Toronto firm outfits Texas mega-school with video surveillance

When Vy Hoang won a contract to supply hundreds of surveillance video cameras to a mega-school being built just north of Dallas, Texas he didn’t bargain the installation would come with some megal problems as well.

The executive vice-president of Toronto-based i3 International Inc. had done larger rollouts for enterprises, but Prosper High School posed some unique challenges.

The school that opened last August had an advanced network, and stringent security requirements that meant no outside access to the system was possible. School technicians were using i3’s IP-based cameras in previously untested ways.

“Prosper is a very progressive school and they tried to use all the existing functionality of our product in a way we didn’t test in our own facility,” Hoang says. “It was done in a way that caused some glitches in the software.”

The $135 million school is the size of a small Canadian university campus. With an areas of 590,000 square feet, the school includes an indoor running track and football field. It is outfitted with a broadcast studio, and staff whiz between classrooms with golf carts.

“I couldn’t believe how big it was,” Hoang says. “The biggest school in Canada looks like a tug boat next to Prosper.”

All that for a town of just 2,100 people and a student base of 1,000. But demographers project the Texan suburb will grow at a rapid pace over the next 20 years and the school has been built keeping the future in mind. Students are going to be added at a rate of 100-200 per year and Prosper’s school district will grow by 10 times within 20 years.

“To us, it’s no big deal,” says Ted Ziolkowski, director of technology services for Prosper High. “There are other campuses across the country that are pretty big.”

Still, the school’s video surveillance system cost $1 million to put in place. It includes 293 cameras – a mix of new IP-based cameras and legacy analogue cameras – and 21 digital video recorders (DVRs).

Prosper chose i3’s SRX-Pro hybrid DVRs because it offers a content management system and is compatible with both IP-based and analogue cameras, Ziolkowski explains.

“There’s nothing wrong with the analogue cameras, it’s how you access them and how much data is stored,” he says. “It has a central point of management, a full-fledged client, and Web accessibility. So it’s feature rich and easy to navigate.”

IP-based cameras from i3 deliver 720p megapixel quality, Hoang says. One megapixel is not advanced camera technology – even cell phones now offer higher resolution cameras – but i3’s cameras use much larger lenses than consumer cameras, boosting the image quality significantly. In the security camera world, where video is running around the clock and sometimes stored for 60 to 120 days, this is as high-quality as it gets.

“To us it’s a huge leap in the surveillance industry,” he says. “Most people are used to that kind of HD quality from their TV. We’re starting to produce that.”

Having high school students under HD video surveillance is enough to irritate the privacy sensibilities of the average Canadian. i3 doesn’t have privacy-protective measures built into its cameras or DVRs, leaving that responsibility to the administrator of the system.

“In Canada, our Privacy Act is a lot stronger than in the U.S.,” Hoang says. “The further south you go, the less you have to deal with privacy issues.”

But Prosper doesn’t put cameras in areas where privacy is the expectation, such as change rooms and washrooms. There isn’t a camera in every classroom either, and access to the system is restricted to 33 people, Ziolkowski says. No one is monitoring the video feed in real time.

“It’s not Big Brother yet,” he says. “We have them in every hallway, covering all the entrances, stuff like that.”

Prosper also has tight security protocols in place. The system is run separately from the school’s WAN and no outside access to the feed is allowed, even with a secure VPN connection. That added to the challenge when i3 had to troubleshoot the glitches that cropped up.

It meant more phone calls and more personal visits, Hoang says.

“This is a large school and we’re pulling cabling over 1,200 feet from the camera to the communications closet,” he says. “It was the upper threshold for how far cabling could be pulled.”

That gave Prosper some trouble in accessing video signals from certain cameras. On top of that, the DVRs were constantly rebooting and scrubbing all the memory from disk.

Big name Canadian organizations that are i3 customers include Loblaws, Tim Hortons and the York Regional School Board. In the U.S., customers include Topps, Bargain Barn and Gander Mountain.

But Prosper’s hardware situation proved unique.

“No one likes an unreliable solution,” Zilokowski says. “My staff and this company made a commitment to work together and solve the problem.”

Eventually the problem was resolved. It took four months to iron out the glitches, but i3 supplied Prosper with a replacement DVR while it troubleshot the problem with their unit. Hoang personally visited the campus on several occasions to help solve the problems. Zilokowski credits i3 with being persistent.

“Given the technical difficulty of the problem, they did fix it pretty quickly,” he says.

Now Prosper is hoping the project experience will give position it to grab similar bids.

“It’s a huge lead in to other larger municipalities that are thinking of schools like this,” Hoang says.

Next time around, Hoang may be able to better avoid major glitches.

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