IP video helps fed Marshals watch over inauguration

Internet video easier to deploy, configure

Today, as Washington is besieged by possibly the largest gathering of people ever assembled in the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. Marshals Service will have its hands full providing security as part of a collaborative federal, state and local security mission surrounding the Inauguration and related events.

One of the tools in the Service's arsenal will be a network of video cameras to watch the proceedings on the Mall. Video footage could help officers keep an eye on the event, as well as for documentation should anything go awry.

The Service, itself part of the Justice Department, has been moving towards greater use of video systems in its duties, especially those that use the Internet Protocol (IP) to carry the feeds.

"In the past year we have expanded our use of video surveillance quite a bit," noted chief inspector Robert Turner, investigative operations division. Turner gave a presentation on Marshals' use of video technologies at the Government Video Technology Expo, held last month in Washington.

To carry the video stream back, "we're pushing towards IP networks," as they "make things easier to deploy," Turner noted.

The U.S. Marshals Service acts as a sort of sheriff's office for the federal government, carrying out duties such as protecting judges who make appearances in public places, guarding prisoners as they make appearances in court or are transported to and from jails and detention centers and apprehension of fugitives.

Video can help in all these tasks.

For watching over prisoners, cameras can be placed both in the transport vehicles themselves and, for extremely dangerous cases, in helicopters that fly over the vehicles. Cameras also watch prisoners while in court, and in the detention centers.

"Once [prisoners] come into the building, they are pretty much under video surveillance all the time, Turner said. Even meeting rooms and elevators are equipped with video cameras. "We're not so much worried about them committing crimes, but its more of a safety measure for our personnel."

The Service uses cameras to monitor remote locations where illegal activity may be taking place, or where they need to watch over individuals under protective custody. These cameras can be covertly mounted. The video feed is backhauled by a nearby commercial cable, microwave or telephone line.

The Service also uses video cameras for events that it must cover, such as the inauguration. In these cases, cameras are set up before the event, and networked together, so the feeds can be watched by a command post.

"We're a very dynamic agency. We don't have a lot of fixed video infrastructure out in the public. So we need to be able to show up with a number of cases, put up some wireless radios and cameras and deploy our video," Turner said.

This is where IP video really shines.

Because IP networks can be reconfigured more easily than analog systems, thanks to interoperability of equipment, IP allows the Service to set up and tear equipment more quickly. It also helps quite a bit with combining resources with other organizations that may have their own video feeds. In some cases, the Service will also use existing feeds, such as a hotel video system.

"Most of the hotels have legacy analog video equipment. So we'll tee off of those and bring them into an IP encoder, and into the video server [at] our command post," Turner said. In this way, the Service all survey all the video feeds within one location.

IP video can run easily over copper-based networks, or over wireless connections. The feed then can be viewed through standard desktop computer software.

As for using IP, "there are almost no drawbacks for us," Turner said. In most of its use of video, the agency doesn't really need the kind of high-resolution video feeds that are best served up by microwave point-to-point digital or analog video. Instead, it is looking for "situational awareness," or an overview of an operational area Turner said. IP video provides enough resolution for this task.

Being a law enforcement agency, the Service can use licensed frequencies. While this frequency is advantageous insofar that there is not a lot of traffic on these channels, it can also be expensive to procure radio receivers and transmitters, because they are not mass-produced.

Plus IP could eventually help the Service share equipment with other agencies. Eventually, the Service would like to get to the point where federal agencies can pool their IP video equipment for greater coverage of some event. So when a large event like the inauguration needs to be covered, the Service can share feeds with any law enforcement agency.

"That's where well like to get to," Turner said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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