Why are CCTV pictures so poor?

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I apologise for beginning this article on an irritating note but let’s talk for a moment about speeding fines. So writes Mike Tennent, Managing Director of Tavcom Training.


How many of you have ever had one? Come on, put your hands up. Oh, that many, eh? Right. Next question … and I want you to be honest. How many of you have ever had reason to complain that the picture taken of your car during your famous impersonation of Stirling Moss (OK, I’m showing my age again … let’s say Jeremy Clarkson) was really of poor quality? Ah, not many hands going up this time! So, if traffic cameras can capture an image of your car and its number plate so perfectly, why are CCTV pictures so often perceived as being poor if not downright awful ? CCTV pictures should be - and can be - just as good as those nasty speeding fine examples some of us get through our letterboxes from time to time. Where is it all going wrong? Let’s get straight to the point. If you’re an end user of a CCTV system, it’s basically all your fault!

Statements to ponder

Here are some statements and some questions for CCTV users to ponder. The answers come a little later in the article and hopefully clarify what I’m getting at when I point that accusing finger. They are in no particular order but are closely inter-related.

Question one: Most of you assume that any consultants you employ to design and build your system will be totally competent and really ‘know their onions’ because they have fistfuls of certificates and qualifications behind them. Have you ever asked to see them?

Question two: The same assumptions can be made for individuals and companies in the installation and maintenance fields. If they were gas fitters, you would have expected them to be CORGI registered wouldn’t you? What should your security systems installers have to prove their competence?

Question three: Specification sheets and demonstrations arranged by manufacturers and suppliers are genuinely fair and accurate. True or false?

Question four: When purchasing a new IT system for their companies, professional buyers conduct much research and checking to ensure that the system will be reliable and make the company more profitable and efficient. Security systems are too often selected purely on price and not on performance criteria. Why do so many buyers want to achieve the impossible of buying a Mercedes 500 for the cost of a clapped-out second-hand banger?

Question five: Security system users, in general, do not understand the jargon of security systems nor do they work in close partnership with the consultant and installer to achieve the security solution that meets their expectations. Have you requested and completed your OR (Operational Requirement) with your supplier or consultant?

Question six: Manufactures are producing sub-standard, poorly functioning equipment instead of goods that produce high quality results. Why don’t the suppliers make better quality stuff?

Question seven: Good financial budgeting for equipment repair and maintenance is essential if your system is to be preserved in a state that is fit for purpose. Do you know the typical - and proper - costs of maintaining a security system?

Question eight: OK, end users; this one is not your fault but it is a fascinating conundrum, none the less. One reason for the impression that CCTV pictures are always bad is that electronic and print media consistently feature stories that depict very poor images or describe security breaches that were badly managed or addressed. It’s not always like that! Is the reason our media does not spend more time reporting the good things that take place that the British public only like disasters and horror stories?

Purchasing false economy

Before looking at the answers or responses to those questions … I am sure you can already see my point. I am putting the bulk of the blame squarely on the shoulders of those who purchase security equipment and services. Whilst control of finances is always essential, it is obviously false economy to purchase consultancy services, installation services and, ultimately, the security system itself if any or all of these essential ‘components’ are simply not up to the job. Those with the metaphoric ‘short arms and long pockets’ in the financial circles of companies should, as true professionals, listen to the advice and guidance of those who are best qualified to recommend equipment and services and not be afraid to invest in the best if they wish to acquire security systems that are genuinely ‘fit for purpose’. To draw a parallel, if you want a new television for your house and family, do you always select the cheapest, irrespective of quality and performance, or do you give consideration to how it will grace the home and provide images that are pleasing to the eye? If there has to be compromise, perhaps it should be in quantity rather than quality. In a nutshell, if there are insufficient funds to provide (for example) a high quality CCTV system using 12 cameras, then only install the minimum at the most critical points and add the rest when finances allow. It seems so obvious doesn’t it? Why then does this not happen? Ultimately, I can only encourage you to think along these lines.

