Sailing the Security Waters of Mystic Lake
Editor’s Note: When writing an installation profile, the author’s best hope is to give the reader the impression he or she is a passive participant in the project. The story is told as a description of events based on interviews with the various participants. It’s an effective way to tell a story and one used on many occasions.
With this story, we had the unique opportunity to involve the reader in the project — not just as an observer, but also as a participant. The author was truly an “insider,” with more than 14 years of experience working with Mystic Lake Casino Hotel and the adjacent Little Six Casino, in Prior Lake, Minn., as a trusted advisor, team member, and friend. He is describing events that he helped shape, and the only way to effectively do that is by telling the story in the first person.
When it became a federally recognized tribe, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community (SMSC) gained the right of self-determination and self-sufficiency. Most importantly, it gained the right to the dignity that comes with sovereignty.
For that reason, SMSC bears a burden of responsibility when it comes to protecting the patrons at its casinos and the assets those gaming facilities bring to the tribe. That was the thinking behind SMSC’s recent renovation of the video surveillance and access control system serving its Mystic Lake Casino Hotel and Little Six Casino facilities in Prior Lake, Minn.
“Integrity is the lifeblood of a gaming facility such as ours,” says Scott Scepaniak, corporate compliance officer for the SMSC Gaming Enterprise, which oversees gaming operations at the two facilities. “If we expect our patrons to maintain confidence in our games, we need to maintain the highest possible standards. By protecting our customers and our owners — the tribal community — we protect our reputation and our future.”
Sovereignty Puts More Responsibility on Security
When the federal government formally recognized SMSC as an Indian tribe under federal reservation status in 1969, it marked the beginning of a new era. The Minnesota and Mississippi River Valleys had been home to the Dakota Indians for centuries, but it had been a history filled with conflicts and broken treaties.
In 1982, Tribal Chairman Norman Crooks brought Indian gaming to Minnesota with the opening of the Little Six High Stakes bingo parlor. After the passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), Little Six expanded in 1988 with slot machines and blackjack, becoming Little Six Casino.
Four years later, a second casino complex was opened roughly a mile down the road named Mystic Lake. The “Mdewakanton” portion of the tribal name translates to “Dwellers of Spirit Lake” or “Mystic Lake.” The facility has grown to include 4,250 slot machines, 100 blackjack tables, 600 hotel rooms, five restaurants, a star-caliber showroom and the high-stakes bingo that gave the place its start.
Self-sufficiency was not easy and the tribe takes its sovereignty, and its security, seriously.
What had started out as a state-of-the-art video security system when the facility was built was starting to show its age.
Richard Thake, director of surveillance, and James Arsenault, surveillance technical supervisor, had long been tasked with running the day-to-day video surveillance operations. The two had been evaluating digital video systems since 1999 and saw first-hand the tremendous increases in video quality, reliability and operational features.
At the same time, they were well aware of the downward trend in pricing — as hard drives and computer equipment became less costly — and the penalties sometimes paid by companies that adopted technologies too early. While they were anxious to incorporate the features that a digital recording system could bring, timing was everything.
Tribal Community Weighs Cost of Digital CCTV System
While the upper management team and the SMSC Board of Directors had always been very proactive when it came to surveillance and security, the dollar amount gave cause for concern for Scepaniak, who is responsible for surveillance, security and internal audits of SMSC’s gaming facilities.
“We were looking at a $10 million budget, including the system and associated costs such as room construction, power, HVAC, and all the other incidentals,” Scepaniak says.
Instead of shooting the idea down, however, he found an audience that was very receptive and not afraid to make the investment.
In fact, SMSC management tasked Scepaniak and his team to expand the design to include future growth, as well as video monitoring of other community operations.
The determination to invest the resources for a state-of-the-art digital system is consistent with the commitment and emphasis on regulatory compliance by the community and Gaming Enterprise.
Scope of Project Included Consolidation, Expansion
The expanded scope of the work began to take shape.
There would be two command centers — one for security and one for surveillance — but these would now function more like operation centers, tying in cameras from around the community. These included cameras from the three parking garages, the Little Six Casino, a new water treatment facility and various other buildings.
A third “muster room” would serve as an emergency gathering point in the event of a natural or manmade disaster. An unprecedented level of integration would be required, interconnecting video surveillance and recording into a host of other systems that included fire, intercom, building controls, access control, and various proprietary gaming systems.
All of this would be manned continuously by a staff of more than 40 security dispatchers, surveillance specialists, managers and supervisors — even a full-time departmental trainer to keep the team up to speed on the new technologies they would be using.
