Cameras in the control room

September 2018 Editor's Choice, Surveillance

Ten years ago in 2008 I wrote an article entitled “Who Watches the Watchers” ( The phrase is based on the Latin phrase “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes”, from the Roman treatise Satires of Juvenal, written around AD 100. From AD100 to a re-cent article discussing the theme by on a Star Trek episode held way in the future, shows this is an enduring question.

There is general consensus on its meaning, but IMDb puts it nicely in their review where they point out that it has been variously translated as ‘Who watches the watchmen’, ‘Who watches the watchers’, ‘Who will guard the guards’, ‘Who shall watch the watchers themselves’.

Since I wrote the article in 2008, the demands on operators, the technology they are working with, and their ways of watching have increased in sophistication. CCTV operators find themselves in a pivotal position regarding society, technology, security strategy, and the welfare of people.

As watchers of people, should they then be exempt from being watched themselves? What kind of privacy can operators expect? Given the fact that their role is critical to both the safety of people and the systems themselves, there are a number of reasons why operators are likely to be the focus of attention.

1. The protection of operator personnel. There have been a number of attacks on control rooms as part of criminal strategies to take out the parties who could gather evidence and raise the alarm during theft or robberies. Ongoing monitoring of operators for physical protection purposes is therefore an essential element of ensuring that both operators, their protection role, and the safety of the systems is provided for. Cameras in the control room are an essential part of this protection.

2. Performance management. Possibly one of the areas CCTV operators are most concerned about as they are in environments which require high vigilance, but which are often routine and characterised by conditions which lead to inactivity, or in worst cases, falling asleep on the job. While emergency operators may have ongoing situations where they get a shot of adrenaline from case handling, CCTV typically doesn’t have the same demands.

Management needs to ensure that they have strategies in place that allow operators to rest, move around and have breaks in routine which allow them to mentally refresh themselves.

3. Safeguarding the reputation of operators where there is a dispute over handling of incidents. Disputes and controversial circumstances are not uncommon in environments monitored in CCTV control rooms. This can range from shopping centres, casinos, cruise ships, public areas, to hospitality related business. Where operators have been unjustly criticised or people dispute situations, the use of evidence from monitoring devices within the control room can provide supportive information on operator actions and resolve issues on the side of the operator. Further, where there is an incident of some kind that takes place and operators may be accused of not paying attention, it can be shown that they were addressing other relevant criteria at the same time which can explain their behaviour.

4. Operation according to regulatory criteria. In some respects there are statutory requirements that control rooms must hold to, or at least policy and procedural rules that are expected. The presence of monitoring allows this to be demonstrated.

5. Safeguarding the integrity of evidence and response handling – this is possibly the most important component of surveillance within the control room itself that needs to be monitored. Control room management need to be able to demonstrate that both the evidence gathering process as well as the evidence have not been subject to tampering, and they have the integrity needed to be presented in a court of law or enquiry. Faced with apparent convincing evidence that is likely to convict their client, an attorney may well target operator conduct as a potential weak point in the evidence. Having a recording of operator actions can verify the process of evidence collection and confirm the status of the evidence.

6. Safeguarding equipment. In some instances, operators are their own worst enemy with the use of unauthorised flash drives for MP3 files and photo viewing on workstations occurring. Ideally, the computers should be placed well away from operators for a variety of reasons including ideal temperature operating conditions and protection from being tampered with including being switched off or rebooted. However, where this is not possible, the fact that unauthorised activities can be observed should act as a deterrent.

7. Reducing the potential for syndicate compromising of control room staff. Syndicates may target operators deliberately as part of their strategy, co-opting or threating them. Cameras being pointed away from the crime area, footage being tampered with, and information about the cameras or surveillance information being conveyed to criminal elements are things that are uncommon but do happen. The fact that they are continually under surveillance does provide operators some defence against syndicate pressure to get involved in assisting with incidents.

8. Effective management and coaching through monitoring of operator observation patterns and priorities. Where control room supervisors can observe actions including operator actions on control and viewing screens, it provides the basis for mediated learning and coaching by the supervisor. It allows directing of focus, monitoring of allocation of attention and priority setting, and commentary on detection and handling of incidents.

9. Workload analysis to ensure that operators are not overloaded, or for that matter looking at the possibilities of distributed viewing and handling of emergency events. Monitoring by supervisors for overload or underload can help distribute work and surveillance task within the control room. This may be restricted by technical distribution of camera views and communications to different workstations, but I’ve seen operators spontaneously helping each other out in surveillance tasks when workstations are close together. The supervisor is in a position to assist this process more formally.

Questions about effective staffing and the best number of operators to deal with demands are also sometimes difficult to resolve. By monitoring and collecting evidence about the actual level of service during peak and non-peak surveillance periods, it provides a measure of the actual demands and response needs as well as the actual screen views and data being processed if the workstations are also monitored.

Where to put the camera(s)?

Cameras in the control room provide the most basic kind of coverage. A single camera in the corner is often standard equipment in the control room. However, having a single camera in the control room can lead to operators working out the blind spot of coverage, and results in a ‘creeping pattern of movement’ towards the blind spot as operators move into the unsighted area.

A colleague, Rob Anderson, recommends at least two cameras within a control room to ensure broader coverage. However, there is also an increasing trend towards workstation cameras observing the operator in the context of the workstation. These vary in either facing the operator to view and record behaviour and reactions, or from behind.

The front view is particularly relevant to view specific reactions of operators during incident situations, as well as general work performance behaviour. This kind of close up view is probably the one operators are most uncomfortable with when looking at their behaviour, but is also particularly useful in providing information on responses to incidents, allocation of attention, and the emotional state of operators. Another approach is to have a camera behind the operator to capture the completion of the work process, monitor views, and use of surveillance equipment.

With some systems, it is possible to replicate and record the operator workstation monitor views, including control screens, alarms as well as displayed camera views. These can be viewed by supervisors as part of coaching or diagnoses of performance improvement needs from their own workstations or on recordings. Benefits include the supervisor being able to comment on the selection of cameras and viewing priorities, and more effective use of controls. With an actual incident, they can provide a step by step illustration of the detection and reaction process that the supervisor can use to monitor the response process. Where these are recorded, they also provide evidence and support the integrity of the evidence gathering process.

Audio recordings of communication are relatively commonly recorded within a control room and should probably be a standard part of any control room monitoring process. Where these can be aligned and synchronised to CCTV or electronic capture of workstation screens, this is even more advantageous.

A holistic solution

In the future we will see combinations of more types of information, including things like eye tracking, and physical measurements of body state such as heart activity and indicators of heightened alertness. This also applies to the reverse, where lowered rates of body activity can lead to interventions before operators show disengagement from the monitor, or in worst cases, fall asleep.

Research I have been involved in, for example, already shows behavioural indicators of fatigue and disengagement being associated with lower detection scores. It is physically impossible for CCTV operators to maintain full vigilance and concentration over an eight or twelve hour shift. So we need to look at ways to enhance vigilance as much as possible, which includes regular breaks and rest facilities, shift management, supervisor involvement and intervention, and potential biofeedback to operators and supervisors.

Companies may feel putting in greater control room camera and other surveillance coverage is a way to more effectively control operator performance. However, they need to be aware that is also puts more of an onus on them to ensure that operators are supported effectively, provided with the correct skills and training, and supervised constructively. Managers also need to pay careful consideration to who should have access to the control room cameras and ensure there are appropriate security precautions for stored information.

The viewing and monitoring by surveillance recording devices are not just a measure of operator performance, they are also a measure of management effectiveness in managing operators and the control room environment.

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 11 787 7811 or [email protected]


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