Key criteria in the selection of CCTV control room operators

Issue 5 2020 Editor's Choice

Based on my observations of CCTV operators in over fifteen countries around the world, I’ve seen a range of differences in operator capability during training. However, this hasn’t been due to country, region, education, or even security experience.

Put simply, some people are better at aspects of the job than others, and some companies put in a lot more effort in choosing their operators than others. Importantly, the ability of operators to excel doesn’t just come from their own abilities or the training they receive, but also the nature of the control room demands and how they fit this requirement.

Every control room I’ve ever seen has been unique. In those I’ve visited, the equipment, scope of technology, control interfaces, functions, layout, use of space, console design and furniture, and even colours used vary tremendously. From a CCTV point of view, however, there is generally still a core set of expectations and capabilities that are required. On top of this are some specialist CCTV functions, as well as a number of other control room functions that add to the workload and job profile. Selecting someone for a control room, therefore, has to take into account the core set of demands as well as the unique qualities for a particular control room.

Change has been constant

The nature of control rooms has been defined by a number of key trends in the last few years that impact on the type of person required to staff it. Firstly, the technology of control rooms has been evolving for a number of years, with an industry acceleration more recently due to systems that augment processes of detection and information retrieval. The level of computer literacy and sophistication needed by operators has increased significantly, and the workload and need to multitask have gone up. I’ve seen a situation where almost an entire operator complement has had to be replaced because they were out of their depth with new system upgrades installed in the control room.

Secondly, the functions of control rooms have also been evolving with new capabilities from technology and an increasing desire from companies to gain value from a control room infrastructure and readily available personnel. Expectations on the scope of service delivery options as well as the quality of services from control rooms are increasing. Processing and retrieval of information has gone up along with an increased need to interrogate systems and databases.

The way information is being presented is also becoming more complex and needs to be integrated into the operator’s situational awareness. Intelligence driven surveillance and risk management is becoming common in control rooms. Along with this is a need to enhance the communication and conflict-handling interface with control room contacts and clients.

Undoubtedly, the environments in which people are operating are also becoming more difficult and complex, and the crime dynamics within these environments are becoming more sophisticated and are seeing higher rates and threat levels.

People are still needed

Technology is not eliminating the need for people as many of the providers claim. Inevitably, in line with other introduction of technology in other industries, we are increasing the responsibility and skills requirements of fewer, but more highly paid personnel. With increases in service delivery functions and the need for ever-increasing information processing and verification, other jobs may even need to be created in line with new functions in the control room.

No matter how sophisticated or advanced the control room technology, operators are still running these systems. However, one must question whether the personnel being recruited for these control rooms have seen a similar increase in standards and capabilities. This relates to two main factors. Firstly, do they have the inherent capacity, abilities and temperament for the job, and secondly, have they been exposed or trained in the skills required for the job? Without the inherent abilities, maximising the benefits of any training is going to be difficult.

Traditional service providers are often still focused on minimum personnel requirements in order to offset costs in their contract provisions, although this is starting to change due to clients’ demands for higher-quality personnel and key training. For traditional CCTV control rooms with a strong surveillance focus, one can define the person specification relatively easily. However, as control rooms expand functions and roles, there may be a need to balance skills demands of people against activities to be performed in the control room, or even alternatively have different functions within the control room which are staffed by personnel with different capabilities.

What makes for a good operator?

For all CCTV operators, the observational skills to scan scenes and detect issues, anomalies, and deviations from expectations or standards is essential. These relate to the detection of crime, safety issues, procedural and rule violations, and the ability to audit what is happening in front of them. The ability to concentrate for extended periods, attention to detail, and being able to home in on essential details, and a feel for relevant points and characteristics are all important. These are similar characteristics that make good X-ray screeners.

During my CCTV surveillance training, people with these kinds of abilities stand out in their speed and extent of applying the knowledge to picking up incident cues. Measuring these qualities is difficult. Asking operators about their previous detections, and being able to explain how they spotted the cues would be one way.

Something like the Surveillance Assessment and Monitoring Exercise (SAMAE) seems to tap into the skills well with strong correlation with detection success. Using crime video examples would be another option. In line with this, playing a video of a street scene and then asking people to pick up things and then evaluate them against a set of criteria is sometimes used, although I don’t typically like this method. Usually, the examiners have a set of criteria they establish for marking from their own point of view that may be totally out of sync with the mental models that applicants bring to the same scene.

