Is surveillance learnable?

May 2016 CCTV, Surveillance & Remote Monitoring, Editor's Choice

People bring natural skills to the work and play environments that enable them to do things better than other people. For some, like sportsmen or sportswomen, there is a physical ability, coordination, muscle tone, reflexes and eye-hand or eye-foot coordination that makes people better at certain sports.

A swimmer is likely to have a different combination of these to a soccer player. However, it is the level of these natural abilities that causes people to follow a particular career path and is the reason that some are paid millions and perform in the top sports tiers, while others provide a supporting role or drop out. There are also natural requirements for different jobs in security, and surveillance is just one of these.

Effective surveillance needs good observation, an eye for detail, visual analysis, visual perception and acuity among others. There are some people who naturally pick up more things than others. I’ve found that the 80/20 rule is not uncommon in some surveillance operations, where 20% of operators pick up 80% of detected incidents.

If somebody doesn’t have these natural skills, does it mean that they are not suitable for the position? Like anything else, we have to recognise that there is always a range of abilities and it may not be in our budget to get the absolute best. Not everybody can be Manchester United or Barcelona players. So in these kinds of cases, you may set a minimum expected standard.

For example, in our assessments of applicants for surveillance we recommend a level of performance based on research that we think would make a good operator. People can accept applicants scoring lower, but that comes with its own risk. Subsequently, one of the most common questions we get is whether we can improve this natural ability of people so that next time they can pass. It is a very relevant question for the person applying for the job, as well as the organisation who needs to fulfil the staffing requirements.

So the question arises, can you improve natural abilities?

Improving natural abilities

We have generally found that when we repeat an evaluation of observation and visual analysis, people score much the same. This indicates that a person is fairly consistent across time in these skills. However, like an athlete trains in order to refine the ability, there must be ways of improving natural performance.

I had a delegate on one of my courses who picked up some behaviours on video that virtually no one else had. I discussed it with her afterwards, and she said she spends a lot of time playing 'find the hidden object' games. The need for quick review, homing in on certain characteristics, and needing to sort out key characteristics are elements that are relatively important in visual analysis skills. Somebody who repeats these activities frequently must improve to some extent.

The question though, is can anybody do it or only somebody with the potential or a certain level to start with? No matter how often you run the 100 m, none of us will be Usain Bolt, but we may get a little faster if we do so. It may be possible that this woman was already good, which is why she enjoyed the hidden object games. So there is obviously a base line from which improvements will be made, and equally limits on how much we can improve.

I visited Zurich airport a few years ago to look at the aviation X-ray screener operations. They have a stringent selection policy, but for those who succeed, there is extensive training afterwards. This training progresses in levels, but involves the items in the X-rays having their position changed, being offset by other items, camouflaged in various ways, and generally becoming more and more difficult to identify as levels went up. There were far fewer personnel at upper levels of certification indicating the difficulty for most people to improve to these levels, but their performance was awesome.

One of the reasons the top screeners were successful was developing almost a mental memory for the ways in which threat items could be detected. For example, repeatedly viewing an item rotated in various different ways eventually develops an almost automatic mental recognition of the threat condition no matter what angle you are looking at. Eventually, they hardly have to think about it, as recognition becomes almost automatic.

I’ve found with training that a similar kind of thing can happen with CCTV – people see an indicator that they have been shown to highlight an incident condition during training and respond to this, and the more they have seen it, the quicker and more consistent the response. So a person can develop a particular characteristic through some kind of muscle, or in this case, mental memory.

Does this change the natural skill level though? We find that people who are better at recognition to start with can typically develop more effectively and perform at higher levels. Further, while one aspect of the person’s abilities may change with this mental rehearsal, this is unlikely to change qualities of the person in all the other areas – it simply improves one aspect of the person.

Maximising performance

We find that natural visual analysis skills therefore remain relatively consistent for a person across time. Some specific aspects may be strengthened through practice, but the overall capacity of the person is likely to be relatively similar. So the focus changes to trying to maximise the performance of people with lower skill in other ways.

Interest is one of the defining factors in improving performance. I’ve found that where interest is lacking, performance inevitably suffers. The personality of some people is also more suited to driving performance than others. Outgoing, extroverted and energetic people seldom can handle the constraints of a surveillance control room for an extended period.

No matter how talented, they are likely to be bouncing off the walls in a few days. On the other hand, from a personality point of view, people who are suspicious, question behaviour, and don’t take things for granted are also likely to pursue targets more strongly. Those with a good situational awareness will often pick up things because of sensitivity to what is going on around them. The more people know an area and have a “feel” for the conditions, the more likely they are to pick up if something is different. Sometimes this awareness develops over years and becomes some kind of local knowledge.

Lastly, whether people get training for this type of task and the level of training they get will have a strong influence on their performance. I’ve heard people complaining about how can they be expected to pick up things doing surveillance if they have never being trained for it. They have a point with these comments. Certainly I have found training changes people at a number of levels, including interest, situational awareness and motivation, and is capable of a significant and rapid improvement in performance.

Observation and analysis skills

Our research indicates a strong relationship between surveillance abilities like observation and visual analysis skills and detection on the job. There are some people who simply do not have the skills to make good operators and who will always struggle to recognise details that are being displayed in front of them.

Ideally you want the best people possible to deliver on the capability of your system, and you are likely to get much greater return from your system if you take this approach. However, we can’t simply take it for granted that people who have the natural skills will automatically pick up things. We need to be constantly looking at ways in which we can improve performance of people at all levels.

Mental exercises, viewing of previous incidents, analysis of ways in which people can commit offences, and operators continually viewing and thinking about what they see around them may be important ways to enhance people’s performance. One of the features of an Advanced Motor Vehicle Driving course is that you provide an ongoing commentary about what is happening in front of you.

Getting operators to do this, even if in their own mind, is a way of focusing them on what is happening in the areas they are viewing. Develop the skill by asking them on a regular basis what is going on, where certain people have come from, things out of the ordinary. In fact, any question asked regularly about the scenes they are looking at is going to improve performance as it gets people thinking about what they are looking at and that can only be a good thing.

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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