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Installation Profile: Tighter Security

Criticom International’s new system leaps ahead with faster, more integrated response.

Installation Profile: Tighter Security

Oct 1, 2005 12:00 PM,
By Bret Bass

Criticom International’s new system leaps ahead with faster, more integrated response.

Taking uncharacteristic risks, pushing new technology, and uniting the resources of its geographically disperse operations, Criticom International, the largest wholesale central station in the United States, looks to position itself as an industry leader through an enhanced suite of services. Already supporting IP alarm panels, GPS, and multiplatform video surveillance, Criticom is gearing up to do what other companies just talk about.

Criticom’s Interative Security workstations include two PCs, three monitors, and an overhead plasma screen display. This setup allows operators to simutaneously view video from multiple sites.


It’s surveillance. The first successfully organized system of security-related surveillance surfaced at the end of the 17th century, when procedures were created to combat the spread of the plague. Known as “permanent registration,” the system proved useful in mitigating the impact of future incidents by focusing on a process of rigid observation, reporting, and hierarchal escalation procedures.

One hundred twenty-five years ago, ADT, when it was known as American District Telegraph, boasted that its messengers could report a fire to authorities within three minutes. Today, with the breakthroughs in IP alarm communicators and the speed of Internet-based data transport, alarm violations are reported within seconds. But none of this matters unless the design of the security system, both mechanically and conceptually, follows the tenets of the successful process: monitoring for violations in a fixed area, observation and assessment of the incident, recording and documenting, and, finally, reporting.

But the need of the security user (alarm owner, central station operator, police, or fire department) is always for more information, particularly in the areas of observation and recording. The basics of initial monitoring (detecting the violation) and reporting remain static. As technology improves, the speed and accuracy of these two areas develop, but not the underlying process. Technology, however, does advance the depth and scope of a system’s ability to observe and archive the relevant data. For this reason, security providers are turning toward more progressive technologies such as digital video storage and transmission systems.

Video surveillance just pecks at the surface. Users want to know where, when, why, how, and what now. To begin accommodating the growing demands of more sophisticated security system users, multiple processes of enhanced protection must be integrated and implemented. It’s what progressive thinkers call Interactive Security: an entire suite of augmented services, created to provide the user with as much information as possible. These services include remote video surveillance, remote bi-directional audio capabilities, GPS locating, faster alarm reporting, increased archiving capabilities, and greater reporting options. Interactive Security emphasizes the reduction of false alarm dispatches and priority responses for verified emergencies. It’s a large undertaking, but Criticom is already making strides.

The Mastermind video viewer combines alarm processing and video monitoring in a single software package.


By 2002, the National Alarm Computer Center, Criticom’s West Coast central station, began working with Monitoring Automation Systems (MAS) on integrating a new DVR into the existing Unix-based B32 software. Once an alarm was received, the automation software called up the corresponding DVR’s IP address, transmitting the required user name, password, and site identification information. The system was effective and somewhat revolutionary, but it required that the manufacturer’s video software run concurrently in the background as a separate application.

As MAS moved toward a Windows-based system, called MasterMind, the process for smoother, more streamlined video integration became possible. The system currently supports the industry’s most popular and leading market share products. DVRs from March Networks, Honeywell, GE Interlogix, Bosch, Pelco, Dedicated Micros, OzVision, and others come loaded with the MAS video viewer. With keen foresight, MAS has also enabled the software to automate video for DVRs that can be viewed over a standard web browser, expanding the suite of supported products, even for non-integrated products.

The real advantage is that the MAS software performs all alarm processing and video monitoring through a single software interface, eliminating the need to run multiple instances of independent viewing software. This not only saves operators valuable time, but reduces the learning curve necessary for administering disparate video viewers; essentially, operators must familiarize themselves with only a single application. However, to ensure that operators can perform all the required tasks for customers, including advanced searching and reporting, Criticom trains its operators on all of the related viewing software for each supported product.

