News 5 Investigates: Baldwin County spent $1 million on Chinese thermal cameras meant to fight COVID-19, and they may not work

Alabama

MOBILE, Ala. (WKRG) — There are questions about the almost 150 thermal cameras installed inside Baldwin County Public Schools to monitor students’ temperatures during the coronavirus pandemic.

An independent industry organization that specializes in surveillance video is raising questions about the effectiveness of those cameras.

Baldwin County Public Schools spent more than $1m to buy the 144 thermal cameras to check students for fevers. The vendor claimed the cameras could check thirty students a second. But the independent organization IPVM says those cameras may not be as effective as school leaders think.

“We don’t believe that it’s technically possible to take many measurements at once that at the same time are useful and accurate measurements,” said IPVM’s Conor Healy.

IPVM tests and reports on surveillance products worldwide. The group produced the report critical of the school systems’ purchase and use of the cameras.

Healy said, “If the school system plans to use these cameras to screen many people at once then they are in violation of FDA guidelines.”

Those guidelines call for temperatures to be checked one person at a time. IPVM also says the cameras won’t be effective at measuring temperatures and perhaps missing many fevers because the school system did not purchase what’s know as a blackbody device to go with them. That device would have added thousands to the cost of each camera, according to the group. In layman’s terms, the blackbody device provides a reference temperature for the cameras.

Sean Patton with IPVM explained further. “So, let’s say it’s a known 104 degrees Fahrenheit, so now the camera can make a decision based on how hot or cold an object is compared to that.”

But the Chief Financial Officer for the school system says they never intended to buy that device, or follow F-D-A guidelines.

“We’re not looking for that,” said John Wilson. “We’re just looking for an early warning system that would allow us to identify the children or employees that may have above-normal temperatures so then we could move forward with individual screening.”

IPVM also raised an issue with the type of camera being used. The ones installed in Baldwin County Schools are made by a company called Hikvision, which is controlled by the Chinese government. Products from the company have been banned for use by U.S. government branches. Wilson says the brand doesn’t matter.

“We’re not a federal agency–I don’t have access to the DOD blacklist, it’s not something that I check. And we didn’t use federal funds to pay for these cameras,” he said.

Wilson says they relied on the vendor, Hunter Security of Daphne, to get the equipment and install it. That was done with a no-bid process because the school system says the cameras are also being used for other surveillance functions that they would not go into detail about. Because of that the deal is exempt from state bidding laws.

“Unfortunately I can’t really go into the details around that with safety and security of our employees and our staff. It’s really not something that we want to talk about in a public forum,” said Wilson.

News 5 attempted to contact Hunter Security for reaction to the IPVM report, but have not heard back.

You can read the entire IPVM report here.

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