Monitored Video: The Central Station Perspective On Business Practices
As video monitoring and hosting become more desirable as a business offering, central stations share ideas for the operational details that can make it successful and profitable.
Video monitoring represents a major growth center for central stations, the vast majority of which are currently offering the service in one form or another. As adoption and service offerings continue to grow, monitoring companies are going to have questions. Central stations that currently offer monitored/hosted video services share what has been successful for them in the areas of selecting and training operators, managing bandwidth and storage, and setting pricing, which should be helpful for navigating the waters of video monitoring.
Video monitoring is not traditional alarm monitoring. That goes without saying. So what makes a good video monitoring operator? A combination of several things, says Andy Feldman, who represents Universal Monitoring, a third-party central station based in Charlotte, N.C., that specializes in remote guarding solutions.
“First, the operator’s aptitude towards technology adds value to his or her ability to respond to alarms and supervisory events. It’s important they understand what’s in the field and how it works,” he says. “An operator with good common sense adds value to the dealer, end-user and the authorities. Common sense can be the reason a false alarm is avoided.”
Another contributing factor, Feldman says, is clear instructions.
“Maintaining simple-to-follow instructions with accounts also plays a beneficial role in the quality and consistency of our operator’s ability to efficiently and effectively monitor video,” he says. “The more complicated the procedures, the more room for human error.”
Several monitoring companies, such as Gardena, Calif.-based security dealer and installation firm eCamSecure, have standards that operators must attain in order to be able to monitor video. For example, employees in the company’s central station must be employed with the company for two years and have at least two years of experience in CCTV or related video capacity. They also have to comprehensively study training materials and pass one-on-one mentoring testing. They are also put through a 90-day training program before they can start monitoring at all, says Steve Hearold, eCamSecure’s director of operations.
Technology being in flux as it is, it’s never enough to train employees once, says Aaron Wahrsager, president of wholesale monitoring company Nationwide Central Station Monitoring Corp. in Freeport, N.Y., which handles 80,000 accounts nationwide.
“Most have the ability with additional training. We’re providing the same service from location to location, but it varies based on the performance expectation of the system,” he says. “The unique challenge is to train operators to make more decisions than with a traditional alarm.
“It ties back in to customer expectations, specifically in determining what actions to take,” he says. “Expectations are huge to put into a scope of work so operators can be trained on a site-by-site basis. The biggest issue is often that end users have unrealistic expectations.”
Keith Buerke, operations manager at Hayward, Calif.-based Grand Central Station, a division of All Guard which monitors about 40,000 accounts, suggests clearly defining roles, responsibilities, actions and processes in writing, as well as investing in the infrastructure to ensure that your video services integrate with your automation system. These things, combined with a robust training program, he says, have created a streamlined, intuitive process that’s easy for Grand Central’s operators to follow.
“Every operator can do video at any station. They literally don’t have to do anything, just follow the instruction set,” he says. “We put a premium on operators and training, so we make sure that training is constant.”
Larry Folsom, owner of security services firm American Video and Security in Las Vegas, says central stations have to take their employees’ skills and experience into account with every decision.
“We pay our operators $9 to $15 an hour. They’re good people, but they don’t have CSI-type skills,” Folsom says. “The onus remains on us to know their skill sets and create an interface that makes the process repeatable.”
Folsom is also president of cloud video verification provider I-View Now, so it’s safe to say he’s taken matters into his own hands. “We’ve created a stripped-down interface that delivers a pre-alarm video clip and allows an operator to quickly go down the responsible party list to provide a level of verification,” he says.
Two of the main holdups to wider adoption of video monitoring are bandwidth and storage. The cost of both has come down in recent years — storage more drastically than bandwidth — but when it comes to cloud backup, the two are inseparable.
“Everyone’s trying to figure out how to put video into the cloud,” says Jay Hauhn, chief technology officer for Boca Raton, Fla.-based ADT Commercial Security, soon to be Tyco Integrated Security. “The challenge for the industry is that video is very bandwidth-intensive, and that’s further complicated with HD and megapixel video getting a lot of traction. If you try to send all that video off-site, bandwidth becomes very expensive.”
Hauhn says most cloud-based storage services are designed to take bandwidth into account, with the sweet spot being smaller installations. However, anyone with more than a handful of cameras who is looking to the cloud for video storage and backup is to be selective about what they’re sending off-site. “Cloud-based storage is not for replicating a DVR for a location with, say, 20 cameras,” he says. “If you have 25 sites with two cameras each, you can use your bandwidth more efficiently.”
Fortunately, there are a number of ways to reduce bandwidth and storage requirements by reducing the amount of video that’s transmitted and stored. For example, you can use analytics to transmit video across the network only when a specific event occurs. This allows you to do what Grand Central Station does, which is to store only video clips to maximize efficiency.
“Video events and everything our operators do on-site is stored, so we can store thousands of events on our servers,” Buerke says. “The clips are relatively small, about five to 10 seconds, and 90 percent of the time, that’s all you need. Hard drive space is pretty inexpensive, so we might have events from a year ago.”
For live video viewing, such as guard tours or concierge-type services, limiting the number of camera streams coming from a site at any one time is the method used by American Video and Services. “There’s a governor on the amount of bandwidth that can be used. With a quad view, operators can look at all of the cameras at a facility, but only four at a time,” Folsom says.
