Disasters strike, criminals move from area to area and gangs vandalize blank walls with spray paint. Now, cities have a way to keep tabs on all of it: IP-ready wireless cameras that can be set up quickly and send surveillance video to central monitoring stations via the Internet. Their flexibility and ability to integrate with other technology is helping cities save lives and catch criminals, making them particularly popular with police departments. “In some neighborhoods where they don't have enough patrol [officers] to go around, the cameras are another set of eyes,” says Susan Brady, managing director of Newark, Del.-based IP UserGroup USA, a security technology forum.

Princeton, Ill., which has 22 miles of fiber-optic cable and broadband-over-powerline Internet service, is using wireless cameras to reduce crime. When vandalism or thefts surge in an area, the Police Department asks the Electric Department to install cameras. For instance, a thief recently was stealing parts out of cars at repair shops. The police had a schedule of when the thefts occurred, so the Electric Department positioned cameras at certain shops, setting them to start recording when motion was detected. The criminals were caught on tape and eventually apprehended.

The cameras also are helping combat vandalism and illegal dumping in Princeton. “In some locations, once the cameras are put up, the problems go away,” says Jason Bird, superintendent of Electrical & Telecommunications for Princeton. “People can see the cameras on the poles, and it deters them.”

Wireless cameras also have helped in disaster recovery efforts. Minneapolis used the cameras in August 2007 after the I-35W bridge crossing the Mississippi River collapsed during rush hour. The city deployed three cameras near the bridge to allow managers in the Emergency Operations Center to see the recovery activity at the scene.

The ability to view the situation in real-time proved invaluable. Under normal conditions, the most efficient way to send equipment to the scene would have been to put it in the river upstream from the accident, says Lynn Willenbring, Minneapolis CIO. But the director of the rescue efforts changed the delivery plans after the cameras showed debris blocking the path.

The city now has hundreds of cameras in its network, approximately 30 of which are wireless. “You can't have cameras on every corner,” Willenbring says. “With wireless, you can put them where you need them when you need them.” For example, during the recent Republican National Convention, Minneapolis deployed six cameras in varying spots, depending on the day, for security.

Because the cameras are IP-addressable, any Internet-connected computer can view their images using the correct IP address. After the bridge collapse, Minneapolis shared the IP addresses of the cameras near the scene with surrounding communities that were aiding in the rescue efforts, Willenbring says. “Considering IP is in its infancy,” Brady says, “I see it getting even better.”

Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.