If you decide to purchase and install a video surveillance system, make sure you leave room in your budget for regular maintenance. After all, a surveillance camera is a finite device, made of electronics and plastic, and seeing as most often these devices are installed outdoors, they are subject to weathering which can cause both internal and external damage. Without regular maintenance, your average surveillance camera isn’t going to last very long. Unfortunately, it seems there is an emerging trend of private homes, businesses and law enforcement departments installing surveillance cameras systems but not budgeting and spending adequately to maintain those cameras! The city of Philadelphia is learning this lesson the hard way…

According to the city controller of the Philadelphia Police Department, Alan Butkovitz, more than two-thirds of the city’s surveillance cameras are not functional. This troubling information was obtained during a follow-up audit from last year, in which Butkovitz randomly sampled 20 out of the city’s 216 existing cameras and found that only 45% were functioning properly. Butkovitz claims he brought this information to Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, and that Mayor Nutter said they’d have 90% working by September.  “It’s now almost a year later and they’ve got 32% working,” Butkovitz said.

But Mayor Nutter disagrees with Butkovitz’s report, even blatantly coming out publicly and saying, “The controller is wrong. We’ve tried to explain that to him.” Mayor Nutter claims that 85% of the city’s cameras are functioning as they should be, and also says that there are about 1500 cameras across Philadelphia that deliver a live-feed to the city’s crime center.

The conflicting information is troubling to say the least. According to the article, “…the problems brought to light in a study by the accounting firm Eisner Amper include blurry images with jagged, pixelated edges, making it difficult to read license plates, and condensation and water in camera domes, making it impossible to identify people.”

So who is the public supposed to believe? Butkovitz makes a great point when he says, “Suppose that had been the quality of photos in the Boston bombing or the Graduate Hospital murder. It’s worse than useless because it gives you a false sense of reliability.”

Butkovitz also says that during a recent visit to Baltimore, Maryland, his office found 97% of its 622 cameras functioning properly.

The lack of properly budgeting for surveillance camera maintenance will become a major issue within months, especially as citywide systems start to age. The issues in Philadelphia are only the tip of the iceberg, and we can expect to see more and more cases such as this in cities and towns across the country.

One specific issue we’ve seen here at NCAVF: When the support computers that power surveillance systems get updated, that often means each camera in the system also needs it’s internal program updated. If this update doesn’t happen, the camera will go offline. Also, we’ve seen cameras overrun with spider webs, which especially can affect security cameras with night vision. Keeping all these video cameras running requires more hands on then most police forces and cities realized when they bought the systems. These surveillance systems — often paid for with grants from Homeland Security —  require regular maintenance, and that maintenance budget must come from financially strapped cities unwilling to part with this cash.