The Best is Useless

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David Morse offers a tale from the CCTV front line - when even the very best technology is useless.


Whilst we sometimes seem obsessed with specification-ism when it comes to selecting equipment for our system we sometimes neglect the need to ensure that its operation is checked regularly for performance. I have been auditing the performance of some installed systems and lift the lid on what I found – can it all be really that bad?

IFSEC memory

I can well remember the IFSEC (held at Olympia in those far-off days) when Philips, as it then was put a CCTV camera up on the corner of its stand viewing the crowded aisle, and a colleague of mine on the Group 4 stand was heard to remark: “A camera? What’s that to do with security?” If only we’d known! Since those days I have had an abiding interest in CCTV and it puzzles me now that whilst we produce Operational Requirements conformant with HOSDB methodologies and closely consider camera placement, low-light performance, image quality, recorded frame update rates, tft screen response times etc, we seem to do little to regularly check that the system is operating as intended and consistently producing useful results. Tapes jammed in a VCR that hasn’t turned a spool in three weeks are hopefully a thing of the past, but I can assure you that Murphy is alive and well and out there to frustrate your best efforts at every available opportunity. Over the last nine months or so I have visited about 40 systems, many on sites with a PSS [public space surveillance] element, some private estates, multi-tenanted office buildings, hospitals and universities.

Peace of mind

So far I haven’t found it necessary to spend three days on a site – checking and listing each image for content, quality and replay characteristics plus site signage, ICO [Information Commissioner’s Office] registration and SIA licensing (if applicable), evidence download procedure and management documentation was completed in about half a day - from the client’s perspective not a bad investment for a year’s peace of mind. In most cases I found that the system had been originally installed competently and to a reasonable specification, but when called upon to provide vital output the performance just hadn’t been there. Let me share a couple of examples with you. One system I recently visited in West London and equipped with its own 24-hour control room and more than 150 cameras had 19 of them producing no useful or useable data whatsoever. One image showed a totally blank screen, magnolia in colour, and when I quizzed the operator he confirmed that a partition wall had indeed been constructed a metre in front of it, some time last year!

Hours not days...

Looking at the outputs from the recorder stack all seemed pretty much in order (resolution, image content, day-night replay quality, frame rates) until I measured the archive periods and on two machines it found that it was 38. No, not 38 days, 38 hours! As one on-duty operator commented: “That’s handy – I can do the job after my shift on Friday, and by Monday morning when it’s discovered, there’ll be no record.” Then I came across a set of 16 cameras which were apparently not recording at all. Opening up the recorder rack in the equipment room it soon became evident why – one recorder completely missing. Not there. Gone. AWOL! With no management records of equipment serial or other URN numbers in place not a single person could tell me when the recorder was removed, by whom and on whose authority. Well, never mind – perhaps it’ll turn up on eBay. This system was installed on a site occupied by a law-enforcement agency. No names, no pack drill, but I can pretty well guarantee that if I was to identify the site you would gasp and shake your head in disbelief! And, in case you’re wondering the site did have a current and fully comprehensive maintenance agreement with a CCTV installer in place. I can only hope that they’ve now been fired.

...and one hour

Then again I just visited another site and was carrying out my initial checks when I found that the recorders had not adjusted from GMT to BST. So I asked the facilities manager to call a competent operator in so that I could gently draw it to his attention, and if he was unable to change it show him how. The reply took me back a little: “Oh – there’s only one person who knows how to use it but he’s gone to Ireland, because a member of his family is seriously ill, and we don’t know yet when he’ll be back.” Need I say more?

This article was originally published in Professional Security Magazine. If you would like more information on subscribing to this magazine please Contact us.

In connection with VeriFi we are able to offer a full audit of your CCTV system and provide a full report as to where it falls short of the Home Office Operational Requirements Manual for CCTV and the Data Protection Act.