Magazine Article | January 22, 2008

Reap Multiple Benefits From Remote Monitoring

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

For this fitness club operator, a new surveillance system with remote monitoring is the key to minimizing theft and bolstering employee productivity.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, February 2008

During the 2006 holiday season, a Buffalo Athletic Club facility received a gift it could have done without. The operation — one of seven Buffalo Athletic Club and five Rochester Athletic Club facilities managed by Fitness First — was the site of two burglaries later found to have been committed by club employees. "These incidents," says Michael Calzone, Fitness First's corporate controller, "ultimately led the company to install remote monitoring technology."
Fitness First had previously considered such a move as an antidote to several problems. These problems included not only burglary attempts, but repeated theft of cash and member pilferage of equipment (e.g., free weights) and miscellaneous items sold at each facility.  However, several factors had precluded forging ahead with an implementation.
"We looked at technology of this kind in 2003 and 2004, but the systems that were available at the time were tape-based and involved the use of large data servers," Calzone recalls. "We weren't prepared to make the investment required — and more importantly, we needed a scalable system. By late 2006, though, technology had changed — and we didn't want to wait to address our situation anymore."
Calzone and his colleagues started shopping for a remote monitoring solution in January 2007, evaluating five different options over a four-month period. They eventually chose a technology package comprised of Milestone Systems XProtect Enterprise software and Axis Communications Axis 212 and Axis 216 network surveillance cameras. Deployed by Digital Surveillance Solutions, the system was deemed best suited to Fitness First's needs because as an IP (Internet Protocol)-based solution, it would allow the company to leverage its existing IT infrastructure without purchasing any additional computer hardware. The flexibility to add cameras to the configuration in tandem with any future growth also influenced the final purchasing decision.
Two Buffalo Athletic Club facilities and all five Rochester Athletic Club facilities were fitted with an average of three surveillance cameras, positioned over the front desk and in the business office and workout areas. The remaining three Buffalo Athletic Club facilities currently have one camera each at the front desk, but plans are being made to install two more cameras per unit. One club also has an exterior camera from Mobotix installed to address security issues in its parking lot.
The cameras record images at a rate of about 30 frames per second. Once captured, images are transmitted over a virtual private network (VPN) to a Dell master server at Fitness First's headquarters. Personnel at individual locations can view the images via the Internet, using Dell OptiPlex 5200 desktop computers in each club's back office or by accessing a password-protected Web site from remote locations.

System Minimizes Theft And Boosts Productivity
Calzone says the system has decreased the incidence of theft in the clubs to "nearly zero," with only one such occurrence recorded this past summer. Little or no cash has been lost through pilferage from facilities' front desks or other 'inside jobs' executed by employees. To date, Fitness First has apprehended and terminated four staff members whose attempts at theft or after-hours burglary were captured by the technology; one individual was caught stealing from an office safe his first day on the job. False injury claims and pilferage by members have also become close to nonexistent.
"Employees and members are aware of the cameras, and most don't think about trying anything underhanded because they know we're watching," Calzone asserts. "We have a tight rein because our management team, as well as the general managers of each facility, can review images in real time on-site or remotely, via the Internet. If we find out that a certain incident supposedly occurred at x time, on x day, in x club, we can go back and pull up the images by date, time, and location. Sharing evidence with outside parties, like the police, is easy because all we have to do is download the image files from the server and burn them to a CD."
He adds that the ability to remotely monitor club activities also has enhanced staff productivity when general managers are not present at the facilities they oversee. The latter use the system to ascertain that personnel are adhering to their schedules, covering all areas of the facilities, and interacting with members rather than standing idle or socializing amongst themselves. "Employees know they're going to be spoken to if we see them on camera congregating in the back or whatever, so they avoid these types of missteps," Calzone observes. "When we do catch them, we show them the images as a training tool and tell them what they could have been doing — for instance, showing a member how to work a piece of equipment or discussing a new program — instead of what they did do."
Calzone says he has no qualms about augmenting the system with additional cameras should new locations open or existing ones be found to require additional surveillance. "It's just a matter of putting in another camera, which is simple, and adding a software license," he asserts. "That's a far cry from a huge hardware expenditure, and it serves our purpose extremely well."

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