Automation software is just one of many components necessary to create a successful IVM program. Because this type of monitoring requires more interaction and involvement from operators, the design of their workstations is equally important. Criticom’s basic setup includes two PCs, three monitors, and one overhead plasma screen display per console.

One PC is designated as an administrative workstation, which hosts all of the original viewing software for each DVR, allowing operators to conduct full archive reviews, data warehousing, remote customer maintenance, and technical support. If needed, this also gives operators an extra PC that is ready to view video from multiple sites simultaneously. Operators conduct all of their office-based work and reporting from these computers.

The second PC is dedicated to the MAS automation and video software. There are two monitors connected to the MAS computer, facilitating incident processing and documentation on one screen while video is displayed at the same time on the second screen. Operators can control pan/tilt/zoom cameras, check pre-alarm video, save video files, perform voice downs, and view all cameras while documenting observations into the software. The necessary controls are built into the MAS video viewer.

In cases where an additional monitor is needed for continuous viewing, images can be moved to the overhead plasma screen, using a matrix switcher built into the desktop of each operator console. In circumstances where a site has been compromised, operators can maintain a constant vigil over the property until a board-up company, site representative, standing guard, or police unit arrives. This assists in the mitigation of further damage, prevents looting, and allows operators to continue processing other incidents without having to close down the video.

To maximize the efficiency of the operation, Criticom realizes development doesn’t end with the right equipment. Environment and workspace are also crucial concerns. While other central stations focus on the eye candy that a well-designed monitoring room brings to the table, they are not always functional. Criticom’s station may not look as futuristic as others, but it allows operators to perform all tasks with maximum efficiency. “I feel that looks are not always everything, but I do know with the way our IVM room is set up that it allows for our operators to communicate, process, and handle each account with accuracy and care,” says Gary Knight, central station manager for the California facility.

Lighting controls constructed into the workstations, along with the matrix switchers, give operators more control of their surroundings. Individual lights center on each station, which operators can control with a dimmer, allowing for a more comfortable setting, better viewing, and reduced glare from the monitors. Criticom understands the operators are the heart of the department and their environment must be conducive to the intensive work.

Furthering this belief is the location of the video command center, which resides in a separate room off the main dispatching floor. “One advantage of having our IVM location separate,” Knight says, “is that it makes it easier for operators to communicate with each other while processing IVM accounts. Furthermore, I believe that the IVM position takes a higher profile operator to process accounts because of the complexity in handling them.” Again, while some other companies boast of their ability to monitor video on any workstation in the organization, Criticom does not perceive this as an advantage.

A separate room minimizes distractions and noise. Additionally, due to the sometimes-disturbing nature of the video footage, Criticom ensures only qualified and emotionally steady personnel are responsible for handling these events. Criticom’s video operators are highly trained, SIA- and CSAA-certified, and must pass the Behavioral Personnel Assessment Device (BPAD), a police behavioral exam, before occupying the position. When video is displayed on every computer in the company, it magnifies the potential for upsetting others in the company. “IVM must be a voluntary position; you can’t force operators into a situation that they’ll find compromising,” Knight attests.

Although the ability to remotely monitor video is critical, the real strength of an IVM program comes in the ability to intervene. Bi-directional audio is a powerful tool that lets operators perform periodic safety announcements, disperse loiterers or potential assailants, and allows emergency communication with site personnel who may be far from a telephone. Each operator’s phone is equipped with a Plantronics MX10 switcher. The operators’ headphones are connected to the switcher, which is connected to both the phone and the computer’s audio card. This allows operators to use the phone to place calls or conduct voice downs over external two-way voice boards, such as the Eagle 1260 series, or to voice down directly through DVRs with voice-over-IP capabilities, such as the General Solutions and Honeywell Rapid Eye units.

The redundant, bi-coastal central stations are among Criticom’s main strengths. Not only do they mitigate the impact of regional disasters, but they also enhance the company’s ability to balance alarm loads, manage staffing, and ensure uninterrupted service in any event. The infrastructure in the IVM department is no different.

