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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University June 26, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 38
Looking For Signs of Trouble

In the dispatch center: Cheryl Sealy, foreground, on dispatch; and security systems manager Martin Beachamp with Cerlisteen Vice, working on cameras.
Photo by Will Kirk/HIPS

Homewood's state-of-the-art security center now fully operational

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Down on Remington Avenue, the good guys are watching out for you around the clock.

On June 1, the university went live with its new Homewood Communications Center, a state-of-the-art facility that allows its 14-person staff to maintain a constant vigil over the campus, primarily through a "smart" closed-circuit TV system that alerts operators when it spots suspicious activity.

The new center now provides a centralized hub for all the campus's public safety and security technology, which includes alarm systems, a computer-aided dispatch (or CAD) system, radios, telephones and the CCTV system, which currently features 79 computer-driven cameras positioned throughout and around the perimeter of the campus, providing an "invisible fence" around many buildings and vulnerable areas.

Ten more cameras will be added before the start of the fall semester: nine at Charles Commons, the Johns Hopkins University-owned mixed-use complex that is currently in its final phase of construction, and one at the new shuttle bus stop by the Bunting-Meyerhoff Interfaith Center.

The CCTV system, which has been in operation since March 2005, is able to quickly recognize potential problems, from a student who has fallen and needs assistance to someone trying to break into a locked building. Real-time images of people who may be causing problems appear on computer monitors, framed with a yellow rectangle to alert system operators. The operators then determine whether to dispatch a nearby security officer to the scene.

Edmund Skrodzki, executive director of safety and security at Homewood, said that the new center has put Johns Hopkins on the forefront of campus security nationwide by providing a means to be appreciably more comprehensive and preventive with security measures.

Other schools have taken notice.

To date, representatives of several major colleges and universities have toured the facility and expressed interest in using Johns Hopkins as a model for their own security systems. Skrodzki said that the Baltimore Police have also been somewhat envious, and appreciative, of the technology JHU now has at its disposal.

"The new smart CCTV system has given the Security Department here the opportunity to respond to and investigate activities that might have otherwise resulted in criminal activity," Skrodzki said. "The combination of the new Homewood Communications Center and the CCTV system is the integration of technology and resources that provides the highest level of service, reduced response time and the proactive deployment of the campus security force."

Edmund Skrodzki, executive director of safety and security at Homewood, looks at the cameras' surveillance images with Carlisteen Vice.
Photo by Will Kirk/HIPS

The center itself is staffed around the clock with rotating shifts of three to four security systems specialists.

The CCTV system analyzes images from the video surveillance cameras and alerts the security monitor to behaviors that are suspicious or out of the ordinary. It can be programmed to look for as many as 16 behavior patterns (erratic movement, slow-moving vehicle, abandoned object, etc.) and to assign them a priority score from one to 100 for operator follow-up, depending on factors such as the time of day when the behavior occurs.

"Behavior recognition software that automates monitoring and prioritizes alerts increases the effectiveness of the person monitoring and creates a system that is more preventative than reactive. There have been numerous studies that conclude that a person can't effectively monitor a large number of cameras simply by sight," Skrodzki said. "The system also allows us to cover more ground than with foot patrols alone."

In addition to its "smart" capability, the system is monitored like conventional security camera systems, with a team of operators checking what is happening in each camera's field of view on a rotating basis. At any given time, a particular camera view can be called up for a zoom or 360-degree look. For privacy purposes, however, camera images of nonpublic areas are blacked out by boxes on the screen that can only be removed by an order from the executive director.

In addition, the feeds from each camera are recorded and archived, if needed for later analysis or for use as evidence.

During its first year of operation, the CCTV system registered 116 alerts that triggered responses. The alerts included thefts in progress, minor traffic accidents, acts of vandalism and suspicious activity that might have resulted in a crime.

Last month, CCTV operators observed a youth attempting to steal a motorbike from a rack at Wolman Hall. Campus security units were dispatched, and the individual, a 15-year-old non-JHU-affiliated male, was arrested and later charged with theft and trespassing.

Earlier this month, the system helped secure a warrant in the case of an armed robbery on the 3200 block of North Charles Street. Security cameras had previously tracked a vehicle in the area that was moving unusually slowly. CCTV operators also took note of a suspicious individual, who later entered the vehicle. On June 9, Baltimore Police arrested the robbery suspect based on information obtained from CCTV, which included images of the individual and the vehicle's license plate numbers.

The CCTV system at Johns Hopkins was designed by iXP Corp., a New Jersey-based public safety consulting firm whose client list includes the New York City Police and Fire departments and the University of Pennsylvania. Johns Hopkins is currently the only university in the country that utilizes the integrated smart system.

The Homewood Communications Center, an $865,000 project that was funded by the President's Office and the Homewood deans, is located in a renovated space inside the university's Office of Facilities Management at 3001 Remington Ave. The center — which has independent electrical, HVAC, phone and computer systems — features the dispatch center, a conference room, locker room, data archive center, office space and a backup power supply.

Martin Beauchamp, security systems manager, said that in the event of a large-scale incident or catastrophe, the center can act as the primary base of operations for senior university officials.

Skrodzki said that the implementation of the center and the new technology has not only improved security but also enhanced campus safety by significantly reducing response time to incidents such as a fire, fallen personnel or traffic accident. The dispatch center, once alerted, can bypass 911 phone lines and directly contact fire and police departments. In fact, earlier this month CCTV cameras recorded a traffic accident on University Parkway, and security systems specialists were able to notify emergency units immediately.

"No question, the blend of technology and operations we now offer provides a winning combination," Skrodzki said.


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