Management of the CCTV observation process

February 2011 CCTV, Surveillance & Remote Monitoring

I am a person who focuses on the human factor in CCTV and I often have to think long and hard about what makes up CCTV effectiveness. Given that I am involved in assisting in selecting people with the best observation skills, and training them in detection and reading the processes and behaviours of crime, I have a strong interest in how this is implemented.

While browsing some of the news websites, I noticed an article on The Huffington Post website which immediately got my attention. Entitled, 'How long does it take to look at a painting?' Written by James Elkins, it explores how people look at paintings. Elkins is associate professor of art history, theory and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

This may sound mundane and irrelevant to technology including CCTV, but Elkins focuses on the process of painting observation as an example of how well we look at other things in life. He notes in the article that “The Louvre found that people looked at the Mona Lisa an average of 15 seconds, which makes you wonder how long they spend on the other 35 000 works in the collection.”

He is making the point that although they are looking at the painting, the views are superficial and often neglect a huge amount of subtle information that creates the context in which we view. Elkins uses an example of the Madonna to illustrate how much information a complex painting by a superior artist can have, focusing on the elements in the painting that reflect physical qualities, mood, and body language reflected in positioning, posture, expression, and even the way fingers may be intertwined or pressed together.

Creating awareness

In the CCTV training I provide, I try and create the awareness of how to look at things as well, which is why I found the article interesting. I typically ask people in the training how much they see of what is on a video, and commonly get answers varying from 100% to 80%. However, these same people quickly realise after some exercises that they observe nowhere near that. This realisation is a good starting point to teach people how to look at video, and what kinds of things to look for.

In a sense, you have to show people how little they usually see in order to improve their viewing strategies. This parallels what Elkins is talking about in art, and interestingly enough, I find that photographers on the CCTV course often have a better awareness of what is going on because they are used to looking in more detail at a scene.

In the workplace itself on a day to day basis, this kind of emphasis becomes a management responsibility. I find at times that operators do not really know or understand the site they are looking at, have not been to the locations, and know little about the technical specifications. One can structure this thinking by taking people through a check list, but the most effective way is to sensitise them and to get them to internalise the way of looking at the most relevant things.

The control room supervisor or manager should be dropping by on a regular basis and asking what they are looking at, why, and providing feedback. The more effort is put into this, the more operators are going to see and the better their detection is likely to be.

Knowing how criminals may try to behave is also an important input. If operators do not have a clue about how the systems can be compromised, they are often likely to miss these signs. So management input and guidance, technical training, and regular feedback and discussions sessions guided by the CCTV strategy are all critical factors in transforming the potential of people into detection performance.

A review of his work has highlighted that fact that Elkins says our eyes are too good for us, taking in so many things that we tend to focus only on what is important at the moment.

“What happens if we stop and take the time to look more carefully?” he asks. Similarly there is always something more in a CCTV video that we do not see initially. Indeed, from a forensic view, I have looked at video a number of times and still seen new aspects each time. The more we know there is to see, the more we can focus on looking for it. The management of operators needs to spend a great deal more time on doing this to enhance the observation process.

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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