August 2009

What to Consider Before Equipping Your Fleet with Video Surveillance

by Thi Dao, Assistant Editor

Equipping fleets with mobile video surveillance systems has become an essential part of the transportation industry. The presence of cameras onboard buses can deter fights, vandalism, robberies and assaults. If an event occurs, surveillance video usually reveals the cause of the problem, decreasing the amount of time it takes to gather information.

In addition to helping deter negative behavior onboard, video documentation of events plays a crucial role in settling disputes that may arise. Video surveillance acts as an “objective observer” and can reduce a bus system’s liability by helping to disprove incidents such as false injury claims. According to Guy Jukes, vice president of marketing for Omaha, Neb.-based REI (Radio Engineering Industries Inc.), a surveillance system “eliminates the he-said, she-said.”

Customer service and bus safety can also be greatly improved through driver monitoring via video surveillance. “They can see how drivers are interacting with customers, ensure that the buses aren’t being abused, that the drivers aren’t stealing the fares, as well as monitor activity around the vehicle,” Jukes says. In addition, cameras with exterior views can be used to see whether a driver is making complete stops and appropriate turns.

Aspects to consider

While advances in video technology have led to a decrease in the price, purchasing a surveillance system is still costly, and careful consideration should be taken to choose the one that best fits the operation’s needs.

1. Test drive. Transit properties should arrange for a two- to four-week demo from several manufacturers to see which system best fits the agency’s specifications, advises Richie Howard, president of Newton, Ala.-based AngelTrax. “They’re looking to spend a lot of money,” he says. “You want great quality video, and you want an easy way to play it back.” A test drive is the easiest way to ensure that agencies are happy with their purchase.

2. Video quality. Great video quality is essential to a successful surveillance system. In case of an incident, “can you identify the person without a doubt so that you can use that in court, or are you still giving a defense attorney a loophole out?” asks Jukes.

“We always recommend that customers view actual video clip recordings to ensure they are satisfied with the end product they are purchasing,” says April Johnson, sales operations manager for Woodinville, Wash.-based Apollo Video Technology. “The same compression technology and resolution will not necessarily deliver the same quality of video.” While the compression method and resolution specs should always be taken into consideration, the quality is subjective, therefore viewing actual video is the best way to determine how it will serve its purpose, she adds.

In addition, if something happens on the street, even if it does not involve the vehicle directly, good video quality assures “you’d be able to zoom in after the fact and at least get a good observation of what happened,” says Jack Cabasso, managing director of Hauppauge, N.Y.-based Aventura.

3. User friendliness. Ease of video playback is another factor to consider. While footage is not viewed often, when an incident occurs, it becomes essential. According to Jukes, many people may have to review footage, from drivers to dispatchers, who may not be familiar with the technology. He suggests looking for easy-to-use software that doesn’t require excessive training to learn.

4. Data storage. DVR (digital video recorder) size determines how much footage can be kept and saved before it is looped and recorded over. Many fleet operators choose a larger hard drive, holding 500 GB of data or more, or about 30 days of footage, depending on video quality and the number of cameras installed on the bus.

5. Reliability. Don Nelson, transit division manager of Seon Design Inc., in Coquitlam, British Columbia, recommends that transit agencies consider the reliability of the equipment as well as the system provider, by researching the number of years the company has been in business and how many units it has in the field.

6. Number of cameras. The number of cameras a transit agency chooses to install per bus depends on factors that include budget and bus size. John Major, account executive for Safety Vision, headquartered in Houston, Texas, says, on average, there are four to 10 cameras per bus. Although there is no set maximum number of cameras, Major suggests at least three cameras.

7. Camera location. REI’s Jukes says typical locations for camera installation on vehicles are: mounted on the front with a view of the back of the bus; mounted above the driver with a view of the entrance and fare box; mounted mid-way in the bus with a view of the back; one dedicated to a lift; one with a view of a second exit if available; one getting a driver’s view through the windshield; an exterior camera near the entry with a view toward the rear; and, occasionally, cameras are placed on rear exterior of the bus facing the back.

8. Number of channels. Another factor in choosing the right surveillance system is channels. Manufacturers can offer systems with different numbers of channels, which refers to the total number of cameras that can be installed into the system. AngelTrax’s hybrid system, which comes in four or eight channels, is easily swappable should an agency choose to purchase more cameras. “You can change that system from a four channel to an eight channel by swapping the board in five seconds,” says Howard. Safety Vision’s Major recommends a scalable system that allows an operation to add cameras as it grows and is able to purchase more.

9. Future Upgrades. Future upgradeability is another key aspect to consider, according to Johnson. “Transit agencies typically don’t outfit the entire fleet at one time,” she says. “It’s important to have compatibility with previous and future systems.”

10. Installation. Video surveillance systems can be installed by the manufacturer, a subcontractor, or a local installer. REI works with a national installation company, or will provide training for operations that want to install their own equipment. According to Jukes, installers should make sure the DVR and cameras are placed on secure locations so that devices don’t become unplugged as the bus drives down a bumpy road. 

According to Howard, a majority of the technical calls received by AngelTrax are related to installation issues rather than a problem with product. He stresses the importance of the correct installation process and has a field engineering team traveling around the country installing products. Safety Vision, too, has its own installers, and Major estimates it takes three to eight hours of installation time per vehicle.


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