Control rooms: changing with the times

Sam Fenwick hears from a number of control room solution providers regarding the challenges facing the sector and the ways in which modern systems are alleviating some traditional headaches

Peter Prater, managing director of Hexagon Safety & Infrastructure and the founder and chair of the International Critical Control Rooms Alliance (ICCRA), says we are in an unusually busy period of technology disruption, “with advances in many areas being drawn together for new third-generation command and control solutions”.

He adds that typically after a lot of technology is harnessed and implemented by industry, “there’s a hiatus for a few years while those [bed down] and then new advances mature to the degree they can be introduced to critical control solutions – that’s kind of where we are now”.

One of the biggest factors is the changing expectations of control room operators, citizens and other stakeholders – “that’s why we’re having to adopt new technologies faster and faster – [it’s] to try to keep pace with the changes [taking place within the mobile phones] in our pockets”.

Mike Isherwood, APD Communications managing director, highlights the fact that non-verbal forms of communication (such as email, texts and web forms) now account for a significant percentage of the interactions between control rooms and the public. While live web chat accounts for only a small percentage, “over the next three to four years it will become more prevalent, email will slow down and contact via Twitter and Facebook will remain relatively steady”.

He adds that this trend is driving an increase in the demands on control rooms, as people who would never contact one over the phone are now doing so by other means, though Isherwood also notes that as these additional queries are often not time-critical, they can be easier to manage – “no-one is going to send you a message to say that their house is on fire, they’re going to call”.

While these new kinds of interactions are underpinned by technology, Isherwood says it can also be part of the problem. For example, while visiting a control room he witnessed a call from someone who had been physically assaulted by a person they had argued with on Facebook. Similarly, he highlights the rise in queries from people who have been hacked or suffered online fraud. “Technology-based crime is also on the increase and that requires a whole different set of reporting mechanisms and data to be sent through, as opposed to just traditionally making the call about a particular issue that someone has had or has seen.”

Isherwood notes that control rooms will need to cater for young people and their preferred communication methods. He also cites the growing adoption of smart home devices, CCTV, connected burglar alarms and similar devices – “by 2021, those kinds of devices will outnumber smartphones and those kinds of technologies will be reporting things, not necessarily directly to the emergency services, but certainly via third parties”.

There has also been a shift in how people call control rooms. In the UK, Isherwood says 101 [non-emergency] calls now account for up to 70 per cent of demand, and often the callers have to be advised to contact other agencies. “We’re seeing the 101 service almost become a community advisory service as opposed to calling 101 to speak to the police about a particular matter.”

This rise in non-emergency calls is quite troubling for operators, as they have to accommodate them without it impacting on their ability to answer emergency calls.

Another factor is ageing. Isherwood notes that by 2036, 24 per cent of the UK’s population will be of pensionable age. “The demand on control rooms to help vulnerable people will only rise, so an ageing population needs to be seriously considered as part of any strategy.”

Breaking down silos
Organised crime does not respect regional and national boundaries. In the UK, this was recently brought into focus in an article in The Guardian, titled ‘Organised crime in the UK is bigger than ever before. Can the police catch up?’, which was largely based on an interview with Lynne Owens, head of the National Crime Agency (NCA). It is well worth a read, particularly her assertion that a fragmented policing model has left Britain with little or no “capability to respond” to modern global criminals.

While some would expect this to prompt further consolidation, the reverse is occurring, as seen by the imminent end of Warwickshire and West Mercia police’s strategic alliance. This ‘divorce’ has created an unusual situation for Saab, as it will require a single deployment of its SAFE command and control system operating over two separate control rooms to be “pulled apart”.

“In Europe, just as in the UK, we’re seeing criminal activity and the challenges that the emergency services face [becoming] less localised,” says Glyn Boswell, technical director at Saab Public Safety UK. “So, the ability to exchange information and work to common operating practices is seen as something that has to happen.”

Robert Nitsch, vice-president of public safety at Frequentis, highlights the work of research project EPISECC (Establish a Pan-European Information Space to Enhance seCurity of Citizens), which ran from June 2016-November 2017 with a future integrated crisis and disaster response capacity in mind (see

Another problem for vendors and their customers is the lack of interface standardisation. ICCRA launched a project to address this in 2017, and Prater says while its initial ambition was thwarted for a variety of reasons, the need for greater interoperability has not gone away; in fact “it’s probably only getting worse and ICCRA does need to pick up on that again. Unfortunately it’s a lack of capacity today, but it hasn’t gone off our radar.”

It’s all about workflows
Control room operators face something of an uphill struggle, perhaps made worse by the way public finances have been stretched. Fortunately, the vendors that support them haven’t been idle.

“If you go back a number of years, police forces had to modify their operational procedures to fit the control room software solution they were using,” says Saab’s Boswell. “Now we’re seeing more truly modularised systems that are workflow-driven, and those workflows are configurable by end-user organisations.”

He also says products are available that aren’t designed for specific niches. For example, Saab’s SAFE system supports a “pick and mix” approach – “you choose the [capabilities] that you want to integrate into your workflow. For example, a prison would [use] more of SAFE’s capability for lift control and door access, whereas that’s of less interest to a police force.”

Hexagon’s Prater says his company recognises that given budgetary constraints, “it’s incumbent on vendors to help customers be more self-sufficient where they wish to be so, and to that extent we’re trying to give them more self-service tools in our next-generation solutions”.

