When it was decided to use this edition to look at Monitoring and Mobile Security, several big names and companies were discussed to approach for an interview. At the very top of a very short list was Rob Hill, Managing Director of the Corps security Monitoring Centre (CMC)….
When Rob agreed to an interview, I was so busy throwing high fives to everyone in the office that I forgot to ring him! Until, in a panic, 7 days prior to this issue’s publication date!
So with some of the fastest planning in the history of publishing, I had the privilege of speaking to a really interesting guy.
Rob Hill – Commercial Director at Corps Security & M.D. Corps Monitoring Centre.
TPSO: Thank you very much for taking time to speak to us today. What kind of career path brought you to your current role as I understand you’ve not spent your entire career in security?
Rob: You’re right. I have been with Corps Security for 10 years now, but among management here, that still makes me kind of new. I’ve spent 7 years as Commercial Director, but started off in Sales as a business development manager in the manned guarding side. My career prior to that was pretty varied but it did involve technology, and I came out of University in to a job with a motor sport manufacturer. We were making the automatic fire suppression system for racing cars. Everything from rally cars to formula one and everything in between. After a couple of years doing that I moved in to I.T. Recruitment. We were dealing with a lot of big contracts in the finance sector, right up until the dot com bubble burst!
I moved in to working for a company that specialised in the design, installation and repair of industrial control systems, basically production line control systems if you like. That was really interesting as I’ve always had a bit of a technological bent.
TPSO: It’s clear then why you gravitated to the high tec side of the security industry. When people think of an alarm monitoring centre, they think of banks of monitors and alarm notifications coming in to controllers. I know that there is a lot more going on with the Corps Monitoring Centre so what else does the CMC do?
Rob: It certainly is a common misconception that you’ve just outlined, and one I shared when I joined Corps to be fair. Of course the team do view monitors but the days of dozens and dozens of screens are largely gone. It’s much more efficient to have systems that flag up video of events as they happen, rather than being distracted by lots of screen where nothing is happening 99.9% of the time. You are having alerts coming through but we centralise this as much as we can in a single system and alerts come through in priority order. A controller can just click on those and it will then display the video of a given site and will display all the information required. What can happen then is that a controller can issue an audio challenge, so they can shout at any miscreant over a P.A. System, or maybe call the Police, keyholders or a combination of those depending on the circumstances and what the specific instructions for that site are. Really the CMC can monitor anything that can produce a transmissible signal, and can control practically anything via a relay. That can be things like opening and closing doors and windows, switching on lights and using a P.A. system to issue challenges as I mentioned. The possibilities are almost limitless…
TPSO: You mention things like remotely activating lighting. Can your systems integrate with building management systems to control other environmental features?
Rob: One of our party piece achievements was that we were switching on lights, opening doors, and FEEDING FISH remotely at a facility in Boston, U.S.A.! All from our Glasgow based Centre. Distance is no barrier to what the CMC can do for you.
TPSO: I know that a growing sector of the business is the security of renewable energy facilities, solar arrays and wind farms. How did Corps get involved in this sector and what challenges does it present to the CMC?
Rob: We’ve been working with the solar sector of the business for about 7 years, before I became involved with the CMC, but I believe it was through a couple of our installer customers that initially got involved in the field, and we also had some direct clients that were building solar arrays. The push towards renewable energy now has increased the level of interest from that sector as well as from wind farms. The challenges tend to arise from the environment that they are in. Sometimes remote, windswept hillsides, so getting response to them is sometimes a bit of a challenge but also other environmental issues, wildlife, and high winds blowing stuff around.
In the early days certain site’s security systems may not have been configured particularly well so we were getting alarms like Christmas trees as there was always something going off, but the advent of second generation technology has really helped with that. We also take very seriously the level of communication with our customers, and quite unusually in our sector we do hold regular account review meetings with our customers and go through the stats for the previous month.
We can show them the level of alarms they are having on certain cameras and suggest how they can be reconfigured, so it may mean something as simple as pointing a camera in a slightly different direction so it isn’t catching traffic driving down an adjoining road. It’s all about working with customers to improve the efficiency of the site. Alarm and CCTV monitoring is all about filtering out background noise and concentrating on the genuine events, so the more we can reduce false alarms the better.
TPSO: Does Corps get involved in initial site surveys, prior to the installation of security hardware systems?
