Caught in the Act
Mobile Video Guard camera-surveillance systems cut construction site thefts
With valuable equipment, tools and materials left out in the open after hours, thieves recognize the profit potential of construction sites. According to information from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, as much as $1 billion a year is lost nationwide due to theft of construction equipment and tools, and the recovery rate is less than 20%.
Enter Shawn Scarlata. After 22 years as an officer with the Prince George’s County Police Department and eight years heading a security guard company with several partners, Scarlata recognized that technology could be leveraged to provide cost-effective security, leading to the 2016 launch of his Maryland-based company, Mobile Video Guard (MVG).
“In the beginning,” Scarlata says, “we provided armed security services using only off-duty and former law enforcement officers. While we still provide such services for employee terminations, executive protection and other specific tasks, we are now focused on leveraging cost-effective technology to secure sites nationwide.”
That technology comes in the form of MVG systems for remote-monitored surveillance. “It took less than a year to develop our system,” Scarlata says, “with the first installation occurring in December 2017 at a Baltimore site.”
What and How
MVG systems combine multiple surveillance cameras by Germany-based Mobotix. Camera lenses range from 90-degree wide angle to 8-degree telephoto. “The higher the number, the more we see side to side,” Scarlata explains. “The lower the number, the further out we can detect motion along the sides of buildings and down site fence lines.” Standard MVG systems are equipped with four camera lenses, while minis have two. Site layouts determine the number of cameras, lens types and placement.
A newly added camera unit, specifically designed for securing tower cranes, mounts near the bottom of a crane with one lens pointing down over the crane base enclosure and the other lens pointing up the ladder of the crane itself. The camera’s purpose, says Scarlata, is to deter adventure-seeking, activist or suicidal crane climbers.
Other MVG components—all off-the-shelf products by proprietary vendors—include modems, switches, loudspeakers and warning lights. When brought together as an MVG system, they help stop crimes.
Here’s how. The systems—which run off either an on-site power supply, a generator-charged battery or are solar powered—record motion 24/7, with surveillance staff monitoring site activity from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and around the clock on weekends and holidays. Using cloud-based, artificial intelligence, cameras send motion-based alerts—10- to 12-second video clips of persons or vehicles, but not false alarms due to blowing trees, trash, etc.—to the operator. Upon receiving the alert, the operator clicks on the computer-desktop alarm to view the video clip and a live shot of the action taking place. If confirmed by the operator to be suspicious, local authorities are notified.
On-site, red/blue strobe lights are employed to alarm intruders and a warning message is played from one or more camera sites. Trespassers hear: “This area is closed. Leave immediately. The police are being dispatched.” If that doesn’t convince the would-be thieves to flee, the system operator can override the recording and announce: “Hey you in the black jacket, climbing the fence. We see you.You’re being recorded. The police have been dispatched.”
“Eighty to 85% of the time, the recording works and the intruders take off,” Scarlata says. “Another 10% may ignore the recorded warning but flee when they hear an operator speaking directly to them. And then there’s that 5% who just don’t care and continue doing what they came to do… until the police arrive.”
As for a cost comparison between this technology-driven service versus security guards, Scarlata says a security guard service may cost as much as $12,000 per month, whereas two standard MVG systems with four cameras each, and a mini with two cameras, together cost $2,750 per month (including monitoring and data charges).
Adding Fire Protection
There have been cases where security guards themselves pose security problems, says Scarlata.
“As an example,” he says, “a construction company had several of our MVGs on-site for almost a year and experienced no theft. As the project progressed and the potential for fire-related losses increased, the company hired a guard service to provide added security and to act as an after-hours fire watch. After adding the after-hours guard, the site began losing copper and tools. The project manager, believing he needed more guards, added four, after which he called to say he lost more copper in one night than he had during the entire project. So I went to the site with one of our mini units, but without a loudspeaker and lights. We strapped the camera box to a ceiling I-beam and less than an hour after the guards arrived for work, we had them on camera stealing copper, and a new security guard company was brought in.”
“This 2019 incident,” Scarlata continues, “coupled with dozens of client inquiries about fire protection, prompted a search for a fire-detection system designed for construction sites that could work alongside our camera systems.”
At the time, there was no such system available in the United States. “That changed earlier this year,” Scarlata says, “when we found such a system leading to a partnership with Ramtech Electronics Limited in the United Kingdom, with us serving as one of two distributors of its WES3 wireless evacuation system in the United States. Like our camera systems, this product was designed for the construction environment and features wireless battery-operated smoke and heat sensors as well as emergency call points/sounders that help evacuate a site in case of an emergency.” Additionally, the system’s two-chamber technology separates dust from smoke, thereby reducing false alarms.
“Not only does this system ensure greater safety for workers,” Scarlata points out, “it also can be an early detector of after-hours fires as we monitor the site and dispatch fire departments when heat and/or smoke alerts are received.” Plus, the system’s medical alert feature can send text messages to project teams.
With 250 MVG systems in use today at 85 sites belonging to about 50 customers, Scarlata says he looks to have 5,000 systems in the field by 2028. “It’s a lofty goal,” he says, “but we are confident that we will reach it because we are laser-focused on our clients.”
“For example,” Scarlata says, “we recognize that when someone has a need for security, they need it fast and may not want to wait for an installer. So we hired a fabrication company, American Bully Manufacturing in Annapolis Junction, Maryland, to design a quick-mount bracket system for our camera units. The design turned out better than anticipated and has literally taken the installation process down to a few minutes with just three steps: attach the bracket to the pole or wall; slide the camera box onto the plate; and plug in the unit. It’s that simple, as shown in our YouTube videos. Now, clients can install their own MVGs.”
Moreover, Scarlata says continuous communication with customers is critical, with 75% to 80% of the company’s business being repeat, stemming from customers finishing one site and moving on to another.
“Our staff talks with our customers weekly, many times daily,” he says. “They update us on what’s going on at their sites—who’s working late, who’s coming in early; what to expect to see on the cameras; what we’re doing well; and what we can do better. At the end of the day, we want to be a part of our customers’ project teams—the security portion of their teams.”