Public Safety Video and the YouTube Generation
This story was previously published in APCO’s PSC Magazine in January 2018 by TUSA Consultant Dennis Ward.
Public safety and law enforcement live in interesting times. Ten years ago, the only video tools available were dash cameras and surveillance cameras. Now we are seeing an explosion in video technology, including body cameras, drones, and video lasers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Today, emerging technologies such as NextGen 9-1-1 and FirstNet are about to revolutionize the way public safety utilizes video, yet there is also a missing technology link that must be addressed before public safety can reach its full video potential.
The way we use video has rapidly changed in our culture. It’s hard to believe that more than ten years ago, YouTube was not part of our vocabulary. The original domain name for YouTube was registered in February of 2005, and by the end of April of 2005, the first test video, Me at the Zoo, was uploaded to the site. By the summer of 2006, YouTube was one of the fastest-growing sites on the internet, averaging 20 million visitors per month. Fast forward to today and it is the second-largest search engine in the world with over 5 billion videos being viewed every day.
When you look at the last ten years, video has changed and impacted our culture. We now view videos on our smartphones and tablets; we see them on billboards and digital signage, and virtual reality companies are popping up everywhere. Even companies are changing their identity because the way we use video has changed. Ten years ago Netflix was a company that sent you DVDs in the mail. Today it is a streaming service that has given us new vocabulary words like cord-cutters and Netflix and Chill. And these cultural changes are making their way into the way public safety uses video.
In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, they recognized the culture of the YouTube generation and created their own private YouTube channel to host training videos for their statewide radio system, PA-STARNet. The idea was to give state agencies the ability to access a wide variety of topics from their smartphones, tablets, mobile data terminals, laptops, and desktop computers anywhere in the state, at any time. If someone forgets how to clear an emergency, they can watch a video on it. Other departments across the country are following the Commonwealth’s lead and putting similar videos on their private YouTube channel. In the State of Louisiana, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness produced a video to educate lawmakers, public safety users, and the public on the benefits of their Statewide radio network, the Louisiana Wireless Information Network (LWIN). When it comes to video, Public Safety has come a long way in a short amount of time.
The History of Public Safety Video
In September 1968, Olean, New York became the first city in the United States to install video cameras along its main business street in an effort to deter crime. The cameras were installed and piped back to the local police station for monitoring, and it was a success because it helped suppress crime and move it to other areas in the city. The unique project also made national news and over 160 police chiefs from across the country came to view the technology. Even the US Army sent a high-ranking Colonel to inspect the system.
Then in 1973, New York City decided to install surveillance cameras as well. NYPD elected to put cameras in Time Square in an effort to deter crime. Unfortunately, it had no effect because the cameras were not monitored and there was no way to record the images. But in 1975, things changed for public safety because a little device called a VCR came along that allowed people to record video at a very economical price. And by the early 1980s, the surveillance camera industry exploded.
By the late 1980s, law enforcement started using personal camcorders in their vehicles to record traffic stops. In the early 1990s, they were replaced by dedicated dashcam systems. Law Enforcement fell in love with the technology for a myriad of reasons, including liability, officer safety, and training. The 1990s also brought a wave of racial profiling allegations and departments turned to dashcams for evidence. As the years advanced, dashcam systems have improved the video and audio quality, and they are configured to automatically start recording with several triggers, including activating the lights and sirens or driving at a high rate of speed.
The YouTube generation is inspiring a lot of emerging technologies. In Joplin, Missouri, an EF5 tornado touched down and did massive amounts of damage. In some cases, it wiped out entire neighborhoods. A company called Eagleview Pictometry developed video technology that was able to show the extent of the damage by showing before and after the aerial video of the event. The video had a line that went down the middle of the screen and on one side it showed how things looked before the tornado, and on the other side, it showed the aftermath and damage.
There are so many emerging technologies being developed. Motorola and Hitachi have software platforms that allow you to see all the security cameras in an area via a map. This includes cameras inside of buildings, like schools and malls. Motorola even has software tools that allow you to look at traffic cameras and search for specific cars. You can tell it to show you just yellow cars that have gone by in the last ten minutes and the video will replay and only show you the yellow cars.
There are other emerging technologies too, like NextGen 9-1-1 and LTE. NextGen 9-1-1 is going to allow the public to transmit text, images, and video to 9-1-1 centers. It is designed to provide public safety with more and better information about perpetrators, crime scenes, and accidents before public safety arrives on the scene. LTE, on the other hand, will provide first responders with broadband data capabilities. This is going to allow public safety to access video in the field, as well as push video back from their bodycams and dashcams.
The Missing Link
Still, even though we are witnessing all this emerging technology in the field of public safety, there is a missing technology link that will prevent public safety video from reaching its full potential. Right now if a critical event happens, there is no way to connect disparate video sources and push the feeds out to others. For example, if there is a hostage situation going on, you might be able to access nearby surveillance cameras, but how are you going to access a drone operator’s footage? What about the video feed from the news camera crew? And how do you push everyone’s video feeds out to mobile command centers, dispatch centers, and other users who need access to those feeds? This is where the missing technology link comes into play.
Standards will need to be adopted and the software will need to be developed. There will probably need to be some sort of hardware box that allows different video sources to be connected, similar to the way the ACU1000 connects various radios together for communication. Right now there are so many different aspect ratios for video from SD, HD, and 4k. In fact, 4k has quite a few aspect rations including 4086×2160 (DCI) and 38240×2160 (UHD). And there are some cameras out there that are filming in 5k and 6k (Red Cameras). There are a whole lot of frame rates too including 24p, 25p, 30p, 50p, and 60p, and this makes it challenging.
I think a future word you will hear in our industry is video interoperability. I’m sure some really smart engineer is quietly developing some sort of device that allows you to connect all these disparate video systems and link them together, but until then, public safety video will not be able to reach its full potential, but it will still continue to adapt to the YouTube generation.