Weighing up the benefits of offsite monitoring

May 2016 CCTV, Surveillance & Remote Monitoring, Security Services & Risk Management

Remote versus onsite surveillance monitoring? Perhaps the debate should begin with an overview of exactly what offsite monitoring entails. Underpinning the successful adoption of either option is a complete understanding of the importance of aligning one’s decision with a service provider who has a solid reputation, verifiable with a documented footprint of working installations.

The term remote surveillance refers to the monitoring of the surveillance equipment installed on a site, from an offsite location. It does not, however, define the type or level of service to be provided. Continuous remote surveillance entails the use of monitoring staff, resources and equipment at a remote control room that is dedicated to continuously monitoring the client’s property, personnel and procedures. In the event that these procedures or activities are not being followed or conducted correctly, the client will be notified via an agreed method.

This service, according to Dusty van den Berg of Daytona Electronics, is generally used for production type monitoring (for example, nightshifts). With virtual guard tours and random remote surveillance, the remote operators are not connected to and constantly monitoring the activities or procedures on site, but either randomly or at specific times establish a connection to site. This service is often used for monitoring of guard stations to ensure the guards are at their station and are awake, or to ensure gates and doors are closed.

Finally, video alarm verification or black screen monitoring involves reliance on simplified equipment and systems to alert the operator to a situation on site, who will then verify the event and action the corresponding procedure to terminate the issue at hand. This, Van den Berg says, is often used on perimeter protection or office buildings where there should be no movement between certain times. A motion sensor on site will trigger a video alarm in the remote control room, allowing the operator to determine the validity of the alarm and action the corresponding procedure to resolve the issue.

Busy-ness dependent

Mike Voortman of Verifier maintains that the busy-ness of a site will generally determine whether remote or onsite monitoring, or perhaps a combination of the two, is better. On quieter sites, economies of scale often dictate the adoption of remote surveillance. By setting up an event-based system, whereby one cost effectively mainly monitors site events, as opposed to a constant feed, one can reduce operational costs.

On the other hand, sites which are busier during the day, such as shopping centres and precincts, are often better suited to onsite monitoring. Voortman emphasises that it is virtually impossible to remotely monitor the high levels of traffic experienced in these locations, with day-to-day management of, for example, missing children, fire doors opening, and busy parking areas being key factors. However, it is possible to switch to remote monitoring after hours in such scenarios.

Warren Myers of Myertal believes that offsite monitoring is suited to almost every possible scenario and environment. He says that the company uses a self-learning video analytics software which bolts into any CCTV system and ‘learns’ the environment over a five-day period. Once this learning phase is complete, the software automatically and proactively picks out threats and prioritises them to an offsite control room in real time.

The advantages of onsite monitoring include the fact that situational awareness is enhanced through the local knowledge and intelligence acquired through speaking to onsite customers. The downsides include the possible lack of availability of space and sourcing of capital outlay for a control room environment as well as issues with the onsite staff who may be prone to collusion risk, require extra operator training, and who suffer from fatigue due to intensive monitoring. In addition, heists at control rooms are common risk areas. This, therefore, emphasises the importance of having a failover system which reverts monitoring to an offsite location.

Offsite monitoring eliminates the possibility of collusion, provides a failover capability, allows independent dispatching of reaction teams, removes localised risk, allows the sharing of services, and helps to keep onsite staff on their toes. Since the control room is already established there is no additional capital cost for the client.

A disadvantage includes the reliance on site staff and reaction teams to react to onsite issues. In addition, feedback can be a challenge from responders; and it is not viable to monitor busy sites during busy times. Offsite monitoring is reliant on connectivity between site and control room so a breakdown in communication may be an issue. However, with the correct systems and failovers in place, this weakness can be omitted.

Who to choose?

When deciding on an offsite monitoring service provider, it is advisable to undertake extensive checks and to obtain a number of client references. One should consider factors such as the ability of the monitoring company to mitigate risks. Voortman advises against trying to find the silver bullet one-stop-shop, as often one actually needs a specialist provider. He continues that the one-stop-shop model can sometimes result in collusion, so risk should be spread over one supplier of guarding services and another one conducting remote monitoring. Additionally, a comprehensive service level agreement should be non-negotiable and the presence of transparency by the service provider is essential to maintaining a successful relationship.