Realizing that the ability to monitor video is contingent upon continuous access to an Internet connection, the company is implementing fully redundant Internet services. “One of the company’s goals,” says Bob Schott, of Criticom engineering, “is redundancy across the board. Internet redundancy will ensure that there is no interruption to IP alarm transmissions and video monitoring.” The system consists of two different Internet circuits from two different service providers. Many other companies, lacking the resources of a large facility like Criticom, have not instituted or cannot afford to provide this kind of infrastructure. The company sees this feature as added value, despite the expense. “It’s worth it to know that our customers are being taken care of every step of the way,” Schott says.

Guardian’s integrated mapping software allows dispatchers to instantly track and locate vehicles from signals transmitted by onboard beacons.


Another key aspect of Interactive Security involves the use of global positioning systems (GPS) to locate, track, and recover stolen vehicles and assets. Criticom has integrated two different types of GPS monitoring systems. One system, much like the remote video, comes integrated into the MasterMind software. When violations or manually activated alarms are received, the system automates a realtime map showing the location of the asset as it moves. For theft recovery, this allows operators to guide the police directly to the stolen property. Criticom is also using the Guardian Mobile Monitoring platform. This web-based system not only allows operators to track and intervene in asset-related issues, but also allows users to remotely manage and track their vehicles. The largest dealer response has been for the systems’ fleet vehicle tracking capabilities, though they offer much more.

A GPS feature called geofencing is also incorporated into both systems. Geofencing allows users to program parameters for monitoring their vehicles or assets. Examples include driving over or under a designated speed, moving away from an authorized area, or traveling into a restricted area. Both systems also have Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) data programmed into the mapping systems. PSAP data displays the contact information, by region, for the responding agency in the vicinity of the emergency. When a vehicle travels out of one jurisdiction, the mapping software displays the PSAP number for the new jurisdiction.

Both systems use well-known and up-to-date mapping software, such as Alta maps and MapQuest, in their software packages. The GPS offering also includes nationwide coverage through large cellular providers, such as Cingular, to ensure the best coverage possible.

“I feel that GPS will be a great selling tool for our dealers. Not only can they generate more revenue by offering businesses the ability to track fleet vehicles so that they can utilize time more efficiently, but in the near future I also see this type of technology assisting in locating missing children,” Knight says.

In keeping with the concept of Interactive Security, GPS compliments the alarm-monitoring scenario in its ability to offer users as much information as possible. Where in the past, customers only knew a vehicle was stolen. Now, they know exactly where that vehicle is, in realtime, and who is responding.


“Internet monitoring is a very efficient and inexpensive way for alarm dealers to provide primary monitoring,” Knight says. “IP monitoring is about 300 percent faster than your standard telephone line alarm dialer.” The security industry has always accepted the transmission latency of alarm communicators. For example, most central stations expect an alarm violation to automate between 30 and 60 seconds after the occurrence. But users are becoming less comfortable with this latency time.

With the adoption of enhanced security options such as video monitoring, users expect access to information immediately. And because video systems are predominantly installed in businesses with special needs or past problems, immediacy is critical. Video systems may give an operator instant access to a site, but the operator won’t be alerted to an event until the alarm reports. IP alarm panels, however, cut latency time down to single-digit seconds. When an IP alarm dialer and a video system communicate to the central station via the Internet there is virtually no latency between an alarm violation and the viewing of the site. When operators access the property’s cameras, they are seeing the cause of the occurrence rather than the aftermath.

With all these systems working together, Criticom is poised to offer customers the most advanced suite of Interactive Security services available, but Criticom also knows success lies in proving the model and offering services that work. Some companies may jump ahead and prematurely offer technologies they aren’t prepared to handle. Criticom, although moving forward, is stepping out cautiously. “Growth is good,” Knight says. “In fact, it is very good. But on the other hand, you don’t always want to grow too fast. You must ensure that your current operation is very functional and, at the same time, progressive and profitable.” Sometimes that may mean sacrificing aesthetics to create an operational station that looks more like an alarm processing department than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

But it works: In the last three months, Criticom’s video monitoring department has verified more than 23 arrests. It works very well indeed.

For More Information


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