The technology wave implications for staff mismatches in control rooms

Issue 6 2022 Editor's Choice, Security Services & Risk Management

The technology, operational functions, data management, and at times even the equipment and structure of the control room have been changing appreciably over the last few years. In particular, the capacity and sophistication of the technology used, incorporation of AI or video analytics features, and control interfaces including the complexity and scope of video management systems (VMS), have increased dramatically.

Along with this is access to and processing of data sources from automated collection sources as well as intelligence information, resulting in various streams of disparate data and higher volumes. In contrast, in the last few years it would be hard to see any changes in the defined requirements from regulatory bodies in the industry defining the category, type of security guard or official, and training requirements.

An industry habit of looking at control rooms through a physical security lens has increasingly left clients and staff at a disadvantage in keeping up with control room technology and demands. Unfortunately, this minimum requirement is all too often taken as a matter of convenience by security companies, many of their clients, and organisations who do not appreciate the issues. Security companies providing staff are becoming increasingly out of step with those providing the technology solutions and interfaces that are going into the control room.

I’ve highlighted some of the areas below which increase the demand on people and impact on the mismatch between new control room environments and the traditional placement of medium-level or even low-level guarding personnel used for physical security. However, bear in mind that some companies are happy with a guarding-oriented control room which focuses on more practical and immediate issues, which may suit their purpose. However, as environmental challenges increase and crime continues to be more sophisticated and organised, these will increasingly come under pressure. Nothing stimulates companies to look at technology solutions more than a failure of people to handle the demands of a critical incident.

Dealing with increasing abstract interfaces. An operator is seeing more representation of what is happening through digital representations or overlays of anything from virtual trip wires, to displays of layout and features, processes and even movement of figures on site. These abstract views are substituting for actual physical viewing. With newer systems, there is often a need to use schematic interfaces or outlines of layouts, camera placements and features of remote sites. People have to match the representations with the real-life settings, people and security measures.

Where remote monitoring is used, operators may not even get to physically see the actual sites they are monitoring electronically. More and more, operators need to be able to conceptualise an abstract picture in their mind of what is happening on site to gain situational awareness, and then relate this to how they use the control room systems. With remote access and control increasing, plus responsibilities of remotely arranging reaction to incidents, operators need to be able to think through the layouts of environments in both an abstract way, and visually be able to picture scenes in their minds for sites they are responsible for.

Understanding of technology and analysis. In some cases, operators use analytics that may need setting up or even configuring or adjusting. This may include the types of features used, and where, or what sensitivity should be adjusted for video analytics in some areas. For instance, an understanding of how the technology works may help in operators resolving shortfalls, e.g. flights of birds triggering video motion detection alarms. Yet in most cases, the staff have little insight into the way the technologies work and have almost no training in these areas.

There is a need to understand the underlying technology and what is behind the screens or alarm panels. Even something more traditional like an electric fence, how it works and why alarms may get triggered on a fence, should be part of a standard understanding of control room operators where these are used. Being able to analyse frequent false alarms from video analytics and working out what is causing them can often be a make-or-break condition for its effective use. Where AI-enabled technology is used, which is supposed to learn from feedback, operators may find themselves defining the right or wrong parameters without adequately understanding what these are based on.

More complex interfaces. As the expectations grow around what control rooms should be providing, partly from real potential contributions and often from hyped-up sales pitches, the video management systems and other interfaces have evolved to try and address these and incorporate them into single-solution and more complex displays. However, shortfalls in the people operating them means that often only a small percentage of the technology features are being used. Alternatively, error-prone or inconsistent usage and data entry occurs. Ironically, in other cases the opposite occurs. Operators may need to operate and use information from a range of different standalone systems.

Overload. Some of the new technology developers would rather increase the apparent function than the actual function of their products, resulting in potential viewing overload for operators. For instance, the habit of putting rectangular boxes around anything that moves is not only pointless, but obscures some of the screen and distracts from viewing.

