The Central Ohio Transit Authority (COTA) provides fixed-route and paratransit services for greater Columbus and Central Ohio — orchestrating more than 19 million annual passenger trips for the area’s 1.2 million residents. COTA has around 1,170 employees and maintains a fleet of 321 fixed-route transit vehicles, 75 paratransit vehicles, and 12 micro-transit vehicles. As such, the system requires a sophisticated, high-tech security and surveillance system to maintain safety and minimize risk.
“At an organizational level, we recognized that an onboard camera system offered us the opportunity to increase our level of awareness and understanding with regard to what is happening in and around our vehicles while they are on the road,” said David K. Beltz, security systems manager for COTA, who has been with the agency for over a decade. “This enhanced level of awareness has allowed us to improve the quality of our service, as well as our physical security program and risk assessment.”
COTA has relied on technology from Safety Vision to maintain that level of awareness since the late 1990’s. Today, the fleet camera system is composed of 321 individual video recorders and associated wireless communication devices, nearly 2,500 cameras, and several system and video management applications.
A network of surveillance systems
As a legacy customer, COTA runs a variety of Safety Vision systems to ensure total surveillance of its fleet; including the RoadRecorder series, which is an array of digital recording devices that have evolved over the years. Currently, COTA is using a combination of the RoadRecorder 6000, 7000, and 8000 devices throughout their fleet.
The RoadRecorder 6000, which accommodates up to 10 cameras, records at 24 frames per second, and offers options including dual audio and selectable recording speed, camera image size and sensory input, has been in operation at COTA for over 12 years. The RoadRecorder 7000 series, the first of the company’s network video recorders (NVRs), has similarly been operating since 2012.
“COTA has always been a very progressive agency with transit technology,” said Carl Buchner, ACCOUNT EXECUTIVE at Safety Vision, who works closely with COTA. “They want cutting-edge software analytics so management can have access to as much data as possible from the vehicles. In tandem with that, the agency upgrades their surveillance technology as necessary to ensure they maintain the highest level of system reliability.”
In 2018, COTA deployed Safety Vision’s open platform RoadRecorder 8000 to a number of their buses, in order to streamline their security operations. This IP-based solution not only unifies COTA’s entire suite of surveillance systems (fleets, facilities, stations, and yards) within a single video management system (VMS), but also allows COTA to have an expansive approach to their analytics. The open nature of the hardware and software allows them to enhance their system through a Software Development Kit (SDK) and Application Programing Interface (API) integration process. This ensures third-party integrations in the global market. These add on features can range anywhere from auto redaction to facial recognition and allows COTA to implement new technology without replacing existing hardware and software.
“In a proprietary system, an agency’s hardware and software will operate as an independent program; requiring any and all features to be sourced from the same provider’” Buchner explained. “When you use our open platform, you can use our hardware with different viewing software and add on technologies from other data agencies. It’s completely scalable and allows fleets to incorporate an endless amount of features.”
Industry Protection and System Training
Beltz explained the benefits of surveillance in protection against workers compensation cases, insurance purposes, personal injury litigation, and other issues.
“The footage captured has been vital to multiple business groups within COTA,” he said. “The Safety, Legal/Claims, and Security Departments rely heavily on video and audio data to analyze vehicle accidents, injuries, and identify individuals who disrupt service or perform criminal acts onboard the buses. We are committed to providing a best-in-class, safe service to our community, and the video that we capture is extremely helpful when it comes to pursuing the legal action necessary to ban passengers who are intent on causing trouble. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it would be nearly impossible to accomplish many of the things that we do without the use of our onboard surveillance systems.”
He further discussed how the video footage has enabled COTA to improve their training programs by analyzing their own operations and practices. Beltz stated that “video analysis following an accident or incident has helped our Training Department develop an understanding of driver skill gaps. It’s allowed us to deliver more specifically designed training for drivers.”
Safety Vision provides continuous training to COTA to ensure they understand their systems and can utilize them efficiently. Upon installation, Safety Vision provided onsite training and certification to COTA staff, which included cycling through different camera configurations and linking the system to COTA’s Wi-Fi infrastructure. Throughout the relationship, Safety Vision provides support at no cost for configuration, checking vehicle health, new bus commissioning, and other routine maintenance.
Several years ago, Safety Vision offered Beltz an extensive hands-on training opportunity at their headquarters in Houston, Texas.
“Over the course of the week I spent there, I had an opportunity to work with several of their senior service technicians, and members of their product development team,” Beltz said. “This learning opportunity was invaluable, as the knowledge that I was able to bring back to my team enabled us to perform some routine maintenance and repair tasks on our own, thereby improving our efficiency. Tasks that might have once taken a day or two for our service technicians to get to are now addressed immediately.”
Improving and maintaining system integrity
Coordination with Safety Vision can be key in troubleshooting situations or improving efficiency. For example: In the past, one of COTA’s onboard recording devices would download video and audio data to a built-in solid-state drive and then transfer to a removable hard drive for video offloading. This required COTA to manually pull hard drives from each bus to retrieve the video.
“This was extremely time consuming” Beltz said, “and it often took several days for staff to acquire requested video footage.”
The extra step of pulling hard drives was not only time consuming, but also resulted in frustration for the end-users. So, Safety Vision suggested a solution that involved recording data directly to the solid-state drive and then wirelessly offloading video through the Wi-Fi server.
“Eliminating the transfer step in the process made video available to our end-users much faster and was a major game changer because our overall efficiency was improved,” Beltz said.
Regular and consistent collaboration between COTA and Safety Vision is critical to ensuring the system continues to perform reliably and delivers value to the agency’s operations. Due to the harsh conditions of the industry, maintaining a comprehensive video and audio recording system across the fleet requires a significant amount of time and expertise.
“As our Safety Vision system has grown and evolved over the years, and we have become more reliant on video in our operation, we depend on at least one system maintenance technician to be on-site nearly every day performing repairs and/or preventative maintenance for us,” Beltz said. “We have learned that this is an extremely important component to maintaining a healthy, reliable video recording system.”
“The video captured from COTA’s surveillance systems have been incredibly valuable to helping the agency provide a safe and secure environment for employees and customers,” Beltz added. “It helps management monitor any potential inappropriate activity by customers and also provides accountability for COTA’s Operations team. Our Safety Vision products are an invaluable tool in our operations. Many of us cannot imagine doing our jobs without onboard surveillance, so I think that this will always be a significant component of our business.”