For many monitored locations, however, good old on-site storage is still the best choice. Even so, Wahrsager says, it’s good to be prepared for the day when — not if — bandwidth becomes much less of a concern. “Most of our customers store their video on-site, but we do some,” he says. “We do have systems in place should people want it, but right now, there’s no great demand. Storing event history on-site with a DVR or storage device is going to become less and less of an option as technology develops.”
In almost any business, especially service-based businesses, the topic of price is the third rail for salespeople. No one wants to talk numbers before learning what a customer wants and determining the best way to give it to them. With so many available equipment and service options for video monitoring, pricing has to be an ongoing process, and one that starts with determining what the market will bear, says Jason Cloudt, director of sales for Omaha, Neb.-based Security Equipment Inc. (SEI), a security integration firm that monitors 15,000 accounts in its own central station.
“The value of each service should be continually monitored and adjusted to be set to the value it’s providing,” he says. “For us, monitoring what our competitors are charging and talking to our peers in the industry is how we set our pricing.”
A great place to start is to compare the cost of providing the required services through video monitoring with the alternatives, Feldman says. “The goal is to provide a return on investment for the end user, so leveraging monitoring and hardware costs versus guard services, loss or verified alarm ordinance compliance is most important when creating a pricing model,” he says.
One of Nationwide’s most popular video monitoring services is a doorman-type solution that consists of a video intercom, several well-placed cameras and a DVR. This allows operators to interact with anyone who comes to a multi-unit building, eliminating the cost of having a person at the site to determine who can and can’t enter. The company charges for this based on operator time, which Wahrsager says can be tricky to estimate.
“We base it on usage and time, which is broken out minute by minute and accumulated at an hourly rate,” he says. “If a system is new and there’s no history with the building or the installer, then it’s hard to gauge. That’s where some dealers are hesitant and get nervous about quoting.”
Buerke believes it’s important to take the environment into account when determining pricing, which is something his company does. “For video verification where it’s indoor and the perimeter is secure, we add a small premium for that video service as a flat monthly fee,” he says. “If it’s outdoors, we charge per incident, with three to four included per month at no charge.”
Folsom says his company determines its pricing strategy by taking the cost of equipment, infrastructure, and labor, combined with any recurring costs, into account. “In our direct costs, we take a loss on the assembly but look at how many months it will take to get even,” he says. “We also factor in our other costs and what the market will bear to determine our monthly price for our video monitoring, which we sell to end users for a premium above normal security monitoring.”
And what’s the best advice for determining pricing?
“Make sure you’re selling for profit. You can get lost if you overvalue the service,” Folsom says. “Then you start to wonder if it’s worth doing at all.”
Unlike equipment standards that allow central stations to monitor any manufacturer’s equipment, there are no standards for video transmission, which Grand Central Station’s Keith Buerke says have gone a long way towards inhibiting growth within the video monitoring sector.
“It’s more tricky to develop standards with video because there hasn’t been any standard transmission methods or software to process video well,” Buerke says. “Every video system, from big manufacturers down to homemade systems, is different, so it’s difficult to make everyone happy. And video technology is developing extremely fast, so to some degree that precludes standards.”
One effort that should help with this is the Automated Secure Alarm Protocol (ASAP), which the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) is developing in conjunction with the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International as a way to reduce traditional two- to three-minute relay times between monitoring companies and dispatchers. The goal of the program is to allow monitoring companies to relay data directly for processing by computers at the dispatch center, reducing the number of phone calls, eliminating a lot of miscommunication and reducing response times.
ASAP would be a welcome addition to the industry, says I-ViewNow’s Larry Folsom.
“CSAA has written a protocol to get us all on the same sheet of music. We’re using the same words, but we’re talking about different things,” Folsom says. “By standardizing the gap between an event and video verification by a stated amount of time, an operator can verify it and go around 9-1-1, and that will drastically reduce response times.”
A New Look at Verification
For years, video verification was somewhat of a dirty word in monitoring. Most of the hesitation stemmed from technology limitations.
“Back in the day, you may have had a terminal located away from the operators, and when an event came in, someone had to go to that terminal and process it manually,” says Keith Buerke of Grand Central Station.
Those limitations have largely disappeared in recent years, and with those improvements, so too have a lot of the concerns, Buerke says.
“In the last year or year-and-a-half, we’ve gotten to the point where there are reasonably priced products and bandwidth available,” he says. “We’re getting video within seconds and it only takes operators seconds to verify the alarm. And with verified video, when they call the police, they’re going to expedite their response.”
One way I-ViewNow has addressed response times is by incorporating mobile video into the process, says Larry Folsom, the company’s president. Within seconds of an event at a site, the customer receives a text message containing a link to the video. From that link, he or she can view the video, verify the event’s validity and with the touch of a button, request dispatch to the premises.
The main drawback to video verification, Buerke says, is a lack of awareness on the part of consumers, which he says the industry would do well to address head on.
“The problem is that this is such a new business that the demand is not there. Customers don’t know to ask for that service,” he says. “We as an industry haven’t done as well as we should at education. We need to be out there creating demand.”