Eyes in the sky
Whistler-Blackcomb goes hi-tech to catch thieves
By Andrew Mitchell
Mike Butterworth is on Whistler Mountain, keeping an eye out for two guys who ran off with a pair of skis the week before.
At the same time, he's keeping tabs on three suspected snowboard thieves on Blackcomb.
He knows what they look like. He knows what they're wearing. And if he or any of his colleagues in ski patrol catch them, they will be banned from Whistler-Blackcomb until 2005.
"We're onto most of the thieves around here pretty fast," says Butterworth, a Level IV pro patroller and the head of the mountains' theft prevention program.
In an effort to reduce the number of board and ski thefts on the hill, Whistler-Blackcomb has been installing the latest in high-tech digital surveillance cameras in high-traffic — and formerly high-risk — areas.
"When someone reports that their board or skis were stolen from one of these areas at such and such a time, we get them to fill out an incident report at Guest Satisfaction, indicating on the map approximately where in the racks their skis or board were taken from, and a few details on what they were wearing. From there, SpyTel can go back and review the footage, find the thief, and print out a high-quality, full-colour print of them," says Butterworth.
That picture is passed on to the local RCMP and is posted in the patrol huts, along with any other information that's relevant, such as the make, model and serial number of the equipment that was stolen. Ski Patrollers, who are being specially trained to recognize suspicious behaviour, keep their eyes out for the thief, and scan the ski racks looking for the stolen equipment.
In the past three years, since the first four cameras were installed at the Roundhouse and the Rendezvous, more than 20 arrests have been made, and numerous snowboards and skis recovered. By January of this year, there will be a total of 12 cameras on Whistler and Blackcomb: four at the Roundhouse, two at the village gondolas, two at the Blackcomb Day Lodge, two at Glacier Creek and two at Rendezvous.
Before the cameras were installed, 200 to 300 boards were stolen from the Rendezvous and 200 to 300 from the Roundhouse Lodge annually. During last year's record-breaking season with 2.14 million skier visits, only 170 boards were stolen in total on both mountains. According to Butterworth, that's the lowest board theft rate in North America.
"At the other big resorts, two to three dozen boards are stolen every month," he says. "We are twice as big, but lose about a third of what they do."
With a price tag of about $20,000 per site, the security cameras are more advanced than those used at most bank and ATM machines. Rather than using conventional video tape, the cameras record digital footage directly to the hard drive of a computer system, where it's stored for up to 15 days. The digital quality images can be analyzed frame by frame, and blown up to get a clearer picture of a thief’s face. And because it's digital, the camera sites can be monitored and controlled in real-time from anywhere over a secure internet connection.
Butterworth, who is a part-owner of the Vancouver video monitoring company, www.SpyTel.net, was given the Whistler-Blackcomb camera contract after his systems had proven their value to other Whistler businesses. You can find SpyTel cameras in almost every store in the village, according to Butterworth, and web cameras are currently being used on the Whistler-Blackcomb website to show 25,000 visitors a day what the conditions are on the hill. In the future, his cameras might be used by the RCMP to monitor the areas outside the stores and the streets.
But, he warns, you take a risk whenever you let your skis or snowboard out of your sight. Snowboards with adjustable strap-in bindings are particularly vulnerable because they can fit almost any pair of snowboard boots.
"Most people wouldn't leave a six-pack of beer sitting outside of the restaurant, but they would leave an $800 board," says Butterworth. "Lock it up and make sure you take down the serial numbers. Otherwise, when push comes to shove, you're going to lose your board."
Most thieves take the boards down to Vancouver or into the Interior to sell, after which point many of them wind up back in Whistler with a new owner. Ski Patrollers use the serial numbers to positively identify the stolen boards.
Although some thieves have found ways to cover up the serial numbers, when a patroller come across a board with no numbers, they will automatically assume they've found a stolen board and call it in. If the make and model matches the description of a stolen board they will apprehend the rider for questioning.
"We find boards two months after they’re stolen," says Butterworth. "We don't stop looking. We have a database of stolen goods that goes back for three years which we can access in seconds."
If the hill can prove you are riding a hot board, you could lose your pass for five years — even if you bought it second-hand. "It may seem a little tough, but we're trying to discourage people from buying stolen boards, to put the thieves out of business," says Butterworth.
Before you buy a second-hand board, he recommends taking the serial numbers and calling the RCMP to see if it is stolen. If the number is covered up, don't buy the board.