All Eyes And Ears On Public Transit
All Eyes And Ears On Public Transit

Feb 1, 2003 12:00 PM

These days, people in transit via foot, car, bus or train more often than not have a lot on their minds places to go, people to see and schedules to maintain. The manner by which they conduct themselves and perceive others' conduct can be innocuous or risky from a public security and safety perspective.

The Austin, Texas, public transportation system, which serves a metro population of approximately 650,000 and transverses about 500 square miles, has recently stepped up its defense of the public safety using wireless digital cameras that are recorded both on and off-site. The cameras are located strategically inside and outside of city buses.
Stop, Look and Listen

"We began researching the concept of using cameras a few years ago, but the technology just wasn't where we wanted it to be," says Pam Rivera of Capital Metro Security. "We wanted to use surveillance not only as a security tool to protect customers and employees from crime, but also as a risk management tool to deter incidents and reduce liability, so we wanted a range of features."

Rivera explains that the city was seeking video and audio capabilities. This year, equipped with a Federal grant to fund what may reach a $500,000 security initiative, Capital Metro is putting a wireless digital surveillance system from GE Interlogix's Kalatel division, Corvallis, Ore. The system provides both audio and video recording as well as integration with other on-board Capital Metro security functions such as panic alarms and a radio system, Rivera says. To date, Capital Metro has installed some 25 systems on its buses and aims for 60 installed within the first year, with an option to phase in approximately 30 more per year in coming years, ultimately bringing more than 100 buses up to the new security standard.

Video is recorded using both black-and-white and color cameras according to the goal of the application, says Blair Spikes, also of Capital Metro Security. Black-and-white cameras may be used at bus doors, for instance, to capture passenger facial images with precision, whereas color may be used elsewhere. "As soon as a passenger gets on the bus, camera number one would record them, then as they turn and walk down the aisle to be seated, a second camera would record them again as they approach their seat," Spikes explains.

Recording begins as soon as the bus is in operation, and all video can be stored and viewed locally or transmitted wirelessly in near-real-time back to Capital Metro headquarters where an appropriate response can be determined. The length of time images are stored and other recording specifications are preferences Capital Metro can choose on a per-case basis, Spikes says. Ultimately, each bus will be equipped with between four and seven cameras, according to the transit authority.

Spikes recalls that the first day the cameras were in operation, they delivered not only safety but also liability benefits to the city: "The first day they were in effect, there was a seven-car collision involving one of our buses, and someone claimed Capital Metro was at fault," he says.

"Given that the cameras were mounted on the exterior and interior of the bus, we were able to review exactly how the collision occurred and note all the cars involved, how passengers and the operator responded and when EMS came on the scene. So immediately, the system proved beneficial not only to security but to operations and risk management as well."
Public Perception

Public reaction to public surveillance can be mixed and, to this day, the average Joe on the street will often evoke Big Brother concerns when queried about it, but Rivera insists that has not been the reaction of the Austin community. "Early on, we consulted transit employees for their buy-in before going forward, communicating that one goal of the system is to help ensure their personal safety the technology seems to be perceived as reassuring," she says.

Broader community awareness of the installation has also been key to its acceptance. Says Spikes: "An important aspect of the success of an initiative such as this is alerting the public to the surveillance," he notes. "Every bus has signage at both the front and rear advising passengers they may be recorded, and local media has devoted significant coverage to the installation. Feedback has been positive."

Additionally, Capital Metro has worked closely with the Austin Police Department from the outset, Rivera says, consulting with the department regarding system features that would benefit police investigations and establishing a chain of custody to ensure the integrity of footage in the event it needs to be used as evidence during an investigation.

Footage has in fact already proved useful to both the public safety and the police. Rivera says that the systems' audio and video capabilities captured a recent assault, and Capital Metro Security was able to work with the investigating Austin detective who, in turn, worked with the victim of the crime. All told, more than 80 officers will ultimately be trained in how to use the new system.

In the long term, Capital Metro expects the system will save both time and money by helping to prevent crime, by staving off liability issues and, says one Capital Metro official, by providing a more secure, comfortable riding experience for passengers.
Kate Henry is an Annapolis, Md.-based writer and regular contributor to Access Control & Security Systems.

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