars of a small store comes the blaring sound of an alarm. Its startling wail slices through the air.

Blocks away the alarm is getting the attention of a police 911 operator. She dispatches an officer to investigate. What will he find when he arrives? The answer is ... nothing. It's just another false alarm. And it won't be the last wasted response of the evening.

As the officer knows too well, the majority of alarms police respond to turn out to be false. Stray animals, a rumbling truck, human error or mechanical failure can cause an alarm to sound. False alarms are costly: A business can be fined for having too many or pay even more dearly for crying "wolf" too often if authorities don't take alarms seriously.

Joining the fight against false fire alrms is SecurVision, an interactive video system marketed by Boca Raton, Fla.-based ADT Security Services.

GULF WAR TECHNOLOGY Using image recognition technology developed during the Gulf War, the SecurVision interactive video system provides central monitoring of a location. Combined with real-time human monitoring is the ability to simultaneously transmit an encrypted digital image and even hand off the images to local police, say company officials.

The system, which works with existing CCTV cameras, can recognize that the image on the screen is a human intruder, not a stray animal or a change in lighting. The system is being used to protect hotel lobbies, fast food drive-throughs and the ATM machines at several Citibanks across the U.S.

Because SecurVision is interactive, it calls for a high level of participation by operators at ADT. Image recognition technology makes that participation manageable. During installation, a reference frame for each CCTV camera is taken and stored in the system's memory. Once armed, SecurVision is ready to automatically monitor a facility, cycling through each camera twice per second. It can then provide instant verification of human activity while safely screening out non-threatening movements.

HOTEL SECURITY For the past few months, Holiday Inn Atlanta Airport has been testing SecurVision. A large, multi-floor property with several hundred rooms only a few blocks from one of the world's busiest airports, the hotel sees a steady stream of guests. It is also located on the city's coarser southside, and security is a constant concern of manager Kevin Gallagher.

Gallagher and rooms manager Gene L. Calloway like the system's image recognition technology, which can distinguish between a person moving across the image screen and, say, paper spilling out of a printer.

"It picks up the movement on the screen," Gallagher says. "The monitoring technicians in Denver can see if there's a person there and if it's a human being in a ski mask, they can call the police."

>From a narrow room directly behind the front desk area, Gallagher's staff >also records the images locally on a VCR, providing a one-week backup for >the SecurVision system. The Philips monitor and control unit is connected >to two Koyo cameras behind the front desk. They give a clear, continuous >view of the area. Images of desk clerks checking in a never-ending stream >of travelers flicker across the screen. The area is monitored continuously >between 11p.m. and 7a.m. - the hours of greatest concern, according to >Gallagher.

ADT product manager Randy Dunn explains that "once there's a (on screen) pixel change, statistics are calculated (by the software) about the image and a determination is made about what kind of image has caused the change."

Comtrak manufactures the system's components, which include a PC-based platform and software that turns the camera into a video motion detector.

Along with the live video feed, the system can also supply high-resolution snapshots of an intruder. These photo-quality frames can be e-mailed or faxed to local authorities for instant verification.

Reduced costs are a strong selling point of the system, says ADT marketing director Steve Longo.

"We can log on to a location and see what's going on there," says Long. "So instead of having the cost of two guards, they can now have one guard, but still provide a higher level of safety to the area. We can also install a panic button. It sends us a signal, and we can view the location and send a message to the police that we have a robbery in progress."

Relying on technology to watch events thousands of miles away does not come easily to everyone, however. Replacing security guards is out of reach for the Holiday Inn.

"Because of the design of this hotel it would probably take 600 cameras to cover every nook and cranny," remarks Gallagher.

PROTECTING A FRANCHISE Further north of the hotel, just off an interstate that slices through the heart of the city, SecurVision is being tested by AFC Enterprises at one of its Popeye's Chicken restaurants. It's a classic urban location. The store is crowded each day with college students on break, workers on lunch hour and mothers and their children on the way home from school. It also attracts some of the more downtrodden of the urban landscape. Panhandlers, the homeless and beggars walk through its parking lot and occasionally its lobby.

Carl Diaz, director of loss prevention for the company, says the location was chosen to test the system because of its high activity level, diversity of customers and urban setting. It promises to be a field test for some of the more advanced aspects of the system, including the ability to give local authorities the same video images that ADT sees at its remote location. Officials from Popeye's and ADT are meeting with local police to work out the details of setting up the arrangement.

"We have a partnership with the Atlanta police department's emergency response unit," Diaz says. "We will be able to feed a direct, live-line system - direct visual - to the Emergency Response Unit. So instead of a normal situation where the (ADT) monitor is dialing 911 and reporting an alarm, they will identify themselves as sending through the feed." The system is scheduled to be up and running in late August.

"If we can see what's going on out there and they can give us information, that's more than an alarm to me," says Atlanta Police Department Maj. William Gordon.

"The value to the police department is they'll know what they're looking at and what to expect when they get to a location," says Dunn.

"We have the ability not only to monitor, but to intervene when these kinds of situations are occurring with an off-site person and document (criminal) activity audibly as well as visually," observes Diaz. "Much more information is available for law enforcement to respond to our concerns. The system is there not only to observe potential loss, but really to protect the location."

RESPONDING TO A REAL PROBLEM Gordon agrees that "we treat those kinds of alarms a little differently than a situation where it's just an alarm ringing because you have a little more information. The more information we have, the better decision we can make about the kind of response to provide."

The Popeye's location is equipped with seven color cameras that Diaz believes will be the standard for other locations.

Four cameras are internal. They monitor rear-door activity, lobby activity, cash register and the counter, as well as the drive-up window. Exterior cameras mounted 15 feet high on light poles monitor both sides of the building where doors are located as well as the rear of the property. Attached to the cameras are both microphones and speakers.

"If any intervention is needed, it can be done quickly and will be heard by everyone in the area," Diaz says. "When an officer is dispatched to a location, he's assured there is a crime in progress."

Diaz adds, "At a location like Popeye's Chicken, we're on-line, and if the store manager has a problem he can pick up a phone and get a direct dial into the ADT special operations center and report the problem. An ADT does a voice-down asking the people to disperse, telling them they're trespassing."

In the morning, when an employee comes in and deactivates the alarm system, ADT monitors are alerted that someone has entered the building. An ADT officer will bring up the video images to see who is there and what is going on.

"In turn they will greet them (the employee) and ask, 'Is everything okay?' The employees feel comfortable that there is someone on their side watching over them in case of problem," Diaz says.

The system can also escort them camera-by-camera to their cars in the parking lot, he adds.

COMMITMENT TO SECURITY The commitment to security is part of company policy.

"One of our major concerns is the safety and welfare of the staff as well as our customers," Diaz says. "We're very attuned and involved within the community. It's not just an issue of having a restaurant at a location to serve the general public. Our restaurants are really part of the local community landscape. We want to be able to provide not only a comfortable place to eat, but a place that is as safe as it can be."

Longo adds that the system provides "a significant level of security to that location with a significant reduction in cost."

A standard interactive video system can range from $10,000 to $12,000 to set up. Monitoring fees can range from $300 to $500 a month. "When you compare that to the cost of having a guard on site, the return on the investment is enormous," says Longo.

Company officials maintain the system is versatile. Up to 23 cameras can be monitored off a single unit and up to 64 cameras over a single network or phone connection.

Simple, monitored alarms aren't good enough any more. Today, human beings have to stand behind technology and keep a watchful eye on their customers.

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