Facial referencing technology enhances safety at B.C. ski resort

Whistler Blackcomb is hoping to catch more thieves and illegitimate thrill seekers with a new network of surveillance cameras, and high-tech software that uses facial referencing technology.

North America’s largest combined resort recently replaced its aging video surveillance systems with a new high-tech network, connected via fibre cable stretching from its village stores all the way across its slopes.

All kinds of drama happens in Whistler – some of it fantastic, and some of it tragic. In February, a base jumper leaped over 1400 feet from the resort’s famous Peak to Peak gondola, and is still evading arrest. People make off with entire trailers full of snowmobiles, and credit card fraud is rife.

The last straw was the untimely death of a resort employee on St Patrick’s night in 2012. “An employee came out of a St Patrick’s day venue drunk and didn’t get back to staff housing. He died of hypothermia,” recalls Carl Rochon, IT systems administrator at Whistler Blackcomb.

The resort’s video surveillance system at the time was analogue, with some systems still relying on VHS tape. With poor quality video, the resort didn’t pick up the employee’s error, and was unable to save him.

Whistler Blackcomb isn’t technically responsible for accidents like this, but nevertheless, it values its employees’ safety. “That kicked it off. We started looking at different video systems,” Rochon said.

The organisation spent six months looking for a suitable video system, eventually settling on installed an IP video system from Avigilon. It was designed to work in conjunction with an access and intrusion detection system, all installed with the help of BMS Integrated Services Inc.

“We wanted a single user database to control everything,” said Rochon. The cameras can trigger events with the access control and intrusion systems, and security personnel can link security and video events in the database.

One example of how it all works together is facial referencing. The resort uses RFID cards to open gates for visitors. Now, cameras capture an image of the visitor as they enter the gate.

“Facial referencing is an automated process,” said Rochon, adding that the resort can’t do full facial recognition because of the prevalence of ski masks and goggles. “It brings up the database picture and the new reference picture to compare them quickly.” If there’s a discrepancy between who the card is registered to and who appears to be using it, gatekeepers will be alerted to talk with the visitor at the next gate.

Camera installations

Roughly 125 cameras have already been installed across the resort’s 8,171 acres, and Rochon has plans for 600 in total. They are connected via Gigabit fibre that already covers 95 per cent of the area, with a wireless network as backup.

The resort is spending around $950,000 over three years on the entire security system, including the video, but it’s worth it. “We can lose up to $250,000 per year through theft and shrinkage via retail,” Rochon said.

He cites other benefits, including the use of video analytics to track credit card fraud, such as repeated refund claims, or chargebacks from visitors who claim not to have been in the area.

Retailers will also use the in-store portion of the IP network for training purposes, to review sales techniques, he added.

Would the new video system have caught that base jumper, though? There are no cameras in the gondolas as yet, although alarms do sound when someone holds the door open, and the team is working on wireless units. For those armchair thrill seekers wanting to see what happened, he filmed himself and posted it to YouTube:

Don’t try and copy him, though; Whistler will be watching the slopes extra carefully from now on.

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Danny Bradbury
Danny Bradburyhttp://www.wordherder.net
Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with over 20 years' experience writing about security, software development, and networking.

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