Supervising the social side of CCTV systems

August 2013 News

A CCTV control room is a social place. By nature it is a venue where people have to gather together, whether they like it or not. The potential for adverse social relationships to impact on performance is relatively high. You are putting people together in close proximity for extended periods of time in a closed environment.

As many reality TV programmes will reflect, this has all the ingredients of a potential soap opera. Amazingly, surveillance operators appear to deal with it remarkably well in the main. Possibly one of the success factors is that CCTV operators tend by nature to be relatively self-contained and introverted people who typically focus more on systems than others. However, a range of different types of personalities can be found in control rooms.

In some of my early exposure to CCTV, I came across one operation where it had been decided to enclose operators in small individual cubicles so they would not have any distractions during their eight-hour shifts. While this may appear to have some logic, it ignores the fact that people are social beings, and that some kind of contact and interaction usually helps people get through the day-to-day issues.

People in contact with each other benefit from a sense of belonging, emotional support, and a sense of well-being, as long as the contact with others is constructive and beneficial. High levels of conflict, on the other hand, are likely to create both emotional and physical forms of conflict and stress. A key factor in control room management and supervision is to be able to balance the management of people and mutual contact within the control room environment.

Team building

Team building is an important success factor within the CCTV control room, with mutual contributions, a sense of identity, and sharing of accomplishments leading to high levels of morale and motivation. Yet this is an area which is almost totally neglected in supervisory training despite its critical importance. Conversely, there is a real danger that the control room social context goes too far and actively detracts from the task in hand.

There is a shift from social support to accomplish goals, to social interaction for the sake of interaction. A colleague discussed with me recently a visit to a city control room where, for most of the visit, the operators were engaged in animated conversion with each other, and spent a low proportion of time actually looking at screens. I had a similar experience a few months back where I was watching a control room adjacent to the one where I was working. It was providing a service to some top-end contracted clients, and the conversations and movement of operations around the control room led to an effective viewing time of about 20% of daily activity.

I would have been interested to know how the clients would have felt if they knew they were receiving a fifth of the service they thought they were paying for, and rather than being safely protected they were largely on their own. At times, supervisors are as much to fault as anyone, and at this same control room I observed the supervisor playing Windows card games on the computer while engaged in conversation with the non-performing operators around her.

Supervision is crucial

There are situations where costs or rationalisation creates a dilution of CCTV – where other responsibilities such as access control, alarms, and gate handling reduce surveillance time and the chance for operators to actually look at screens. While this may be alright when incidents take time to evolve and are relatively easy to see, for example a fight outside a pub, if you are monitoring for somebody stealing a diamond or exchanging drugs during a drug deal, which can take a couple of seconds, performance is likely to suffer horribly.

There is a lot to be said for specialised CCTV surveillance control rooms where staff are dedicated to viewing rather than engaged in a range of other activities. A client I visited recently was saying how they had achieved a major increase in detection by moving surveillance to a separate venue, where frequent social interaction with guards and visitors had been leading to restrictions on performance. Whether one does this, or goes for a more multi-task environment, I’m increasingly convinced that supervisory performance is the most critical component of managing a control room culture and effective detection outcomes. If the supervisor is not actively involved in reviewing live performance, discussing viewing strategies, and maintaining a balanced social environment, your control room is likely to be delivering far less than you expect.

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


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