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CCTV case study: two-way audio, analytics improve result

If there’s a lot of crime around an apartment building, video surveillance may deter it slightly but doesn’t prevent it. Unless it’s manned by guards in real-time — but they can’t watch screens endlessly. Unless you automate alerts to guards with video analytics — but these systems generate a lot of false alarms.

February 17, 2010  By Rosie Lombardi

To break this impasse, two Toronto-based companies have joined forces to introduce a novel communications approach to video surveillance in the property management sector. Last year, Conundrum Capital entered into a joint venture with Avante Security to form Avante Property Services. The security solution is being showcased at three apartment buildings on Thorncliffe Park Drive.

“What attracted us is that Avante’s IP-based video analytics system is complemented by two-way audio,” says Chris Asimakis, president of Conundrum. “It’s unique technology that’s more advanced than anything else we’ve seen.”

Avante’s Smartboxx technology takes industry-standard video surveillance cameras and loads them with proprietary video analytics, messaging and signalling software the company has developed specifically for property management, says Emmanuel Mounouchos, Avante’s CEO.

For example, to prevent activity by trespassers on a property, cameras are programmed to sense loiterers and send alerts to Avante’s control center manned by live operators. “Operators speak to the loiterers using VoIP communications built into the guts of the camera and in speakers around the building, ask them who they are, and tell them they’re not allowed to stay if they don’t have legitimate reasons,” says Mounouchos.


If the loiterers simply move to another area on the property, the cameras will relentlessly follow them and operators will issue more warnings, as buildings are set up with networked cameras at entrances, exits and other key areas. Each Thorncliffe apartment, for example, has 10 cameras loaded with video analytics software, four PTZ cameras that receive signals from them and follow accordingly, and one guard on-site.

Communications coupled with cameras that follow add a new dimension in criminal psychology, as they increase a potential criminal’s anxiety dramatically.

“Avante’s found that in the vast majority of cases, just identifying someone and telling them, ‘I see you. You’re wearing jeans and a red hoodie. You’re not supposed to be here,’ is enough to get them to move on and solves the problem. And if it persists, there are several escalation options: we could deploy the on-site guard, or send one of Avante’s patrol vehicles, or call the police,” says Asimakis.

If the loiterer is simply a tenant having a smoke, Asimakis says Avante’s control centre operators are trained with scripts to handle the situation with courtesy. “There’s no problem – all tenants have to do is identify themselves,” he says, adding that tenants aren’t bothered by the idea they’re being watched in these exchanges – on the contrary, they appreciate that the system really works to create a safe environment.

Another benefit in criminal psychology is that the word quickly spreads through the neighbourhood that apartments equipped with Avante’s systems are best avoided, particularly in areas with high concentrations of high-rises, says Mounouchos. “Loiterers will go hang out at another building. There have been some incidents in those Thorncliffe apartments in the past, and we’re cleaning them up.”

Asimakis points out the anonymity offered by remote operators in a control centre offers some advantages over guards on-site, who may grow too familiar and cast a blind eye on minor infractions such as tenants smoking joints in stairwells. “Because the guard is friendly with them, he may let it go – but other people living there may find that situation threatening and move out.”

He says Avante’s comprehensive system doesn’t replace guards entirely. “You do need them, and there’s a value to saying hello to Norm at the security desk. But the pitch is, a guard can only be in one place at a time, and generally speaking, they’re unable to break up dangerous incidents – so you have to call the police in any case.”

Technology plus people
Avante has been operating for years in the residential security sector and has recently beefed up its solutions for commercial property.

Mounouchos says the company’s video analytics software tightens the rules and algorithms for motion detection to detect loiterers.  “We use an analytics engine developed by another company, but we do a lot of intense programming to prevent false alarms and blend it into our Smartboxx technology so it transmits properly.”

He says the company has also reconfigured signalling to address delays that could lead to security issues. “A big problem with analytics in the industry is that e-mail is used to transmit camera signals, which like regular e-mail could take one second or 30 minutes because they bounce from one server to another in the Internet cloud.”

To tackle this, the company uses the GPRS wireless cellular channel typically used to transmit data on smart phones and corporate network operating centres. “It’s more reliable because it’s a point-to-point connection so signals go directly to our control centre.”

In addition, he says executive protection specialists, not regular security guards, are hired to man the control centre and react to alerts signalled by cameras. “We cross-train our people, so our staff may be working in the control centre one week, or on the road on patrols responding to client calls the next. So they visit and get familiar with buildings and know their exact layout when they respond.”

No company can offer 100 percent security, but Avante’s blend of trained people and proprietary technology boosts it. “When you take the best of both worlds and combine them, you get closest to being a perfect security company.”

Business benefits
The three Thorncliffe apartments had 12 guards in the past, and these have been reduced to four, so Avante’s system saves labour costs, says Mounouchos. “The initial capital expense to install the technology will be recouped after about two years.”

There are also other potential long-term benefits. Asimakis believes Avante’s systems will bring more revenue stability if truly secure environments are created. “We believe over time this system will prove people will be willing to pay higher rents and will stay longer in safer buildings. We don’t have empirical data yet, but we frequently hear people say they’ve left a location because they feel unsafe. So this is an investment not a sunk cost.”

The joint venture will initially focus on apartment buildings, as traditional security doesn’t work in many areas. Conundrum is involved in raising funds to buy troubled buildings, improving them with Avante’s security, then reselling them at a profit.

But other commercial property owners have also expressed a keen interest. “The phone’s been ringing off the hook,” says Asimakis. “We’re getting calls from areas you’d least expect, like shopping malls.  A lot of staff are involved in locking down a mall, especially those with underground parking, and owners think maybe they won’t need as many people while getting more coverage with video cameras.”

The partners believe there’s a huge market beyond Toronto once the concept is proven at a few sites. “Since it’s all IP-based, it’s completely portable to other geographic areas,” says Mounouchos.

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