I’ve made the point before that three people may focus on totally different things in the street scene depending on their interests, gender and personal conditions. Ultimately though, previous success in detection is one of the best indicators as it also shows a willingness to identify criminals and motivation to catch them. Unfortunately, previous experience in CCTV doesn’t always equate to good skills – often failures from one site are relocated by contractors to another site.

Computer literacy is important

Computer literacy, and even more important, computer adaptability, are important areas and are going to be even more critical in the future. Unfortunately, for many applicants who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, access to computers has been restricted. Being able to put people through courses and measuring improvements is a time consuming but effective method of looking at learning potential and adaptability with computers though.

Ideally, computer skills of input, menu navigation, search and retrieval, and report typing could be examined in such processes which show some of the abilities to transition to more complicated systems. Literacy can be examined along with computer skills through a simulated report writing exercise, although a sample paragraph or page written on a subject can also give a basic measure of this kind of evaluation.

Innate skills

The best personality for people in pure surveillance operations tend to be introverted people who like to focus on data and things, rather than talkative extroverts. Other personality attributes include being calm under pressure, self-sufficient and able to make decisions, and tough minded in following through on actions, including a commitment to apprehending suspects. Self-discipline and reliability are also important.

However, client and customer liaison needs are also starting to drive the need to have more outgoing people with natural communications skills. Particularly where a control room is moving to a more diversified customer service orientation, communication skills, conflict handling, counselling, and feedback skills are going to be even more important than normal.

Those who have work experience in emergency handling, call centres, or other work where there is extensive interaction with people will be suited for the broader control room role. The use of personality testing, interviews, role-plays and simulated telephone calls could be options to be used to evaluate these criteria.

One of the most difficult areas to assess is the ability of a potential operator to detect potential crime once they are working. I’ve indicated earlier that some people have a strong natural ability to home in on this kind of thing, but the vast majority have surprising little idea of crime behaviour cues that show an incident is going to occur.

In a course in the UK I conducted, one of the super recogniser delegates, who was a policeman, indicated that the course content should be made compulsory for members of the police force, showing the benefits of the training despite his 15 years or so on the force. I’ve given examples of incidents to international specialists in the aviation industry who failed to spot the potential perpetrator that some of our local operators have spotted within a couple of seconds.

I find that with training in crime behavioural analysis or body language, almost anybody can become far more proficient in crime detection and this is borne out from the training of super recognisers, few of whom come from a police or security background, yet become very effective in crime detection by the end of the training.

Selection and training

In the case of some clients, success in training has also been a selection criteria. I tend to separate selection and training from each other generally, as I see training as a developmental process. However, where clients are willing to spend money on training and impose minimum pass requirements, they tend to get the best performers. On the other hand, some people are street smart because of their exposure to high-crime environments where they live or visit and they can apply these lessons to other situations outside the community. Others naturally are drawn to crime recognition and demonstrate their interest through TV watching or even community involvement.

Given that crime awareness and detection is such a critical success factor, serious consideration needs to be given to applicants who have life exposure or training in the ability to get a feel for a situation and spot that something is happening, or ultimately spot the specific cues of an incident.

Where can you find such people? They certainly are not readily available in the industry, although there are plenty of people who have the potential if you are willing to search for them and engage in an extensive selection process. You have to grow them yourself, or pay a premium to get them.

While much of security is focused on paying minimum salary to employees, often to meet contracting company demands, there are surprisingly a number of amazing people who still shine in these conditions. However, an upfront commitment to get a higher-calibre person is going to make a huge difference in service delivery, whether with full- time employees or contracted personnel from a service provider.

In all my experiences, the companies who have committed themselves to obtaining higher-level control room operators have consistently had their control rooms outperforming the rest of the industry and are providing a far greater risk management contribution and outcomes.

Dr Craig Donald.

About Craig Donald

Dr Craig Donald is a human factors specialist in security and CCTV. He is a director of Leaderware which provides instruments for the selection of CCTV operators, X-ray screeners and other security personnel in major operations around the world. He also runs CCTV Surveillance Skills and Body Language, and Advanced Surveillance Body Language courses for CCTV operators, supervisors and managers internationally, and consults on CCTV management. He can be contacted on +27 11 787 7811 or

For further supplementary information on selection, check out the article ‘Optimal selection of CCTV operators’ at www.securitysacom/9346a


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