Go ahead caller. ”There’s a fire alarm going off in a block of flats”,
Controller, “what’s the location?”
Caller “Half way up the wall.”
Making sense of confusion is part and parcel of a control-room job. Being able to obtain relevant information in a controlled manner from a caller who is in a heightened state of panic can be extremely difficult, and where there is the potential for loss of life even more so. And time, as they say, can be the difference between life and death.
I’ve been fortunate to have been involved technically and operationally with military airborne (51Sqn RAF) and ground based control rooms for the emergency services, safe-city/CNI/border surveillance in the UK and abroad, so I’ve seen some of the challenges from both sides of the field.
I won’t go into the politics of there being less Police on the streets, but certainly trying to report an issue such as suspicious activity that isn’t deemed an emergency via the 101 number takes a lot of patience in being kept on hold and being told that “your call is important to us”. That amount of time waiting when you’re working in a busy non-police control room just isn’t possible. The 101 number was set up in 2011 to take the pressure off the 999 system – which incidentally is 84 years old this year! The 101 number was devised as a shared system between the Police and a number of other agencies such as social care, housing, environment and health. However, cutbacks in funding resulted in all but the Police abandoning the system.
A bit of 999 trivia – The original 999 system was devised after a fatal fire in Wimpole Street in 1935, and initially only covered a 12-mile radius around Oxford Street. The criteria to the public for its use were simple, “for instance, the man in the flat next to yours is murdering his wife or you have seen a heavily masked cat burglar”.
In the recent report ‘A Call for help: Police Contact management through call handling and control rooms in 2018/19’ the authors highlighted three important issues: –
- The public is making less use of the 101 number as many forces don’t respond within a target time, and so rely on 999. The increase in 999 calls between 2016/17 and 2018/19 was 11/1%.
- Police are taking on issues that other organisations can no longer manage due to falling resources.
- Crimes and incidents involving vulnerable people are rising.
I raised the following question on Twitter recently:
The question seemed to resonate with quite a few people, especially from the private security sector. Are the emergency services missing a trick in not aligning the technology of private security control rooms with their own? The Police in the UK have approximately 129,000 full-time equivalent Officers, while there are roughly 364,000 active SIA registered Officers – nearly three times the number of people on the ground, capable of feeding back relevant and timely information to their respective control rooms. So why not utilise a readily available resource?
The Security Research Initiative conducted a survey of 1000 Police Officers in 2019, related to collaborative working. The results were predictably depressing. While both parties had a general interest in the concept, there was a large level of mistrust, with 70% of Police believing that private security plays a minor role in public safety. Police believed the level of training and discipline they have was absent from that of the Private Security Industry. Some of this criticism maybe warranted, but I doubt that many in the Private Security Industry would want to be the equivalent of poorly paid Police Officers.
It could be feasible however, for collaboration between control rooms. But the route and solution taken would vary greatly in cost. Whereas an emergency service control room is – by comparison to a private security control room (PSCR) – cash rich in both capital and revenue, capable of putting forward annual budgetary requirements from its local authority to get upgrades on the latest ICT systems and software. The Private Security control-rooms by comparison are rarely in a position to invest hundreds of thousands or millions into a control-room where the return in investment is low, as the end-client very much drives the price down.
A project I was involved in covering the UAE (minus the Sultanate of Dubai) provided control rooms and infrastructure to cover the entire border and all Critical National Infrastructure with RADAR, CCTV and comms, while also providing hi-resolution CCTV and traffic flow data to cover both the cities and highways. All the systems fed back to regional/specialist Control-Rooms that used the same core systems, were supported across the same dedicated networks, and were linked to numerous Government databases such as residency, immigration, health, traffic, banking etc. This would allow for the instantaneous creation of a web of information about a person/group of interest. Not that such a system could or should be utilised here for fear of falling foul of GDPR etc, but it was interesting to see a system in which it all came together for the improvement of national security. A video on YouTube called ‘Abu Dhabi Traffic Police Car Chase – Safe City UAE’ gives an insight – albeit very Hollywoodish as it was filmed by the same people who produced ‘Fast & Furious’ – to some of its capabilities.
So, what is the best route for collaboration? Certainly, within the UK and Europe, it is extremely doubtful that the Private Security Industry could afford or even be allowed to adopt the secure and resilient emergency service radio network, which is currently Airwave TETRA, nor the forthcoming over budget/time ESN radio system that will provide near 4G services to the emergency services and other front-line resources. Neither would they be able to afford an upgrade to the same or similar command and control suites enjoyed by the emergency services, though these systems are far from standardised themselves and generally tie the users into a long-term relationship with the supplier.
Let me put forward a cost-effective alternative for consideration, that of a secure, resilient web-portal which would allow any non-999 incidents to be reported from registered Private Security Control Rooms to the emergency services, based on time and geographical location of the incident allowing the Private Security Control Room to select whichever service is required, and pass the relevant data/images/video. It is important to understand that this would only be for non-emergency intel and not to report a real-time crime or serious incident as they would still be reported normally via 999. The portal would provide valuable geographical situational awareness intel in real-time that may have relevance to ongoing investigations and could also be used to receive notices from the emergency services that they believe to be relevant to a Private Security Control Room. While this is only a concept, I’m sure there are IT software companies out there who can bring it from concept to delivery in a resilient, secure cost-effective way.
However, a cautionary warning is that it is all well and good me harping on about having close collaboration and systems that share data securely. In my experience the failure to collaborate effectively, usually comes in the form of nonstandard techniques being used (irrelevant, incorrect or information being provided) and the need for all SIA badge holders to be able to clearly transfer data from what they are seeing in a clear and concise format. I have personally come across badged Officers who are unable to tell you what site they are working at, let alone use the NATO phonetic alphabet. Some have no situational awareness and seem to receive no regular ongoing training or effective supervisory oversight. Therefore, it is easy to see why the survey of 1000 Police Officers mentioned earlier came out with the conclusion that it did. As an industry, we need to professionalise, and do it urgently and correctly.
To move forward, an emphasis needs to be placed not just on the technology, but the national standardising of reporting techniques, the regular use of the NATO phonetic alphabet, and regular inhouse (6 monthly refresher training) that can all be verified annually by the likes of the SIA and the NSI.
Michael is an internationally respected expert in the fields of CCTV and Command Centre operations, set up and design. He also has a growing reputation as an intelligent and pragmatic security and safety technology commentator across social media. Working as a consultant in the UK and Eastern Europe, Michael is a professional at the cutting edge of C&C technological development and operational policy formation