Smart City Learning: how surveillance can help build safer, smarter schools

From superbugs to lootings and aggressive behaviours, building within a world of ever-evolving security threats requires smarter solutions, especially when it’s something as important as our schools. You may already have heard of the term “smart city,” defined by Duncan McLaren and Julian Agyeman in Sharing Cities: A Case for Truly Smart and Sustainable Cities (2015) as “an urban area that uses different types of electronic data collection sensors to supply information which is used to manage assets and resources efficiently.” In other words, it means that the buildings (and the people using them) are connected and communicate better and there’s more convenience, efficiency and quality of life for everyone through technology. A building’s surveillance system plays a crucial role in a smart city, as various sensors and connected cameras enable law enforcement and other first responders to efficiently react to, respond to and help solve incidents and emergencies.

 First things first: assessing your risks

If you’ve been tasked with building or renovating a school, a professional certified in security vulnerability assessment can help you identify specific safety risks for students and staff. For example, vulnerabilities such as a floor-to-ceiling plate glass window next to the locked entrance door, or “human error” risks like a custodian politely holding open a door for an unknown visitor. Identifying safety vulnerabilities will help schools better prioritize budgets for security technology that is required and help highlight where additional safety protocols or training may be needed.

 The expert-recommended security solutions for schools

Network cameras and video management systems, secure vestibules, card access control systems, classroom door locks, emergency communication devices like intercoms and two-way radios, proper sign-in procedures and visitor management, a mass notification system, fire alarms and intrusion alarms are just some of the solutions and technologies that can be considered.

Network cameras can do much more than simply monitor and record events. With powerful processors and video analytics, cameras become computers with a lens, providing insights and alerts to improve the operations of a school. Video analytics can detect loitering or tailgating (when someone piggybacks through a secured doorway without an access card) and automatically sends an alert to security staff who can investigate further. Network cameras can even boost energy efficiency by turning lights on and off when people arrive or leave a physical space. The video management system (VMS) connects and monitors all the equipment via a secure wireless network. Visible cameras also encourage “good behaviour” among students, staff, faculty and visitors, adding another layer of deterrence.

Restricting access to unwanted visitors is vital, especially in schools which face threats and abductions. A secure vestibule works by funneling all visitors through one entrance into a locked foyer until their identity can be verified via video intercom. The intercom enables staff to have two-way remote conversation with a visitor, visually assess the person and then unlock (or keep locked) the door from their computer or even mobile device. This allows them to slow or stop potentially dangerous persons or address more usual issues like students cutting classes. Installing automatic locks on all exterior doors helps ensure that the secure vestibule is the only point of access.

 Card access control systems can enable a school to lockdown quickly. They also allow administrators to deactivate a card when a card is stolen or a person stops attending the school, or an employee is terminated. Additionally, data from these systems can help law enforcement investigate school crime. Classroom door locks also enable staff to quickly lockdown, in case of an active threat, so they and their students can take shelter. When equipped with hand-held radio systems, staff members can communicate what is happening in real-time with staff and, in most cases, even local first responders.

A school’s mass notification system should have multiple layers, including things like public address systems, text and e-mail alerts. The public address system should be connected to the fire alarm system so emergency messages are delivered effectively and audibly throughout the school, while an intrusion alarm system can monitor schools during off-hours, as well as areas prone to tampering or theft, such as computer labs. The cameras can be monitored on and off-site by authorized users from their desktop or smart devices, eliminating the need for additional security staff, and providing valuable situational awareness during emergencies.

 

COVID-specific surveillance solutions

With the COVID-19 virus still relatively new, there are not yet surveillance case studies specific to preventing the virus spread. However, there are several ways we can apply surveillance technology with IoT (Internet of Things) sensors to help enforce prevention measures within schools:

