Developing an effective CCTV control room culture

Issue 1 2023 Editor's Choice, Surveillance, Training & Education

Organisational culture in organisations can be seen as the set of values, practices, focus, standards and behaviours, and ways of interacting with others that are accepted and subscribed to by the people who work there. These values and standards provide the basis for the way people operate in that environment, and are passed on over time to new people, are taken in and absorbed by the environment.

The culture may be demanding in the case of high-performance environments, accepting, confrontational, isolating, or even toxic in some cases. However, the culture sets the tone and likelihood of success or failure for the organisation or unit. Control rooms are no different and I have seen a range of different environments, culture, and ways of doing things within a range of control rooms.

Having said that, there is no one right way of doing things and operating cultures will vary due to a range of factors. But you can often tell within minutes when walking into a control room and having some short interactions, whether the culture there is enabling of performance, passable, or just plain destructive and likely to create an ineffective operating environment. Cultures within control rooms or other environments also need to be worked on and continually developed and reinforced, and this is a key leadership function.

One of the key factors is that you want everybody to buy in to and accept the values of an effective control room culture. Essential to this is a sense of fairness, the sense people are appreciated and part of the whole, individuals are able to have a sense of self worth, and ideally they have a common goal and focus – this is what leads to a common sense of identify and motivation to do one’s best.

There is a range of factors that will influence the organisational or operating culture within control room. Ideally, the more these are aligned, the stronger the focus will be and the more successful it is likely to be. Some of these are discussed below.

Management philosophy

The expectations that executive and security management have for the control room, and security more generally, will impact strongly on what the focus and rewards systems are for the control room. Where there is little focus on the control room and what it can do, the impetus needs to come from lower levels to provide direction. Where the dominant focus from management is for safety and compliance, for example, the culture and activities within in the control room will form around this and activities will reflect a similar orientation.

Where the focus is on crime detection, a stronger emphasis will guide the kind of values and type of people that subscribe to this proactive focus, while a management focus on evidence gathering will guide the priorities and form the basis for behaviour and activity and how information is gathered.

Control rooms with a requirement for strong emergency response reactions will form a culture that will focus around that, often featuring people who enjoy an adrenaline rush. There is usually a range of expectations from management, from the control room, featuring a combination of these. One of the key challenges for supervisors and staff is managing this balance, but management expectations will shape the dominant emphasis of the control room culture, the outlooks of people, what is valued, and even the personalities and outlooks of the people who work there.

Getting the management focus and communicating it effectively gives a mandate and legitimacy to the kind of culture that you want developed.

Supervisor capacity and orientation

Supervisors play a fundamental part of the nature of control room culture and the effectiveness of outcomes. A part of this comes down to simple tasks of controlling and administration. However, the leading and development components to supervision shape the motivation, willingness, and dedication of staff to accomplish objectives. All too often, the supervisor is there simply to make sure that people are at work, clocking in on time, and appear to be engaged during the day.

I have seen some control rooms ruined by a disinterest in what the operators should be doing, or an inability to focus, encourage and build the capacity of people in the control room. In some worst cases, a lack of strategic and situational awareness of what the purpose and outcomes are of the control room. In some contracting cases, supervisors are more concerned whether people are at work and in their seats than what they should be doing and why.

Supervisors should channel operators into key activities and detection tasks, building teams through design, activities, and sharing of detection insights/accomplishments. They make sure that everybody shares success, protect personnel from adverse comments from outside, and build a culture of effectiveness at an individual and team basis.

Where a contractor bears responsibility for staff, the site manager bears this responsibility, and for providing a common perspective for his appointed supervisors to create the desired kind of control room culture. For full time supervisors who report to a line manager, they need to work in conjunction to create a shared culture across the operation. There is strong likelihood that subcultures develop in different shifts, but as long as they all subscribe to the common focus and values within the control room, this can add rather than detract from the control room.