Rob: We do perform initial site surveys but that is generally to give advise on what a total blended security solution would look like, and that would include things like access control, manned guarding, CCTV, keyholding and alarm response, a whole blend of different elements really. We do not install or maintain security hardware systems and are totally independent on that front and always have been. Personally I think that helps us as our customers know that we do not have any hidden agenda or desire to push a certain brand of camera or DVR and our installer customer base know that we are not competing with them. We work closely with these partners but our bag is really the monitoring sector.
TPSO: I’m aware that there has been huge advancements in sensor technology. Things have moved on from basic CCTV motion detection. What other types of sensors are now commonly deployed and used by the CMC?
Rob: The old style motion detectors still exist but as you’d expect in our current face paced world, things are evolving all the time and there is now more reliance on advanced video analytics. You can now zone off areas that you don’t want to monitor and even identify direction of travel. For example it will ignore anyone walking away from a camera but flag up anyone walking towards it. People in motion can be ignored but loitering can be flagged up for instance. Artificial intelligence is an important new weapon in the armoury. We are currently working with a company called Umbo whose systems use algorithms and machine learning to distinguish between a potential threat such as a vehicle or a person, and a non threatening event such as a passing fox, or foliage blowing in the wind…… You’d be amazed how much busier we become on a windy night! So this has massive benefits in the battle to reduce false alarms. When you can filter out this background noise, that releases more capacity to deal with the genuine threats. Facial recognition systems are also making massive advances, although issues remain regarding data protection and GDPR, which has limited their widespread use, but I’m sure these issues will be resolved over time. With regards to other sensors, as I mentioned earlier, pretty much anything that produces an output can be monitored. When it comes to environmental monitoring that can be things like flood detection water level sensors, pressure sensors, pyrometers, wind speed anemometers, anything that produces an output, we can potentially monitor.
TPSO: Other than international fish feeding, although damn clever, what other remote services can the CMC offer?
Rob: With regards to CCTV monitoring, what we’ve been talking about is called dark screen monitoring. The screen remains dark unless something is happening. There is however still a market for live CCTV monitoring. There was a company that had half a dozen buildings but didn’t want their own CCTV control room, so we provided a dedicated desk in our monitoring centre and had this manned 24/7 for them. We have out of hours access control which we’ve done quite a lot of, for example you can have someone driving up to a barrier and using the intercom, they may think they are talking to someone in the building when they are actually speaking to one of our team in Glasgow, who can identify them and lift the barrier. This can be car park access or access to a building itself.
We’ve worked in the offender tagging and monitoring sector as well. Whether there is a low battery alert on a tag, or an offender has breached curfew conditions etc, there will be a predefined protocol which defines how this is reacted to.
We talked a bit about environmental monitoring which we can do remotely. A big sector is of course, keyholding and response. Quite an exciting new addition to this that we are working with a company called Keynetics who have the only commercially graded, bluetooth operated external keysafe, so rather than the traditional keyholding model where keys are held at one of our branches or in a safe in a van, keys can be securely stored at the site and access can be granted by either a smartphone app or a call can be made to the monitoring centre and a passcode can be issued to allow access. The beauty of that is that you do not have to send the specific security officer that has the keys in the van, you can send the nearest available unit. This cuts down security response times but also means that legitimate contractors, cleaners for example, can be granted access via a phone call to the monitoring centre without having to send a security unit at all. It’s a technologically lead change in the way that we are working.
We also have our own dedicated personal protection App called Corps Guard. That’s a smartphone based app backed up by a fully monitored service. If a user feels threatened they can activate the device by either pressing a button on the phone, shaking the device, or even via a separate bluetooth button, handy if you don’t want to be fumbling about for your phone at a crucial moment. You can just press a button on your wrist band and once activated, it feeds through to the CMC and captures video, audio and location data so the CMC staff can discretely respond in the most appropriate way, maybe calling the Police or alerting a nearby colleague, whatever the protocol may require. Understandably there has been a lot of interest about his during the COVID crisis with companies looking at the best ways to fulfill their duty of care for their remote workers. Version 2 of the app is currently available in the app store and google play.
TPSO: I’ve come across external keysafe systems in the past that require a security officer to carry an electronic keypad which then has to interface with the keysafe. This was notoriously unreliable as you can imagine. This use of technology seems like a far more effective way to deal with the issue.
Rob: Yes. And the beauty of it is that there is a full audit trail of who has accessed the keys and at what time, which is all done by the platform. It can also generate a range of useful analytics for the CMC and for the client.
TPSO: I had to mention it. COVID19. Has it had much impact on what you do at the CMC and how you work?
