Focus

Tightening Security Through Phone Line Pictures

SCHOOL SAFETY by DON SADLER


About ten years ago, we were in deep trouble at the Huntsville, Ala., City Schools. We were losing control of our campuses. Incidents of arson, theft and vandalism were commonplace. On one Sunday afternoon, an elementary school lost every computer in its computer lab. Vandals broke 150 windows at another elementary school and 75 more were smashed at a middle school. The gym floor at another middle school was intentionally flooded.

Our insurance costs were topping $1 million a year and our agents warned that the school district might soon become uninsurable. Fortunately, our administration and school board recognized the danger and took action.

We installed a closed-circuit television system, along with motion sensors, heat and smoke detectors and magnetic door switches. The district installed from three to 12 cameras on each campus. The video from each camera was transmitted by microwave radios and then relayed to a central monitoring station. There, technicians viewed school activity on more than 40 monitors, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

We saw positive results almost immediately. Within the first few months of operation, burglaries ceased and vandalism costs were reduced to less than $200. Within a few years, the $1.6 million system saved the district more than $500,000 in insurance premiums alone. Then, too, we reaped savings from fewer burglaries and reduced vandalism and other criminal activity.


Updating Technology
However, after seven years of operation, the system needed to be upgraded and expanded. This proved to be an expensive and difficult process. Each new microwave radio set cost $20,000 and required approval from the Federal Communications Commission--a procedure that could take from six to nine moths, assuming frequencies still were available.

About this time, officials from the local telephone company, BellSouth, suggested using the Integrated Services Digital Network and a long-distance picture transmission system from Sensormatic Electronics Corp. known as Robot HyperScan.

Unlike traditional telephone service, an ISDN line has not one but three channels that can be used to simultaneously transmit voice, data and video communications. A HyperScan transmitter sends video from security cameras via one ISDN channel at 38.4 kilobits-per-second. Alarm control information from motion detectors, heat sensors and other sources are transmitted over a second channel. The third channel is available for audio, device control and other communications needs.

We tested the system and found it to be a good match for our needs. We began replacing the microwave system at our 43 school sites--a process that was completed several years ago. Our microwave system was state-of-the-art at the time, and our latest move returned us to the cutting edge of school security. ISDN has proven to be more reliable because it is not affected by severe weather or line-of-sight limitations, as are microwave systems.

Also, ISDN lets us expand our network quickly and easily--without FCC approval--and offers us a separate backup system by simply switching to another phoneline in the event a repair is necessary. The district has saved at least $700,000 in hardware costs alone.

Savings Impact
The results have been impressive. We receive higher resolution pictures, leading to better suspect identification. And the system has helped our security officers to confiscate weapons, including guns, knives and brass knuckles and drugs from students. A number of activities, such as burglaries, fights, trespassing, even a tornado striking a school building, have been captured on video.

Our administration and board are committed to protecting the school facilities and providing safe and secure schools for our 25,000 students and 3,000 employees. If everyone doesn’t feel safe in school, students cannot learn and teachers cannot teach. Our security system supports our instructional efforts by supporting safety in our schools. Also, the savings we made from switching to a phoneline-based system are being used to augment the district’s instructional budget.

We continue to see savings on our insurance bills. In fact, we have had insurance companies solicit our business--even offer rebates because of our security system.

Admittedly, we had some teachers and other staff members who initially had reservations about a "big brother" system that made it even easier to keep the schools under constant surveillance. But those feelings have subsided as our employees realize they are safer throughout the day, especially when they access school grounds after hours.

Don Sadler is director of facilities management for Huntsville City School District, P.O. Box 1256, Huntsville, Ala. 35807. E-mail: dsadler@hsv.k12.al.us