Shifts and work periods for CCTV operators

March 2012 Surveillance

There is an ongoing debate over the use of 12 or 8-hour shifts for CCTV personnel and which is more suitable.

For me, there are two sides to this. If one looks at 12-hour shifts, they tend to be easier to manage, cut down on transport costs which is often a major issue for personnel earning lower salaries, and many personnel like them because they have a more extended free time at home with such shift schedules.

On the other hand, can we really expect somebody to concentrate at a high level for 12 hours. Even the viewing demands of 8-hour shifts can be onerous and one has to question how effective personnel are at the end of shift, particularly if there is nothing in place to aid in their paying attention and taking breaks. The argument is therefore a trade off of social benefits versus performance outcomes.

In this context then, the question of how long somebody can concentrate becomes an issue. If you look at research on concentration, much of it indicates that people can only concentrate fully for 20 to 30 minutes. Many video analytics manufacturers use this 20 minute period as a basis to say their technologies are far more effective than operators.

Real concentration limits

In reality, in most cases the automated recognition is limited to far more basic activities than a real operator would be capable of picking up. Further, these kinds of research studies that emphasise 20 to 30 minutes are often done using the most boring activities that bear little relevance to real life. In CCTV research conducted recently by Fiona Donald using a research video showing actual work environments and requiring personnel to detect behaviours, it was shown that some high calibre personnel were continuing to do well after 90 minutes of viewing video for detection tasks.

On the other hand, some personnel were showing fairly low performance almost immediately. High-calibre personnel simply maintain their concentration levels far more effectively. This probably shows that it is as much of a selection issue as a concentration issue – get the right people and you will get sustained results. The wrong people will deteriorate quickly and never give you the right results.

This is supported by research done a few years ago where we found some people able to maintain concentration for over two to three hours without any significant decline. I typically recommend between 45 and 90 minutes for a standard work period after which people can take a break – this seems to be the optimal period for concentration, in combination with a good ongoing awareness of what is going on in the work situation.

Interest and focus

The nature of the CCTV task is also going to affect the level of attention operators maintain for extended periods. On one hand, aviation X-ray screeners typically have 20 minute shift periods for viewing images, because the concentration levels in processing images continually with an average of 5 seconds to detect a target are so intense. On the other hand, I have spoken to emergency-operator personnel who love the demands of constant calls and emergencies and for whom a 12-hour shift seems to go by relatively quickly.

Where CCTV operators are engaged in interesting viewing, or where incidents happen relatively frequently, attention is likely to be maintained for longer periods. Where little is happening and there is a routine and boring viewing environment, concentration lapses are likely to occur more quickly and frequently. To some extent, training in observation and detection is one way to make the environment and the challenge of detection more interesting and maintain a focus on the job.

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 [email protected]


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