Orphaned CCTV control rooms

February 2013 CCTV, Surveillance & Remote Monitoring

Many CCTV control rooms start off with a big launch, lots of management presence, and a high capital expenditure. The control room gets lavish attention, is shown off to many admirers and credit is taken where it is due. Yet a year or two later, the control room is in a bleak zone, struggling with budgets and kicked out into the periphery of business or even in worst cases, looking at rationalisation or shut down. How can something that started off so well end so badly?

Management disregard

New technology is exciting and people like to play with it. But like a child gets tired of its toys, if there is nothing new coming from the CCTV control room, its gets relegated to the back of one’s attention. The results from the control room need to be relevant to company management, and they in turn need to be relevant to the control room.

Managers need to take a role in directing and guiding the control room, looking at new ways to improve and engaging in a continual learning process. I sat in a session last year where we were brainstorming the activities that the control room should be doing with the operations manager. It produced a range of activities and standards that should have been happening and almost helped the control room reinvent itself.

At the same time, control rooms need to communicate to management effectively, showing successes, new strategies and why the control room is relevant in their lives. Reporting, information usage, and examples of success are all critical to retain relevant and stay part of the management strategy.

Maintenance issues

One of the major reasons for CCTV control system becoming abandoned is poor maintenance planning and inadequate provision for future planning in initial budgets. Budget money is splurged at start up, and then when things stop working or start breaking, there is not enough money to restore them. Even small things such as camera cleaning and maintenance not being done can create camera images equating more to poverty than success, and failure becomes the norm. In one site, those who put up the system did not pay attention to the fact that cameras mounted on high poles needed maintenance and cleaning. Because the organisation had no 'cherry picker' to raise people to the cameras, the hire of such apparatus from local firms would quickly clear out the maintenance budget for the entire operation. The rot starts with a few cameras and spreads from there.

Out of line equipment

The parents of the system happily define a range of features and define the purpose of the various components. Flushed with the success of the initial enterprise, they move on to their next success without telling anybody, least of all their replacements, the reasons and purpose of the design features and camera views. Three generations on, the next person comes in and is presented with a barely functioning system whose purpose he can only guess at.

A simple illustration is cameras being installed to a specific purpose with clearly defined cameras views, only for it to happen that years or even months later that the camera is now pointing in an obscure direction which does not make sense, but repeated maintenance, weather and even sabotage have now given it a totally different perspective that bears little resemblance to its original brief. On one site recently, a large number of cameras were rediscovered after some months of not even being displayed on the system.

Changes to emphasis and creeping dilution

The initial enthusiasm and readiness to change the world has not being accomplished. Asked to add first one activity and then another as people look for those who do not seem to be doing anything, operators who are supposed to be viewing CCTV monitors now spend their time answering phones or opening gates, or completing log books of continual alarms that go off. The initial focus on detection of incidents has now lapsed into people regularly coming to work and performing mundane activities that nobody is very enthusiastic about but which apparently somebody has to do. The brief of catching criminals or solving emergencies has receded into the background of a constantly repeating set of activities.

Things do not have to be like this. One can bring up a happy, contented and thriving CCTV system and control room with a bit of effort. But like parenting, it has to be managed and supervised. It does not just happen. It is also a part of management responsibility – to be actively involved and influence the ongoing development, innovation and strategy of the control room.

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 (0)11 787 7811 or craig.donald@leaderware.com


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