If the operator is unable to identify the simple categories that are displayed by some of these systems, then they shouldn’t be working in the control room. If the technology shows only a particular type of target or specified risk behaviour while working in the background, or is able to identify conditions that may be difficult to the naked eye, the detection of true risks on the site improves markedly. So, the systems themselves may create additional work that doesn’t actually lead to service delivery.

In addition, there is a danger that the increased demand to populate system data with incident or event information, in combination with handling of events, can lead to operators not being able to adequately handle high incident conditions or environments, as they get distracted from direct incident handling.

Data-intensive operations. A system using data as its foundation is only as good as the data getting captured for it to use. Intelligence-driven surveillance requires both the collection of internal information as well as effective use of outside information sources. As crime increases and becomes more organised, the use of sources of information is going to be key to the success of some sites. Internal data produced needs to be reviewed for relevance, potentially aligned or integrated with data from different sources, and evaluated for risk analysis purposes.

Increasing communication needs. As more technologies get introduced into the control room, more critical communication is required by operators to a range of different parties. Poor capacity for verbal communication and expression is going to cause problems in interacting with the stakeholders in the control room. Clear and accurate written communication that is being captured and integrated into data systems, and that will be interrogated for useful information, is also becoming increasingly important.

Decision-making. Increasing the sophistication of the technology and presenting alerts to the operators typically doesn’t reduce the level of decision-making of the operator. For the vast majority of security systems, a person has to make a decision on the level of risk or threat, and confirm the electronically identified incident.

Yet the level of training provided to personnel at mid or lower levels of security doesn’t equip them to make informed enough decisions. It always amazes me how little security personnel know about crime behaviour analysis. Core skills that allow operators to really use the capabilities of the technologies increasingly being provided in the control room usually have to be taught by the equipment suppliers, or specialist trainers. Skills like behavioural detection, situational evaluation and incident analysis are seldom covered sufficiently in standard security officer grade training.

Increased skills mean increased value

For many security personnel, the increased technology and access to control rooms represents a high opportunity to increase their skills and potential worth to an industry that has never being classified as one that is well paid. More importantly, it should increase their fitness for the tasks within the control room. Companies where I am asked to do my CCTV Surveillance Skills and Body Language training typically show a higher calibre of personnel than the industry norm, as they often recognise the risks and associated need for personnel capable of higher levels of operation.

Companies who really value control room performance are taking control over their own standards and requirements for personnel. The selection of people, the extent to which they are trained internally, and the way additional training is seen as an essential basis for effective performance, are all clear to see in the nature of the people on the courses and the focus of management. In some cases, this may not even reflect an immediate need but rather prepare people for work in a control room environment in the future, and provide ongoing career directions and growth. These kinds of insights are more than likely to be useful in a range of security levels and roles from top to bottom.

The development of the industry shows a need for personnel who are comfortable with extensive computer usage and show insights into what is behind the technology they are using, have a better system orientation and can relate and integrate different functions, are more capable of thinking flexibly and ‘out of the box’, are comfortable with data handling and analysis and intelligence concepts, and have the behavioural insights to detect and collect signs of criminal behaviour and make critical decisions about events and incidents.

If the security industry regulation doesn’t require these kinds of skills at the grades of personnel that are supplied, then companies either have to insist they get provided as part of the contract or provide these kinds of skills themselves. Getting a lower-grade guard doesn’t mean that they don’t have the capacity. I train personnel across the spectrum who are in low-paid security jobs, and a number of them have extraordinary potential but just haven’t received the opportunities or exposure to make the most of it.

Higher grades do, however, put people through a more rigorous testing process to get there and will hopefully come with a better skill base, experience and outlook. However, whatever grade they are, their abilities and skills need to be matched to the demands of the control room environments they are going to be working in. It is pointless to invest heavily in the latest technology only to find you can’t realise the benefits because staff can’t leverage it effectively. Any control room strategy needs to take both of these concepts into account.

Dr 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 [email protected]


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