The Role of CCTV In Resolving Major Incidents

By Vlado Damjanovski

I was asked to write an article on the CCTV aspects of a hypothetical incident and “what will/could/should/may happen after a security-related atrocity or major incident occurs”. A worrying thought indeed.

A major incident could be, for example, a bomb in a public place which could affect almost everybody in this city. There are such public places in all major cities around Australia.

So, to give a hypothetical scenario, assume a bomb has been planted at a major public venue in the biggest city in Australia and is detonated, killing innocent civilians and causing widespread disruption to the daily busy lives of thousands of people commuting in and out of the city.

What will be the first thing to happen? It is not very difficult to guess. Firstly, there will be traffic chaos. Roads, particularly in Sydney, are not designed to cope with something as unpredictable as that. As police sirens ring out across the city and ambulances and rescue vehicles rush to the crime scene, traffic would come to a standstill.

Secondly, and most important in determining who is responsible for such a heinous crime, would be the gathering of all the CCTV footage from the cameras positioned across the crime scene, if there are any. If there are no cameras covering the area, there would be a barrage of awkward questions aimed at the owner of that particular (public) space where the detonation occurred. Security personnel know that the decision of what needs to be covered with a surveillance system in public spaces is predominantly based on a consultant’s advice, which is usually based on a security manager’s experience with past incidents and ‘hot-spots’ that he or she is aware of. Clearly, it is possible that some proximities are not covered if there has been no history of a previous incident. As is common knowledge, cutting short on the number of cameras is usually the first step in ensuring that a CCTV system falls within the allocated budget.

However, chances are that all public spaces, in Sydney at least, are covered by a camera from one point or another. So, the issue is not whether an infrastructure is covered by CCTV, but how good the coverage of these cameras may be. A few questions need to be addressed. Is the video clarity sufficient for the police to be able to draw any conclusions of who planted the bomb? Is the video in such a format that the police can replay the footage on their system in the first place? Will the low-cost, low-quality Chinese camera imports suffice, given that not many people know about them (except the installer that was sold such a system); and can their exported footage even be played back? These are important questions, but with many variables, and obtaining a correct answer may not always be easy.

Firstly, the camera resolution plays a big role, followed by the lens quality, the angle of coverage (focal length of the lens), the image quality (both in frames per second and compression), the camera low-light capability (typically most critical incidents occur in low light), and so forth. Similarly, the recording quality and recording duration are also important parameters. Luckily, most recorders these days offer at least a week or two of recording, if not more.

So, the issue is not whether an infrastructure is covered by CCTV, but how good the coverage of these cameras may be.

When a major incident happens, chances are the police will only want the last 24 hours of footage. Therefore, the length of a recording of such a major incident would not be an issue (unless the recording is discovered three weeks later). Instead, it will be the quality of recording that is important, taking into account the parameters mentioned above.

Today, most of the installed CCTV cameras are set to cover an area with as wide a view as possible with little regard to the quality of the recorded details. Quality in this instance does not necessarily mean sharp and focused images, with ‘good’ compression. It refers to the quality of the viewed scene where object details have pre-defined recorded pixel density, at the area of an expected incident. There are known pixel densities defined in various standards and, when applied properly during the design and installation stage, they will guarantee capturing the required details as expected by law enforcement agencies.

Very few consultants, and even fewer installers, will provide the requirement for the camera coverage at the expected incident distance. Very few of them will clearly request for image pixel density sufficient to recognise or identify a person. Rather, most of them will just make an effort to set a vari-focal lens to cover an area as wide as possible, without really being aware that at least 250 pix/m for face identification, or at least 125 pix/m for face recognition at a certain critical distance is required.

Unfortunately, in the security industry today, anybody can import a ‘cheap’ product from the Asian market without taking into consideration whether a possible major incident could be covered by such products. In my role as a consultant, I have been called as an expert witness in a court matter, only to find out that the recorded footage used in the defence could not be replayed by anything. Both the camera and the recording system had no details of the manufacturer, its brand, the model or serial number. When I investigated the company to make contact, I discovered that it was no longer in business.

So, as a consequence of a hypothetical incident occurring, it would be tragic to learn that, although the public area might be covered by CCTV cameras, it is highly probable that such cameras would not have captured sufficient details to identify the suspect. Even worse, it is highly probable that the recorded footage cannot be replayed properly.

Blurry and unclear images will flood the news and people will be pointing the finger to the dated and poor-quality CCTV system. Not many will consider that, actually, it might be the consultant’s fault for not specifying camera views properly. Equally, the installer may have cut corners by supplying inferior equipment which promises the ‘world’ to the customer. Certainly, very few people will point the finger at the owner of the system, who has agreed to work with an ill-informed consultant and paid for an inferior system, thinking that having any camera, rather than none, is good enough.

Having poor footage in TV news stories contributes to ill feelings by the public in reference to CCTV being used in public places. One of the criticisms of public CCTV is that it is inefficient and unclear in places where it is needed the most.

The next thing to happen, in the case of the hypothetical public incident, will be a barrage of government promises ensuring that future surveillance systems will be better and will guarantee the apprehension of suspects and prevent future civil unrest and crime.

Tragically, only then will the real purpose and use of CCTV systems and cameras be made evident. Cameras are not introduced to observe people’s private doings in public places. CCTV cameras are there to protect the community from the ‘baddies’. In order for safe and sensible protection, cameras must be designed, manufactured, installed and set-up to comply with Australian and international standards.

This is no different to the concept of paying a higher price for a safer car with better fuel efficiency, intelligent sensors and a good chassis construction, which will then further protect occupants in the event of a car accident. Such extra safety features may never be used, but it is comforting to know that sound engineering design features can be relied on when needed.

A CCTV system should be installed with the utmost care and with the assumption that a major incident might be recorded by that exact camera. Hopefully this will never happen, but installers should act as if it might. The questions that every installer should ask themselves are: Is my system going to provide sufficient quality video footage to be able to help police apprehend the perpetrator? Does my system serve that purpose? If the answer is no, changes need to be made sooner rather than later, not after an incident has occurred. Those changes include a better understanding of every component in the camera’s system, its most optimal settings and the best angles of view to cover an area with sufficient details, while allowing for sufficient light for recording at night, best video quality encoding and ease of access by law enforcement agencies.

If the above is adhered to, then CCTV cameras will be seen as protectors and welcomed by all and not, as they are commonly referred to, as intruders into people’s privacy.

Vlado Damjanovski is an internationally renowned CCTV author, lecturer, innovator and consultant.

He can be reached via his company website www.vidilabs.com


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