Van den Berg adds that in terms of risk, there are benefits and disadvantages to both onsite and offsite monitoring. The drawback with any security system or procedure is that it is designed to assist in preventing specific actions or functions, or known criminal activity. However, there is no foolproof security system so it is important to undertake a thorough due diligence of service providers, by visiting their remote control room, speaking to the staff working there, visiting sites that are currently being monitored and chatting to existing clients.

Most importantly, one should aim to maintain a good and open working relationship with the selected supplier. Risks and the modus operandi of criminals change, so procedures should also be monitored and updated regularly with the remote surveillance supplier to ensure that the solution is current.

Myers says that on the back of the SLA, business operators should receive a daily report that outlines onsite activity and the actions taken by the remote monitoring supplier. Ideally, this service provider should have a fully equipped control room that is manned by appropriately trained and vetted operators who are both relieved every two hours and are being constantly managed.

What do I get?

Remote monitoring companies provide a variety of services including perimeter intrusion detection, virtual guard tours, analytics, VoIP audio challenge whereby the control room can communicate directly with suspected perpetrators, lockdown monitoring, forensic and footage investigation, retail risk reduction (footage extracted and assessed offsite). Remote access control can also be provided whereby standard operating procedures (SOPs) are followed by the security guards on site. Other elements include failover control provision to onsite control rooms and guard replacement, which results in a reduction of the quantity of manned guarding required.

Van den Berg says that with the speed at which technology is advancing, and the use of open source software, one can integrate and monitor virtually any process procedure or system. In addition to the aforementioned services, other notable services are video alarm verification and site checks for staff leaving late in the evening or arriving early in the morning.

He says that the company currently not only monitors video feeds, but in the event of an alarm they can communicate with the criminals and alert armed response and the police, as well as warn staff on site of any pending dangers. Together with this, they are able to deploy instant countermeasures such as smoke screens and pepper gas systems. The ability to remotely control the opening and closing of main gates and doors is advantageous.

He highlights that with the ongoing development of technology, soft alarms or early warning systems can be generated and alarms can be generated if there is a person or vehicle loitering outside the property, or if a parcel is moved out of a receiving door or into a dispatch door. Furthermore, remote monitoring of access control, fire detection, alarms and other systems is possible. If a fire alarm is triggered, onsite management will be automatically notified and visual confirmation of the validity and location of such incidents will be provided.

Myers cautions that the use of virtual guard tours removes the true essence and value of offsite monitoring, since the operator needs to log in at the exact time when an intruder is breaking in, which is highly unlikely.

Counting pennies

So when the chips are down, which monitoring method provides the most cost effective solution for clients? Voortman asserts that if monitoring is event based, then offsite monitoring wins hands down. Obviously, if offsite monitoring becomes bogged down in operators continuously having to watch screens then this will not be the case. In addition, this ideal scenario is based on the experience of the remote monitoring team and relies on an efficient configuration of the solution.

Van den Berg says that the cost differences between offsite monitoring and onsite monitoring are relative to the quantity of cameras and equipment to be monitored, the type of monitoring required as well as the number of operators required. If only random or timed patrols are required, then generally the remote surveillance route would be more cost effective as this service can be shared with other clients requiring the same service. If only video alarm verification is required, then again the remote surveillance route would generally be more cost effective, as it is also a shared service.

He adds that the amount of surveillance equipment and/or number of sites would also be a determining factor in financial costing. Onsite monitoring for a single retail store wishing to monitor one system would not be cost effective, whereas onsite monitoring which is based on volume would be more cost effective for a larger chain of franchised stores or a large mining operation.

Myers points out that the average 24/7 C-grade CCTV operator or guarding post from a reputable security company costs approximately R20 000 per month. If one considers that an eight-camera package, which includes all hardware on rental, maintenance, insurance, 24/7 offsite monitoring using smart video analytics and connectivity costs R9500 per month, the advantages of offsite monitoring, for event based scenarios are obvious.

The choice of offsite versus onsite monitoring is definitely a case of horses for courses. Ideally, clients should review a number of service providers and obtain comprehensive feedback on the best solution for their specific application.

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