The natural assumption would have been for Mystic Lake staff to begin the process of planning and designing their system, issuing the request for proposal (RFP), selecting a vendor, and moving the project along. With very few exceptions, this was how projects were handled at Mystic Lake. After all, they had a five-person technical crew led by Arsenault.
Thake and the surveillance team knew exactly what they wanted to accomplish and they had the full support of upper management. What was holding them back?
For the first time since the property was built, Mystic Lake wanted to use the services of an electronic security consultant.
Another factor was the time involved. To plan and manage a project of this size would have taken their focus away from their primary operational responsibilities, and they were not willing to cut corners in either area.
So, a full two years before the project was substantially completed, I spoke with Thake about the project. I had recently started an independent design, project management and consulting company, and was already working on a project similar to Mystic Lake for the Foxwoods Casino Resort in Connecticut (profiled in the September 2004 issue of Security Sales & Integration).
Many of the items that were on the initial wish list never made it to the final system — the rear projection video wall, for example, exceeded our budget and space requirements — but all were carefully documented and considered.
(Check out m
y “Enterprising Solutions” column on page 24 of Security Sales & Integration magazine for more on the process of narrowing down the manufacturers and installers needed on the project.)
Mystic Lake Technicians Lay Groundwork for the Installation
Before we had officially signed a contract with the integrator, Mystic Lake’s technicians began closing in on the work that would be required for the transition.
The system requirement had grown somewhat since we started planning it, and the open inputs we had left on the new switch were rapidly being spoken for. Cable pathways had been run between the existing rack room and the new room, and video tie lines were put in place that would support the transition.
We were going to use as little coaxial cable as possible, since we were all believers in unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) technology, so 25-pair trunk lines were pulled for the 1,200 feet between the two rack rooms.
“We had used UTP in the new hotel tower as well as for some new casino cameras and liked working with it,” explains Mystic Lake technician Chris Jasnoch. “Every time we pull Cat-5 cable to a remote closet, we get spare video channels and that has already gotten us out of some jams caused by last-minute camera additions.”
Nitek hubs and transmitters were used partly because of positive reports from other casinos such as Foxwoods, in addition to the stringent performance requirements that we had specified.
Nitek also allowed us to slightly customize its equipment without voiding the warranty. This permitted us to power an entire rack of 32-channel active hubs using a single Altronix rackmounted power supply, instead of a pile of “wall-wart” type individual transformers.
“We enjoy working with Mystic Lake and have already rolled some of their changes and suggestions for improvements into our product line,” said Chad Szekeres, national sales manager for Nitek in Rolling Meadows, Ill. “Their technicians are not shy and the firsthand information we get from them is priceless.”
Our transition plan called for us to move some equipment – primarily analog VCRs and multiplexers – from the existing racks into a temporary rack room. We would use those emptied racks for a portion of the new matrix switch and the video encoders for the new digital recording system. This equipment would be linked to the new room via UTP for video and fiberoptic cable for control data and TCP/IP video streams.
The new room would house the main portion of the new matrix switch, which would handle any new cameras added to the system, as well as the servers and storage arrays for the digital video streams. Once the new matrix was fully operational and debugged, the existing matrix would be removed and that rack space would be used for the remainder of the digital video encoders that would be required.
In order for this to happen, Mystic Lake’s technicians had to clear out the racks in the existing room to accommodate the new equipment. This wasn’t the kind of work that the technicians wanted to leave to someone else. “We always worked neatly and were careful to make every change and addition to the system neat and professional,” explains Mystic Lake technician Brandon Starr. “But there are always things that you feel you’ll redo better later when you have more time, and we wanted to use this opportunity to make things right.”
Advanced Planning Eased Ability to Deal With Changes
While the technicians were preparing for the installation, we headed out to Las Vegas in mid-September for a project review at Southwest Surveillance Systems’ headquarters.
In attendance were key people from Southwest, Honeywell, Mystic Lake’s Scepaniak and myself. “At that meeting,
I knew we had chosen the right partner,” says Scepaniak. “We had an extremely aggressive construction schedule, and we were expecting some pushback or resistance. There was none of that. They had done it before and were very comfortable with an accelerated schedule.”
Three weeks later, construction began under the capable watch of Ron Woods, the on-site foreman, and Rick Schoenfeld, Southwest’s project manager. Vertical racks went into the new rack room almost immediately, with the console following a few weeks later.
The extensive planning paid off – all of the difficult decisions had already been made and we now had the luxury of customizing and improving things where it made sense. Schoenfeld wasn’t happy with the individual power supplies required by each of the encoders, so he designed and built custom power supply shelves to keep them neat and out of the way.