There is also the shift away from control room operators having to continually act as the bridges between software packages through time-consuming copy and pasting. I recently visited Lincolnshire Police’s control room, which will be the first in the country to migrate to Motorola Solutions’ cloud-based integrated CommandCentral Control Room Solution (CRS). This as a unified and highly scalable platform that integrates multiple functions is expected to eliminate the need for this kind of drudgery, freeing operators to perform more high-value tasks and increase the number of calls that are addressed in one session without the need to involve or deploy police officers.

As operators can be blitzed by massive amounts of data from a variety of sources – including video and social media feeds – many vendors are working to ensure they only receive relevant information in an easy-to-digest and intuitive way.

For example, Boswell describes the way data can be captured even before the first words are exchanged, as the location of the caller can be determined [often thanks to Advanced Mobile Location], which can provide vital context, such as whether the caller is in an area with high levels of anti-social behaviour. The map showing the caller’s location can then act as a focal point. Then as the incident type is determined (“SAFE is looking for appropriate resources [to deploy]”) and the operator collects more information, they are presented with warning markers on things such as whether there are known firearms at an address. “So, SAFE is kind of acting as a co-pilot, it’s leading the operator through.”

Prater gives another example. “Our new user interfaces are designed by users for users, and having analytics embedded seamlessly in the workflows helps provide real-time situational awareness.” Hexagon is also working to use machine learning to make sense of the input from sensors out in the field and provide the operator with commentary that supports their decision-making.

However, machines are not likely to take over from flesh-and-blood operators anytime soon. APD’s Isherwood says that while “many people get quite excited about AI, it’s not as intelligent as they think. There are ways of using AI, but decision-making isn’t one of them right now. AI can be used to suggest, but not to make decisions.”

An end to dark sites?
Boswell says while “a lot of people assume that there are huge cost savings associated with cloud”, these only occur when the organisation has very unpredictable and spiky irregular demand for resources. “If you want to use cloud resources 24/7, 365, it becomes a more complex economic formula.” He adds that “a lot of organisations are still nervous about data in the cloud, but are less so about pushing anonymised data to cloud-based services for analysis”.

One benefit of the cloud approach, when coupled with web and Android clients, is its flexibility. “You’re not constrained to a desktop computer,” Boswell adds. “You could easily perform specific roles including mobilisation or incident command from a tablet. [It also means that the concept] of a dedicated dark site [away from your day-to-day command centre] goes away because it’s [no longer] necessary. [It’s] a massive cost saving because you can virtualise the control room and access all the capabilities from anywhere, as long as you’ve got the connectivity.”

Returning to my visit to Lincolnshire Police, Andrew White, assistant chief officer, explained that the force’s back-up control room is only around 200 yards away from the main site, “so should anything happen to this location, our ability to carry on operating would be severely comprised”. In contrast, the new Motorola solution will be accessible via a web browser, allowing a control room to be set up in any location with an internet connection.

Buying well
I would be remiss if I didn’t include some tips on procurement. Isherwood says one common mistake is choosing a closed platform. “Choosing a single-vendor, [closed] end-to-end solution with proprietary integrations [is] not clever because it immediately creates a problem with integrating other things. The procurement team should [demand] openly published APIs, so that if the force or other vendors want to integrate to that platform [or] share data with [it], it can be done easily, without a significantly large bill.”

He believes there needs to be separation between the front-end applications handling the workflows and the systems handling the data in the back-end – “too often people silo those things”.

He says: “By using the cloud-based model where you have common infrastructure, common APIs for integration and data-sharing, you can write different applications on top of them for different workflows, for different people, for different departments and different organisations.”

He adds that “integration of technology is very difficult to do and tricky to maintain. Competing technology providers have made this increasingly difficult for agencies due to a closed architecture approach. Public sector technology providers must move towards open standard interfaces and enable sharing of data and functionality to empower the control room staff to work seamlessly. If we’re not careful, public sector IT will be unable to embrace innovations and will become trapped by the old bespoke technology of the past.”

Saab’s Boswell says SAFE’s single unified platform model “ticks a lot of boxes for customers because there are budgetary pressures [around] the cost of procurement – if you’re procuring seven systems, that’s more expensive than procuring a single solution. Similarly, from an IT department perspective, the management of infrastructure, etc to support seven systems is higher than to support a single solution.”

Conversely, Prater says “it’s never going to be one system from one supplier that does all of this, and that’s why we have to get the open standards and the enterprise approach to the solutions. It’s about multiple suppliers coming together to provide the overall picture. Such an eco-system approach allows best-of-breed supplier selection and more simple exchange of services as and when desired, avoiding single supplier tie-in.”

It can be easy to either aim too high or too low. Nitsch says sometimes people look at what is on the market and put all the features available into one specification, despite the fact that no product has them all. “My real wish would be that procurement departments or organisations go out and engage much more with possible vendors, with an emphasis on getting a demo of their solution and then discussing how it best fits into their operational [and] tactical usage.”

Boswell says that “quite often government organisations, [for reasons that I suspect are around cost], shoot too low. Instead of looking forward, they try to achieve the minimum.”

He adds: “What is operationally good practice today will not be in two years’ time or even one year’s time, and you need a solution that can adapt to meet those challenges, so regardless of the system you procure, you need a system that can move with the times and adapt.”

We have seen that while control room operators are increasingly having to deal with non-urgent matters, the vendors that support them are working hard to make their systems more intuitive and flexible. If the latter leads to the technical barriers that have frustrated data sharing in the past being no longer an issue, it will be interesting to see if end-user organisations take full advantage, as part of the wider effort to tackle organised crime.