Balancing people and technology

No matter how much technology is used in the control room, or how good it is, people are still responsible for running and operating control rooms. Addressing human factors in the working environment within the control room, ensures that people are willing to be there, using equipment fit for purpose, and for ease of use of the equipment. Simply being too hot or too cold can have a direct influence on how people feel about being there and whether they are capable focusing on performance, never mind dealing in sophisticated AI applications.

Where technology needs joint involvement from people, are these guidelines clearly defined and are the people competent to do it? An important part of a control room culture is teamwork and common goals; blame games can destroy relationships and what you are building. I have seen operators naturally taking over workstations next to them, viewing for any issues, even at times spotting things, while the other operator was taking a restroom break or getting a cup of tea.

The essence of the communication was a simple comment, nod back, and a smooth transition until the operator got back – all indicators of mutual understanding and support, without any supervisor input. It is important when considering people and technology that AI notifications, for example, should not drive the operator. I have seen movement detection on cameras generating alarms every few seconds or even worse, and it either results in equipment been switched off or just being totally disregarded.

People need to understand and have influence over the technology to feel comfortable in that environment, even if they are pushed a bit as part of the process. Where this is done well, with sophisticated equipment, it adds an exclusiveness and feeling of pride within the control room culture.

Recognition and reward

Once of the key elements in building a cohesive and effective culture within a control room is that people need to be recognised and rewarded for contributions and accomplishments. Charts of performance, best operator of the month awards etc. are elements that build pride and recognition. However, rewards can be just praise and acknowledgement, or something more substantial.

On one site, operators who achieved something special were awarded a weekend at the company lodge with their partner, leading to enthusiastic support from the partner into building the control room culture. I sometimes find executives or managers saying that operators are paid to do their job and should not get any additional benefits; this coming from people who have company bonuses and share allocations built into their contracts.

Great performance should be an underlying foundation to any effective culture within the control room, with a performance measuring system that is fair and that everybody understands. Where everyone has a chance of success if he or her try hard enough. However, not everybody can be a top performer, and there needs to be recognition of the contribution or improvement of everybody.

Ideally, while you want a sense of competition, there should be a culture of ‘no one left behind’ if possible. At the same time, consistent non-performers who haven’t responded to efforts to improve need to be managed out of the control room as they drag the whole control room down. For example, at one casino site there was an operator who had not detected anything for 15 years, while his colleges were picking up something every second week. For an effective culture, everyone needs to contribute even if it is in a special way of their own that is recognised by others.

People with similar values

Organisational culture tends to reinforce itself through bringing in people who fit and with values consistent with the existing culture. If you want to push things in a particular direction, you get more people with that orientation to influence things around them. Appointments need to bear this in mind, and also whether people will contribute to expected performance requirements.

For me, CCTV operators should have a bit of an edge, a willingness to catch people and commitment to make a difference. Interestingly, when I mentioned this in Poland, it was not accepted very well because communist rule had turned people against each other, so the control room philosophy was contrasting with the new community or social culture.

Nevertheless, to be effective you need people who are driven, motivated, like to use initiative, and respect each other. This can sometimes cause some conflict, and social protocols to handle conflict need to be looked at by supervisors. Sometimes team composition can address some of these issues. These types of values are also not always found freely or given easily in security control rooms, both from those inside and those outside the control room. Sometimes a bit of outside pressure can however, create a sense of common identity, and help with the cohesiveness of the culture within the control room – through common support and commitment. However, success builds a culture of recognition.

Feedback and recognition of efforts, successes, and the celebration of common achievements are important elements in developing cultural identity. While something like a party or celebration of some kind comes to mind, talks or presentations within the control room staff can open up common thinking and awareness. For example, when an incident is detected, how it was spotted, the reaction, what helped, and what did not go well. Those are important ingredients in building an effective control room culture, and as I pointed out, this is an ongoing thing, not a once off. However, when in place, an effective control room environment will show the aspects of organisational culture that have played a large part in its success.

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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