Woods didn’t like the way the network patching looked, so he recessed all of the patch panels into a rack and installed a smoke-tinted door to, in his words, “make it look pretty.”
There was also the matter of Little Six Casino down the road.
The initial plan was for that facility to have its own matrix switch that would be a satellite system. It would be fully controlled from Mystic Lake, but would serve as a standalone system if the fiber-optic link between the two casinos were ever broken. There would also be encoders, servers and storage at Little Six, allowing independent operation in case of a problem.
As the project progressed, we realized that locating servers and storage at Little Six wasn’t necessary.
“We added additional fiber to another project that created a redundant fiber link between the two properties. We made sure it was in a separate trench some distance from the initial fiber link,” explains Arsenault. “While we still had to plan for the possibility that the link could be cut, it now became extremely unlikely.”
As soon as we realized this, we slipstreamed in a minor change: the servers and storage for Little Six would be moved to the new rack room at Mystic Lake. We would leave only encoders, the satellite matrix switch, a small control station for emergency use and some backup analog VCRs behind in case the link was ever cut.
“By doing this,” Thake says, “we reduced the power and air conditioning requirements enough to allow us to cancel more than $250,000 in improvements that were slated for Little Six to support the digital system.”
Old Equipment Needed Adjusting to Digital System
By November, the flurry of installation activity had slowed down as we began the tedious process of debugging the system. Control of p/t/z cameras was cut over to the new systems, and there were minor adjustments that needed to be made by Honeywell engineers.
“We had many different generations of cameras in use at Mystic Lake, and none of them were made by Honeywell,” says Arsenault. “We needed to go back and figure out how many of each type of dome we had, for example, and understand what to expect from each one. How many presets, dome speeds, minor differences in the data protocols – it wasn’t a uniform answer and it took a while to document it all.”
While all of this was going on, the Mystic Lake staff was growing impatient for training. The technicians all saw it as a personal mission to learn more about the system than anyone on site from Honeywell and Southwest.
“I knew we were going to be getting the 3 a.m. calls once the project was done,” said technician Ryan Stack. “I figured that was the time to learn about it – when the experts were around, not after they had all gone home and the training instructor showed up.”
Stack was able to act as one of the informal “system experts” until the formal training could be completed.
Completed Control Room Had to Wait for Last Touches
Since December, the new control room had been largely completed, but could not yet be used.
rs had already been given and various executives had already sat in the operators’ chairs, but the system components were so interdependent that monitoring duties could not be cut over to the new room until the digital system was fully functional.
The new control room incorporated a video wall into each one of the 10 operator positions. Each operator would have control of a 10-foot diagonal screen with up to 16 individually switched images.
While we had avoided the fully digital system – opting for an analog portion for critical monitoring and camera control – the 160 switched outputs that would have been required to drive these screens from the matrix switch would have been cost, and space, prohibitive. Instead, each operator would have two analog call-up monitors in front of them, with a digital workstation controlling a third monitor and the video wall.
Since these images were coming from the digital side of the system, all of the encoders had to be installed for the video walls to work, and the room could not be used without them.
Removal of the Old Begins Start of New Security Era
In January, the final kinks were worked out of the new matrix switch. The old American Dynamics matrix that had served Mystic Lake so faithfully was removed, allowing the remaining encoders to be put into place.
This was the missing piece of the puzzle that would allow us to move the project to completion.
The operators would now be moved into the new room and their existing control room would be disassembled and relocated to the new security command center. That, in turn, would allow security to move from their old control room to the new room, completing the control room portion of the project.
In the meantime, retention testing would begin in early February. Thirty days of perfect operation are required of the digital recording system before the analog (VHS) system can be demolished. At that point – likely by the time you’re reading this – the temporary rack room built to hold VCRs during the transition will be turned over to the construction department, as well as portions of the old rack room and the old control room.
Walls will be knocked down, floors tiled, and the new, expanded employee cafeteria will be born without a trace of the room’s previous incarnation.
The new control room is exciting in the possibilities that it brings. The digital era will allow surveillance specialists to conduct investigative reviews in minutes that previously took days or even weeks.
Hundreds of possible “scams” will be automatically brought to the specialist’s attention. Want to earn extra Players
Club points by inserting “lost” cards into slot machines and waiting for an unsuspecting person to play them? No longer possible. Want to steal a pocketbook, or take a cup of coins that isn’t being watched closely enough? It can’t be done.
The most sophisticated surveillance system in the world is now the property of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community and $10 million says it will be doing its job until the next technological advance renders it obsolete.
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