The critical relationship between CCTV operators and response ­officials

November 2013 CCTV, Surveillance & Remote Monitoring

People are the key in realising the effectiveness of CCTV systems. The aptitude, personality, motivation, physical qualities, training and skill level are all aspects that will determine whether a CCTV operator is capable of effectively detecting an incident on screen.

However, the physical security response to the detection of a live incident will determine whether the security systems deliver on their promise. If all you are doing is observing people committing offences and not being able to engage in an effective response to prevent or apprehend the suspect, is it really worth while spending so much on the systems in the first place. Where immediate apprehension is not possible, there are some obvious benefits to knowing who committed the incident and where these things take place. Follow up response action in tracking down suspects, setting up recognition systems if they are in the area again, or addressing risk conditions that allowed the incident to take place are all contributors to stopping future crime or apprehending the suspect.

I’ve had feedback on a number of incidents where operators, having seen an incident developing, ran out themselves to catch the suspects because they didn’t trust the response officials to be in time or effective enough. It shows great motivation, but also leads to a control room that is potentially understaffed and not gathering appropriate evidence. It also calls into question how the response function is set up and staffed, and the willingness or motivation of the response function to address issues.

One has to ask whether the response times are suited to fit the type of crime. If criminals know they have five minutes or some other defined period before a reaction team is likely to arrive, they will adapt their modus operandi to fit the response. This requires companies to either anticipate the type of crimes and when they will occur so as to be in a position to apprehend people quickly, or to know the patterns of escape routes in order to intercept them effectively. This does take intelligence gathering and use of information to predict behaviour, as well as the will and resources to do this. Even better is where operators can predict that a crime is likely to occur from the conditions they are viewing, so response officials can get themselves into a position where they are positioned relative to the site in a timeous manner.

Willing and able to respond

Even where response teams are in a position to react in a suitable time, they must be willing to do so. I’ve known of cases where responses to crime incidents were suspected of being deliberately slow, or people got lost. Recently, I was in a semi-rural area where a SAPS response vehicle took about five minutes detour to where I was, to ask for directions to the plot where the incident was taking place. Even where the willingness to respond is there, the designated response officer needs to know the area, obstacles, and conditions they are likely to be faced with if they are to respond effectively and in sufficient time.

Operators in conjunction with technology can play a key role in this respect. At one of the vehicle tracking companies, I was taken through operator response procedures where using something like Google Street maps, the operator could get a virtual view of the area where the criminal’s vehicle was progressing and could act as a remote navigator, to the extent of warning the response vehicle well beforehand to turn at certain buildings, even though they were viewing it from a control room in Johannesburg. This is a perfect example of technology, operators and response happening in an integrated manner.

Communication and interaction between operators and response personnel is fundamental to success. Often this is complicated by petty political issues, especially where there is no clear reporting line or the parties come from independent organisations. “Who is he to tell me what to do?” is a common issue which mars the smoothness of the response process. This can, to some extent, be overcome with procedures and designated responsibilities, but the best way of doing it is through creating an environment where people do feel they are working together.

A few months ago I was running some training where both control room operator personnel and the response personnel were sitting in on the same course. There were a couple of conflict type issues raised in terms of relationships between them, but the common experience and understanding generated during the training made for a process where they were far more willing to understand each others' viewpoints and come to a constructive solution rather than facing off against each other from established conflict orientated positions.

Communication is key

The quality of communication between operators and response personnel will also shape the chance of successfully apprehending people. This is highlighted under conditions where thermal cameras are being used by operators at night, and response personnel may be directed to catch people where they can see virtually nothing in the darkness. I’ve seen video of thermal cameras where response personnel were continually passing by the suspects who were totally out of sight in darkness, but which the operator could see clearly using the thermal view. The ability of the operator to orientate themselves relative to the person being communicated to, the clarity of instructions, and ability to use reference points or landmarks as well as direction indicators are all important success factors.

Emergency conditions such as armed robberies also create disruptions to communication as stress and anxiety kicks in. Operators rush their words, respond with a higher pitched voice which increases distortion on radio, lose the flow of communication and find it difficult to present information in a logical and clear manner. For a response person, this can lead to a total breakdown of communication as requests for repeating details often creates even more pressure.

We find that where operators experience second or subsequent armed robberies, the communication improves. It highlights the fact that training and role plays using actual footage or simulated conditions has a definite advantage in preparing operators and assisting the response personnel in asking for the right information in turn. Also, clearly defining procedures for communication and what needs to be communicated assist in getting a clearer message across.

The operator/response official relationship is not just about being able to get the response official into the right position and viewing the right suspect. It is also about operators being there to inform and also safeguard the response personnel. This is firstly to give information around the scene that may impact on how the response official may have to react, or the types of actions that would be most appropriate to the conditions. However, it is also about protecting the reputation of response officials in situations which can become volatile and where they can be accused of anything from reckless actions, physical abuse, planting evidence or setting up people, or of corruption.

Most organisations tend to assume that the relationship between operators and response officials will work automatically. However, there are a range of issues that are going to determine the quality and success of outcomes. A well integrated implementation which synchronises technology, operators and response is going to increase success and return on investment substantially and is well worth the efforts to make it happen.

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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