57 Channels and Nothing on – Why Your CCTV Is Not Working

effectiveness of CCTV camerasIn 1992 Bruce Springsteen released the song 57 Channels (and Nothin’ On). Back then I was in the 4th year of my electronics apprenticeship in the security industry and CCTV cameras were only for the rich – high risk companies such as banks.

I feel the level of professionalism around the installation and positioning of cameras was at a much higher level then.

We use to have 2 cameras in a bank and get a reasonable result.
Now we might see 16 cameras and not one gave a usable image!

Several factors drove this:

  • We were transitioning from the age of the 35mm film cameras.
    Setting up one of these cameras, which we used mainly in banks and betting outlets was a precise art.
    • The angle of tilt was such that you could always see faces
    • The light levels were measured at the optimum focal point with a light meter and the aperture adjusted to suit
    • The cost of maintenance and film processing was high and took time so results were expected to be good
    • The resolution of a film camera still exceeds that of the modern megapixel CCTV camera. (Until >16MP becomes commercially viable) We could cover a lot more with one film camera and still get ID quality.
  • The cost of a single CCTV camera was around $2000 to the client before we added the VCR and installation. Not many “small” alarm companies had the calibre to support the client
  • The cameras ability to cope with varying lighting conditions were poor so placement was carefully considered

Compare this with today:

  • Anybody can install a camera and get a picture
  • Cameras are cheap and can be purchased anywhere so the professionalism of design is lost to cheap installers
  • Clients expectations are that the system should only cost a few hundred dollars
  • Cameras are a lot more resilient to varying light so less care is given to the positioning
  • No one reads instructions – believe it or not, most cameras actually need configuring – not just installing.
  • Camera resolution has increased and people expect it to capture everything.

What’s the result?

Every day we see CCTV footage such as this of some aggressive robberies where cameras caught the act occurring but gave nothing to assist in evidence.

Most cameras are being installed on the ceiling, tilted down toward the doorways or counters. Why? Because it is easier than getting a cable down the wall. This is perfect to observe behaviour but of no use to identify a person.
Go back to the day of the Yashica 35mmsurveillance cameras, they were installed at around 1.9 metres on a wall. This meant they were looking into your face rather than onto your hair. While this will not help overcome the problems associated with a person wearing a mask, it will capture faces in most opportunistic attacks where the person simply runs in with the head tilted down or wears a baseball cap.

There are also some emerging technologies being developed here in Adelaide that – when connected to a correctly installed camera – will lock out people whose faces cannot be seen clearly. The philosophy of this technology is great but unless the quality of CCTV installation is recognised as a skill set that requires education and experience, it will be rendered unreliable.

What Now?

If you have a CCTV system installed, I want you to go and take a good look at what it is achieving for you. Do a simple test – look at the next 5 people that walk into your business and ask yourself:

  • Can I see their full face?
  • Could I identify this person from the CCTV footage in a line up?
  • Can I track their behaviour where it matters?
  • If the sunlight was in a different position, would I still be able to identify them?

Then let me know what you found in the comments.

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