Control room considerations

August 2015 Security Services & Risk Management

The ever growing CCTV market in South Africa requires more control rooms to monitor all the systems. These control rooms range from fairly basic and inadequate, to complete building integration control hubs.

Riaan Strydom.
Riaan Strydom.

We also have to consider that control rooms can either be local to the site it serves, or remote to multiple sites, serving multiple customers. But what do we need to take into account when setting up these control rooms? Let’s have a look at two common control room scenarios:

1. Local control room

2. Offsite control room

Local control room

A local control room will generally be situated on the site being monitored and is in most cases run by the owners of the site, however, a third-party security firm might be employed to man the control room. We see this typically in malls or big office complexes, but it’s not limited to these types of installations.

Local control rooms mostly consist of a single vendor CCTV system and might include other systems such as access control, fire and intrusion systems. Depending on the requirements these systems will be from the same vendor or just have some level of integration between them. There are however a couple of things to take into consideration when planning the control room.

System requirements

One of the most important questions to ask before commencing the project is: “What is the system required to do?” Too often system requirement is only discussed after the system has been commissioned and it is often found to be non-compliant. Requirements should be made clear and all limitations should be clearly understood by the customer to avoid disappointment once the project reaches completion.

Requirements include whether there will be integration between systems, the need for PTZ cameras and controllers. Video display capabilities, alarm popup support, electronic maps. Camera coverage areas and a good idea of what will be monitored by the system. As well as the need for vertical solutions such as point of sale overlay, number plate recognition or the use of video analytics for better accuracy in detecting required events.

A very important factor, at this stage, is also getting clarity on what the customer’s video retention requirements are. Storage is still relatively expensive and could determine a lot about the type of system being decided on.

Size of system

Once the system requirements are finalised, the size of the system will also become clear. Depending on the areas that need to be covered and the level of detail required the amount of cameras can be calculated. This will also help determine the amount of recorders needed and the workstations for monitoring.

Type of system (IP or analogue)

After we have a better understanding of the system requirements and therefore the size, we can determine if we need to use IP or analogue.

This decision will almost always also be influenced by the customer’s available budget. IP systems will cater for almost any system requirements that a customer might have, but at a cost that is often more than double that of an analogue system. However, if the requirements are only for higher quality video, HD over analogue would be an option.

Currently the three leading technologies involving HD over analogue are TVI, CVI and AHD. Once the type of system is determined, we will know what type of infrastructure is required, i.e. network cabling or coaxial cabling. In both cases we might need fibre links for longer distances, but depending if it is analogue or IP, the transmission equipment used with the fibre cable will be different. Quite common these days is also to use wireless links to connect further cameras instead of using a cabled solution. Bear in mind that this is more stable with an IP solution than with analogue.

Vendor considerations

The system requirements are clear and we have a budget, but what do we use? There are literally hundreds of CCTV manufacturers, not to mention the access control, fire and intrusion detection vendors. It can be a very daunting task deciding on a product, and this might in many cases prompt the customer or consultant, should one be overseeing the project, to opt for a shootout.

Generally, this gives the end user a good idea of what to expect from especially the cameras that will be installed and the type of coverage they will provide. Apart from the product quality and flexibility, price also plays a role. This is in many cases a deciding factor and many systems are unfortunately installed with low cost products that are expected to perform high end functions. Just as important to consider is backup support and reliability of the vendor.

Control room layout

Another important consideration is the layout of the control room. This needs to cater to the customer requirements and size of the system. This includes the seating of the operators, their workstations and the amount of screens, whether to use a centrally controlled video wall, or individual workstations with monitors. The latter is much more cost effective, but requires that layouts are controlled individually, which can be difficult in big control rooms.

Take into account that there is a limit on the amount of video that an individual can watch effectively at any time. Some control rooms require operators to monitor in excess of 64 cameras at the same time, not taking into account that most events will be missed, as the operator will be focused on another camera at the time. Rather focus on the important cameras and allow for alerts such as video pop-ups on areas that have less activity.

Control room staff

Even a multimillion Rand system will be useless unless the personnel monitoring and using the system are efficient in their field. Control room staff need to be well trained and sufficiently skilled to understand the systems they are working on, as well as being able to read situations and alert to possible threats.

Too often control room staff are merely 'screen watchers', without the skill to utilise the functions of the systems in front of them. This normally results in poor or no reaction to events, and in many cases more effort is put into monitoring control room staff than the actual system they are meant to man.

Off-site control rooms

With the advances of video compression and the increase in available bandwidth via ADSL, fibre and 3G/4G mobile connections (and even wireless networks spanning entire cities), it has become almost as common to remotely watch your home or business cameras on your mobile phone, as it is to login to your Facebook account.

It therefore just makes sense for more and more control rooms (new and existing) to venture into the offsite video monitoring domain. The benefits of being able to verify an alarm visually is enormous and allows for better management of response vehicles and resources during alarm activations.

Alarms monitoring now moves to being pro-active, with operators able to make decisions based on the visual information received from site rather than being re-active where owners of sites or residences needs to be contacted first to verify the legitimacy of the alarm trigger. If the process cannot be completed it means that a response vehicle is dispatched and in most cases this will be to a false alarm event.

The safety of response officers is also improved, as the video verification allows for the correct response to the situation. No response officer would want to respond to activation where 10 armed perpetrators are emptying a warehouse.

So when planning the offsite video monitoring control room we have to think a little differently.

Offsite control rooms generally settle for a one vendor solution when it comes to monitoring the video. It makes support and training of control room staff easier. Enterprise monitoring software is normally licence based and it would become fairly expensive to host multiple platforms for monitoring various systems. However, this means that you have to get your product installed on site. On new sites this is not a problem, but when signing up an existing CCTV site that was not being monitored before it could pose a problem as you would need to replace the existing system.

But what are key features that make a control room package more effective?

1. A system that uses low bandwidth for video transmission but still offers the flexibility to change the video quality when needed on the fly. Most systems these days will provide multiple streams at different qualities that can be selected for viewing, depending on the bandwidth limitations. In most cases video is used for alarm verification rather than identification, therefore lower quality video is more than efficient for monitoring.

2. A system with reliable alarm notifications or pop-ups giving the operator real-time video content as well as archived content to verify the reason for the alarm.

3. A system that supports multiple user logins. It is important to be able to see which user was logged on at what time. In internal investigations this is vital to determine who was responsible for failure to comply.

4. A system that allows reliable system backups. In the event of a system crash, where all customer site information is lost, you have to be able to restore the system information as soon as possible.

5. A system that has the ability to define standard operating procedures per site or even per alarm type or region. These should be available to the operator at the time of the alarm activation.

6. A system that logs operator actions and saves video viewed by the operator. It should also give the operator the ability to enter text regarding the event. This gives the manager the ability to review exactly what the operator viewed during an event, how he responded and what his comments were in the case of a dispute.

Last but not least we have to look at infrastructure as far as incoming connectivity is concerned. This is vital as the control room relies on these connections to receive the alarm information from its customers. Most systems rely on ADSL as a primary connection. Although recommended, very few sites employ a failover mechanism where the system will use an alternative means of communication such as 3G.

It is, however, of utmost importance to have proper failover systems in place at the control room. Having one or two sites down due to a connection problem at site is manageable and depending on the agreement with the customer it will be their responsibility to restore connection. Losing connectivity in the control room is however a much bigger problem to contend with, as the responsibility will fall back on the control room for any missed alarms and it may even be held liable for any losses incurred as a result of the failure to respond. Some important considerations to look at here are infrastructure, response SOPs and audit trails.


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