My answers

Back to the statements and question. My model answers are:

Answer one: If you’re not asking; you should be! Most of us reasonably assume that only a highly qualified and thoroughly ‘vetted’ surgeon (normally a consultant) will appear in the operating theatre to repair our ailing bodies. Should consultants, possibly plucked from Yellow Pages, always be given a similar degree of automatic confidence and trust? Don’t get me wrong. You may rest assured that there are some really excellent consultants in our industry but you should identify them by asking to see their credentials or by asking for advice from one of our excellent professional associations. The Association of Security Consultants, The Security Institute, ASIS, the CCTV User Group and the BSIA are just a small selection of the excellent organisations that set out to improve the industry.

Answer two: Again, there are many really good, well qualified individuals who can prove their competence with qualifications received through the BTEC or City & Guilds route. You should ask to see these credentials and you might also ask them if they have Professional Indemnity Insurance (PI). Talk to one of the approved inspectorates if you would like advice and guidance on your installation and maintenance. The NSI and SSAIB are two respected independent companies.

Answer three: Well, let’s just say that if you have little or no experience of installing a security system, instead of relying on the specification sheets or one of the demonstrations offered by a local supplier you should appoint a competent independent organisation to decide what equipment best meets your needs.

Answer four: ‘Wishful thinking’ is the honest answer. Of course budgetary constraints are a fact of life but purchasers should always bear in mind the very real dangers illustrated by the old proverb ‘to buy cheap is often to prove expensive’. To put it another way, you can have a succession of cheap old bangers or something more expensive, efficient and reliable. The latter is often far better value in the long run.

Answer five: This question is probably the most important of them all because the answer is often, and unfortunately, no. I believe it should be the very first job to conduct an Operational Requirement with a person who fully understands the outcomes. The time spent on this act will resolve most of the issues in the design and implementation of a system and, as a consequence, will be of great value to your company, your installation supplier and the operatives who respond to the security system.

Answer six: They do … it’s just that you have elected to choose the cheaper option! All suppliers would like to be in the position of making only superb equipment that produces high quality results. However, they have to supply ‘economy’ versions too, as the expected costs of purchase are being ruthlessly and consistently beaten down by buyers who do not understand the consequences of their actions until the system is installed!

Answer seven: Your answer probably has to be ‘no’ because nobody knows the length of a piece of string! We can say however, in general terms, that users frequently fail to take into account the ageing of equipment and make the mistake of believing that warranties and guarantees are for life. On the other hand, the costs of supplying a quality maintenance scheme have largely been abused by the trade. These are serious issues for both sides because good, useable CCTV images are only produced by good, affordable maintenance. A positive step forward would be for you to lobby the quality associations and ask them to provide a code of practice or guidelines for the industry to abide by, regarding the provision of quality service.

Answer eight: TV, the internet and the press provide us with a perfect oxymoron. I have spoken to many eminent writers and presenters who confirm that their audiences would not watch their programmes or read their papers if only good news was reported. We do seem to be highly entertained and amused by catastrophes and failures! So the answer here is that I have no answer! I have no explanation for this state of mind or this perceived public prerequisite.

Criminals won't stand still

Finally, to take some of the pressure off our beleaguered systems buyers, I offer a related digression! It is the belief of many that some of our British and European Standards are based on too low a threshold and that we, as a community, should be looking to raise the bar, not to issue a lower grading. Which images will really provides good identification in external, difficult environments? Remember that under controlled lighting and controlled entry and egress one is able to capture really good images. The problem is that intruders don’t really like to stand still in well lit areas to have their photos taken! If CCTV pictures are really to ‘improve’ let’s make sure we give them even more challenging targets – not easier ones! The question ‘why are CCTV pictures so poor?’ should be replaced by the query ‘do they really have to be?’ and the answer is clearly ‘no’. The wisdom of investment in sound advice, good technical skills and advanced high quality products needs to be explained, understood and accepted. Standards need to be elevated to ever higher levels. If those two things can be achieved the third question in the sequence should be ‘how do they make those pictures so clear?’.

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

If you would like some free advice on purchasing a CCTV system from an Independent CCTV Consultant please Contact us.