Rob: It’s safe to say that there aren’t many organisations that haven’t been effected by COVID in one way or another and we are no different. Our CMC is an absolutely critical part of our infrastructure so we have really guarded that very closely in regards to having strict hygiene protocols that the team has to work by. I’d say we are always at least one step ahead of all of the Government guidelines whenever they are announced. We throw the kitchen sink at keeping the place absolutely hermetically sealed and have done since day one! We perform full wipe downs of all work stations between shifts. The team are made to move around the building wearing masks, long before the Government requirement to do so. We have reduced our staffing levels and work under the principle that if you can possibly work remotely then you absolutely should. Even our management team are rotating so that there is always only one working in the CMC and two working from home at any one time, and we’ve banned all unnecessary visits there. We don’t like doing that as we really like showcasing our facility, but if people don’t need to go there at the moment they absolutely don’t……. and that includes me! I’ve only been able to visit a handful of times in total since the first lockdown last March, but despite this, due to being fully supported by the technology, the stats regarding things like our response times, have actually got better. This has been a real testament to the fact that firstly, everybody has looked out for everybody else, and stuck to the hygiene rules and taken everything really seriously, and that’s against a backdrop of the fact that we were also really really busy at that time. You can imagine that prior to March last year, we were monitoring many sites overnight and at the weekends. But when staff were no longer able to attend site themselves we started to monitor them 24/7 so that our activity levels went up, while we certainly had fewer people working in the monitoring centre, and our response times got better during that time. Some of that is down to working with Umbo and working smarter for sure, but it has been a challenging time for all of us for certain, but one that we have hugely risen to, and I am very very proud of the way the team as acted and responded.
Talking about staff returning to work, one of the big issues we had at the end of the first lockdown, was with sites that we were monitoring 24/7, especially building sites, when builders were allowed to return to construction sites that we were monitoring, quite often the client omitted to tell us that they were returning to work, so you can imagine the amount of alerts we had due to people showing up on site that we were still monitoring CCTV for and so on…… One other important element was the new requirement for temperature monitoring, obviously with this being a key indicator of COVID infection, and as a company Corps has done quite a lot of that, although most involved monitoring at site level so the CMC could be looking at more future involvement in this with remote monitoring of thermographic cameras, but at the moment the preference was for using monitoring equipment in site reception areas.
TPSO: As things get back to normal, where do you see the growth areas being?
Rob: These are exciting times, and the great thing about this industry is that things are so fast moving. There will be opportunities over the horizon that we haven’t even thought about yet. I certainly see more in the field of renewable energy with the push for the green agenda that the P.M. has obviously backed. There will be changes in the way we work and travel with increased use of electric vehicles and the charging points for those. Monitoring whether they are working or whether they have been vandalised and the opportunities there. Also emerging tech companies really.
The growth of apps is important. There are a lot of apps to do with health care now and monitoring people. We all know the benefits of keeping people in their own homes as log as possible, rather than perhaps putting them into a care home, both from a quality of life point of view and keeping them protected from possible COVID infection, but of course you need to be able to look after people in that environment and there are a lot of smart phone based apps, getting cleverer and cleverer all the time with regards to the A.I. that operates them, but there comes a point where there will need to be human intervention and we see that as an opportunity that we are looking at for the future.
TPSO: With technology evolving so rapidly, what is coming over the horizon and what developments do you expect to see in the CMC over the next year or two?
Rob: In terms of development of the CMC we are constantly developing our systems. In the past monitoring was very much technology lead. I’m looking to increase the customer service side of it. We are introducing things like account reviews, KPIs which are quite unusual within the monitoring sector, increasing transparency and visibility across our sites by introducing things like our dedicated customer portal, which is an exciting development. Customers can log in at any time and see exactly what has been going on at their sites even over the last 24 hours. They can see the busiest cameras, can see how incidents have been responded to and more. That’s coming very soon. It’s been soft launched already, beyond that? The reality is it is very hard to know. We are looking at a number of areas but as I mentioned, it will be a case of how to react to new developments as they arrive.
TPSO: This is clearly a fascinating sector of the security industry. What advise would you give to a front line professional looking to get in to this area of the industry?
Rob: It is a rewarding roll and we’re lucky to have a superb team. It is challenging. You’re not just sitting watching a screen waiting for something to happen, you’re kept constantly on the go, but you do get the chance to make a real difference when it comes to protecting people and property whilst working with some great technology. If you’re calm under pressure, have good observational skills and are process driven this could be a great opportunity… and if that sounds like you we’d love to hear from you!
TPSO: Where can people go for more information about the CMC Rob?
Rob: Check out our website, follow us on social media or we love an old school phone call as well!