  • Reducing occupancy “hot spots” like corridors or hallways: an “occupancy estimator” connected to a camera’s sensor could gather percentage metrics to accurately estimate the number of students in the halls. When it detects too many students in one area, it could trigger notifications to the principal, as well as a strobe light and/or audio message advising students to properly social distance. Capturing this valuable video data can also help analyze overall occupancy for physical distancing measures, understand room trends and enhance utilization of the space, while providing the ideal environment to keep students safe.
  • Keeping washrooms clean and uncrowded: installing network cameras equipped with “people counting” solutions just outside of the washrooms can trigger messages to cleaning staff when necessary. For example, after 10 students enter and exit the washroom facilities it will need cleaning. These can also gather data on usage and sanitation requirements and tie it back to a revised cleaning schedule. A speaker near the washroom doors can also help to enforce physical distancing when too many students try to enter at once, with an audible message like “only three people allowed in the washroom, please wait your turn in the hall.” In the future, these intelligent speakers can be used to play music or relay other important messages to students.
  • No touch or low touch entry with notification system: network door stations notifying school staff when someone is at the main entry to pick up their children and allowing for two-way communication, combined with contactless remote entry based on a QR code, facial recognition or wave sensors (where you wave your hand to get buzzed in), can help eliminate or significantly minimize high-touch door handles.
  • Keeping aggressive behaviours in check: As students learn to accept the new normal at school, there is potential for aggressive behaviour. Since many safety and security incidents are preceded or initiated with sound, a camera and advanced audio analytic software can “listen” for predefined noises. A system like this provides algorithms that can detect an acoustical pattern and pick up on aggressive voices or sounds, then notifies the operator, who can evaluate the situation by watching live video feeds and take necessary measures.

Case study: Mount Royal University 

Once a remote suburban campus, Mount Royal University (MRU) in Calgary recognized that they had to upgrade their security when they got some new commercial and residential neighbours, as well as an increase in traffic via new roads. They replaced their old CCTV camera system with more than 200 network cameras, seamlessly integrated with a one video management system, enabling MRU to increase security without increasing staff. For example, their pan/tilt/zoom cameras with instant laser focus can catch the license plate of vehicles even when they are moving, impossible with CCTV cameras, which cannot focus fast enough. Multi-lens cameras also enable security to monitor three-to-four directions at once from a single IP address, saving them in camera licensing fees. Their network horn speakers effectively discourage anyone from hopping the fence into the university’s critical outdoor energy generation plant.

To ensure that random people aren’t given access, MRU also installed Network Video Door Stations at its east and west gate entrances. In addition to two-way audio, the door station includes a video camera that helps security vet a person before releasing the lock. MRU is continuing to explore ways that camera technology can enhance campus security, such as cameras with infrared LEDs to remotely monitor their server and controller rooms at night when they are virtually unlit. “We’ve grown by over a million square feet,” says Peter Davison, Security Director for MRU. “But due to budget constraints, we haven’t been able to add actual human assets. So, we view the cameras as a strategic force multiplier. We are (now) able to monitor all inbound and outbound traffic at Mount Royal.”

Cybersecurity – more important now than ever

With so many classes and lectures being brought online due to COVID-19, and with remote security monitoring becoming both necessary and standard, a school’s network is only as secure as the weakest link. If you have an Internet Protocol (IP) end point, such as an IP surveillance camera, speaker/audio system, radar or access control unit and you’re running on an unsecured network, you make the school susceptible to cyberattacks. That’s why it’s essential to train and educate staff accordingly on implemented security policies, following best practices in cybersecurity, and connected devices or surveillance systems must be hardened to make them more secure. 

Before you build: plan smarter through BIM software

When designing a school, today’s Building Information Modelling (BIM) software enables you to quickly and easily add cameras or other products to plan entire surveillance systems directly in your building plans, which will be updated in real time. BIM software is excellent for finding interdependencies before construction begins (reducing change orders during construction), enabling different teams to work in better collaboration with each other and managing end-user expectations. When building, it is important to protect the construction site as well, and a good surveillance partner can help to determine the best strategy and setup to monitor your site.

Ensure your solution is “future-proof”

What every school should consider with surveillance is future proof and open architecture, end to end surveillance solution of both hardware and software components. Choose your vendors wisely and work with trusted surveillance integrators and suppliers who understand the school landscape. Schools should also work closely with the manufacturers, as they understand the technology and how it can be used properly. Make sure your security solutions are updateable. Avoid anything proprietary that will not be scalable for other measures beyond the current pandemic. A truly effective system should use standards and has aspects of people, policy, process, procedure and technology all working in tandem, and can be effectively used in the future, post-pandemic, for operational efficiencies and performance. We can only build smart cities by effectively communicating with each other, and protecting our future generations takes future proof solutions.


Keith D’Sa is the country manager for Axis Communications in Canada. He is responsible for all business operations in the region, including new business development, marketing, professional services and sales team leadership. Mr. D’Sa also manages Axis’ relationships with local key distribution and channel partners.

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