Teamwork and Control rooms - harnessing team knowledge to the benifit of the whole control room.

August '99 News

I recently attended a conference in the UK called "People in Control"which addressed personnel and human factor issues within control rooms,command centres and cock-pits .Interestingly enough it was organised by the UK Institute of Engineers ,perhaps a sign of the times that human factors are becoming increasingly recognised as essential to the success of engineering projects .

Another surprising aspect was that it had an entire session dedicated to team functioning in control rooms. Team issues also came up repeatedly during the three days of the conference. I think that often team development is seen as a by-product of managing a CCTV control room - something that comes automatically. However, one of the key points made at the conference was that teamwork needs to be deliberately created and that we need to be careful to enhance natural teams, and not destroy them.

Being sensitised to the team issue, I was then especially aware of team-based issues during my subsequent visits to various control rooms.

There are four team contexts relevant to CCTV that managers should actively manage and promote. These are briefly outlined and discussed below.

A broad multidisciplinary team context that consists of the control room staff and external agencies, for example police or external security personnel

In a visit to a UK control room recently, I sat in while the operator received a radio message from a retail store security official. The official stated that a person who he thought was being sought by the police for various thefts had just left the store. The operator obtained a camera picture of the street area, located and tracked the suspect, contacted the police to confirm whether he was still wanted for questioning, and then directed the police to the area. All this happened within about fifty seconds and is a real example of efficient interdisciplinary teamwork.

What is important is that all of these parties saw themselves as part of the same network and were totally at ease communicating with each other. The challenge for our emerging town centre CCTV operations will be similar - to get the willingness to interact and inform, and to get the 'bobby on the beat' or an appropriate police, ambulance or fire service in place within short time periods.

"The challenge for our emerging town centre CCTV operations will be similar - to get the willingness to interact and inform, and to get the 'bobby on the beat' or an appropriate police, ambulance or fire service in place within short time periods."

A dedicated internal multifunction team consisting of the control room staff and designated response staff

In this case, both the observation and response personnel are part of the same unit and jointly responsible for the detection and apprehension of offenders. More common in security departments in big companies, these kinds of teams would be found in retail, casinos, and processing plants.

A key challenge in respect of these operations is to ensure the communication between observer and the response personnel is effective. Recognising this, the London Underground has embarked on a project called Portrait (see Luff and Heath) to facilitate the development of a mobile system to support station staff and co-ordinate the responses of support staff to critical incidents and routine happenings.

They are currently prototyping use of advanced digital radio systems and investigating ways of supporting response personnel before they even arrive at the scene, such as providing CCTV images of the incident scene through mobile devices.

The joint understanding of what is being communicated is also essential to successfully apprehending the suspect - the reaction personnel need to be familiar with the language being used by the operator and the operator needs to provide as much of a visual picture through his or her description as possible.

Lack of a common understanding and incorrect guidance will not only lead to suspects avoiding capture, they will also lead to high levels of frustration between the operator and reaction personnel with resulting poor team relationships.

The operator group within the control room makes up a team of peers who work together and see things from their own perspective

Isolation of control operators from each other has the benefit of increasing their focus on their work responsibilities, but total isolation can make this a short lived benefit as people tend to get alienated from their work with the lack of personal contact.

Also, there are a number of other advantages of operators having ongoing contact with each other. One of the major aspects of this is situational awareness which I will discuss later. This covers the extent to which operators are aware of what is going on in the target and the control room environment.

A practical example of this kind of teamwork in one of the UK control rooms was illustrated where an operator was tracking a person on screen while his colleague was anticipating where the person was going and already had the camera picture set up and zoomed on the first operator's secondary monitor.

The operator performing the tracking could then switch directly to the next camera picture without the need to consider which camera to use or to control the appropriate camera perspective.

One of the conference delegates stated that the operators within a particular operation often know more about each other's strengths and weaknesses than any manager, and in the context of team working would allocate work to an individual within the group based on such strengths or support would be provided where necessary to assist an individual.

While there may be some truth in this, one danger of this situation is that the mistakes of some people may be covered up by others as part of this support.

Managers need to harness this team knowledge and awareness and make it work to the benefit of the whole control room. Setting up emotional support for operators who are involved in viewing particularly traumatic scenes may be an example of this.

The manager also needs to ensure that he delivers a 'control centre team' environment to ensure that the operator team does not come into conflict with the management team.

The final team context involves all the control room personnel plus the control room manager as the team leader

The manager needs to develop a common set of goals and a sense of belonging between all personnel in the control centre, including himself or herself. The manager is also responsible for the 'climate' between personnel within the centre, relationships between the centre and outside parties, and the formal and informal rules of behaviour within the centre which set the scene as to the kind of team that is likely to develop.

Pascual noted during the conference that the appropriate behaviours and actions that underpin effective team performance can only be developed by members sharing a common outlook and purpose. In order for this to happen, it is essential that team members have shared perceptions of what is important in making the team work and stick together, so to speak. The use of shared experiences and an understanding and appreciation of each other's roles are important aspects of bringing this about. Managers need to ensure that this shared understanding and appreciation is generated within the working situation.

"Pascual noted during the conference that the appropriate behaviours and actions that underpin effective team performance can only be developed by members sharing a common outlook and purpose."

Several suggestions on how to enhance the team development process and experience were made during the conference and can be seen in practical actions within the control room environment. These include the fact that the control room needs to be designed with operators in mind, operators need to be empowered to work together and use their discretion, communication needs to be possible, and knowledge and support should be exchanged between team members no matter how broad the team context.

p Design of the control room needs to facilitate interaction with other operators, use of others as a resource and joint problem solving. The interaction between operators within the control room environment should include team based surveillance, the development of support structures and communication between operators and allowing them to learn from each other.

p Situational awareness refers to an individual understanding what is happening in their environment and from this, their ability to anticipate and predict what will happen in the future. A primary responsibility of the team leader in this regard is to ensure that all team members have a clear and shared understanding of the 'big picture' and how things may change.

p Communication is critical to every area of teamwork and face to face communication was seen to improve this. The point was made during the conference that face-to-face communication between team members allows the identification of people's expressions, body language and mannerisms. It was also a useful source for detecting cues on issues that fellow team members may be reluctant to talk about, such as stress, fatigue and problems in workload. Some of this informal communication may well occur in a recreation area away from the main control room where operators can relax and get things off their chest.

p There is a need for a degree of decentralisation of responsibility within the control room so that operators can make their own judgements, call for help from relevant parties as well as the supervisor and use the skill and knowledge base of others as part of their own work.

Pascual, Mills and Blendell, presenters of one of the papers, stated that a survey had indicated that a number of management functions related to team effectiveness were all described as particularly challenging by a substantial majority of respondents. These included effective communication channels, establishing and maintaining situational awareness, leading teams effectively and engaging in essential team work behaviours such as monitoring, feedback and support.

Next month I will look at some of the ways that managers can address these issues and enhance team functioning.


Papers presented at People in control: An international conference on human interfaces in control rooms, cockpits and command centres: 21-23 June 1999, Conference Publication No 463.

P. Luff, and C. Heath. Surveying the scene: the monitoring practices of staff in control rooms.

R.G. Pascual. Tools for capturing and training shared understanding in teams.

R.G. Pascual, M.C. Mills and C. Blendell. Supporting distributed and ad hoc team interaction.

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