Last week, I wrote about a fixed public-safety video system that the city of Houston has deployed in its downtown section. The system is supported by a mesh network installed by Firetide and leverages high-definition cameras provided by Axis Communications. The day after the item published, I received a call from Julie Stroup, Houston’s program manager for the project, who provided some additional visibility.

First, Stroup wanted to clarify one item. I had written that the system provides more bandwidth than the video cameras need, which means that the mesh network could be used simultaneously by other city agencies for other purposes without having a detrimental effect on the video network. Stroup said that, while that is true in theory, Houston won’t be using its system in that way. Instead, any excess bandwidth would be used to support additional surveillance video, perhaps from handheld devices.

Stroup also provided some history of the project, which she said was the brainstorm of Dennis Storemski, the current director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security and a retired executive assistant chief of the city’s police department. The gears started turning in 2006 when Storemski’s office landed a federal Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) grant. According to Stroup, the city focused on the downtown area not because it was crime-ridden, but because it meshed perfectly with the UASI grant guidelines.

“Several of the UASI goals have to do with protecting critical infrastructure in high-density population areas,” said Stroup, who came on board as program manager in 2007. Indeed, within the area covered by Houston’s public-safety video system are the city’s convention center, baseball stadiums and basketball arena, as well as city and county government offices, courthouses, banks and a rail line.

“Just about everything you can think of regarding critical infrastructure resides downtown,” Stroup said. “There are a lot of people coming and going all day long, so it seemed like the natural place to start.”

A pilot project was launched in November 2008, which has expanded to the system that exists today, which connects the city’s police department, fire department, 911 call center and multiagency fusion center. That the project started out small was by design, according to Stroup.

“We didn’t do the ‘Big Bang’ theory that a lot of other cities did, with one big vendor and a multimillion-dollar RFP,” Stroup said. “Instead, we wanted to start small, try lots of products and determine what was best of breed, so that we ended up with something that works.”

While the system effectively blankets the downtown area at this point, Stroup said that project will continue to expand, both within the central business district and then outward. Using a secure, repeatable firewall design, the system has already expanded outside of downtown to include coverage of the Reliant Park area, which is the city’s football stadium and event center, approximately 6 miles south of Downtown. The video system is connected to existing camera systems at all the public water utility facilities, the downtown convention center, the Metro Rail system, DOT traffic cameras, and the Texas Medical Center. Agencies that choose to partner with the city are provided access to view cameras in the system relative to their mission.

“We have enough critical mass now that we feel we have comprehensive coverage — that milestone was met early this year,” Stroup said. “But we don’t have an end to this project; we will continue to add video cameras as long as we have funds to do so.”

Once it expands beyond the downtown area, the city will continue to focus on critical infrastructure in high-density population areas as the primary criterion for deciding where to deploy next. So, the city’s airports and shipping channel and major commercial centers likely will be the next locations. Then, it will target high-crime areas, starting with areas with gang and/or drug activity.

“We want to robustly cover our 600-square-mile region,” Stroup said. “It’s an organically evolving thing.”

I live in a city, Chicago, that is much further ahead of Houston in this regard and has blanketed much of the city with fixed video cameras. As Houston plans to do, Chicago first targeted its central business district and then extended outward. Today, it has the largest fixed video-surveillance system in the country.

However, the system is getting mixed reviews. A recent Chicago Sun-Times story reported that a study indicated that the cameras have deterred crime in some neighborhoods but not in others. Reportedly, some of the footage captured by the cameras is blurry and rarely leads to a conviction on its own.

I haven’t read the report, but intuition tells me that the mixed results stem more from socio-economic factors than problems with the camera system. Intuition also tells me that just having the cameras in place acts as a major deterrent. If your city has red-light cameras in place, you know what I mean.

I’m not old enough to remember beat cops, but I suspect the cameras serve the same purpose — people were less likely to pull shenanigans when they knew a cop might be walking around the corner any minute.

When I was a kid, you couldn’t tell my father that you were going to the park to hang out — he believed that idle hands were the work of the devil. But you could tell him you were going to go to the park to play ball. And you could be gone all day. But my father liked to walk through the park to watch the various games that were being played — and you had better be doing what you said you were going to do, or there’d be some explaining to do when you got home.

It was enough to keep me in line.

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