Control rooms: how to live up to the name
Traditional control rooms were more like monitoring rooms, but today’s capabilities and demands are transforming them into something far more important.
In the digital age visual technology made huge advances, and dynamic, flow-oriented industries such as traffic management, utilities, telecom, and financial markets were early adopters in using sophisticated graphic and video systems to enable immediate decision making.
Even for these control room pioneers, questions about system capabilities have historically been about scale: how many screens would fit in the control room, how legible was the display, how ‘real-time’ was the information?
Considerations for today’s control room are more complex. In the popular imagination, people see a control room as a place where security personnel monitor a bank of closed circuit TVs. Those days are long gone, and now with advancing technologies in controls, analytics, and data, control rooms are operating at an entirely different level.
Control rooms’ expanding boundaries
A former senior police officer, Chris Dreyfus-Gibson is Vice Chairman, International Critical Control Rooms Alliance and product manager for control room solutions at Sopra Steria. He says that to envision your control room and the capabilities it should have, you must understand that they are comprised of much more than computer systems.
He describes a control room as a combination of people, technology, the physical workspace, and operational processes. These four aspects should be optimized to get the right information to the right people at the right time, both internally and externally.
“The control room is usually the center of decision-making in that it’s a single point that can access a wealth of information and synthesize it so that it can be reviewed and a decision made, whether that’s by an operator on site or a more senior commander in another location,” he said.
"The future control room is potentially virtual with all elements working together."
A control room can now be more conceptual. “For a distributed workforce, the commander could be out in the field with an iPad, connected to control room systems while sitting in a car, along with an operator at home and another operator physically at headquarters. The future control room is potentially virtual with all elements working together.”
Intensified demands for safety and security
In the past, only a handful of organizations took security seriously. The extent of securing a site was often a sign, a fence, and an on-site monitor.
Today robust and responsive security is top of mind for almost all commercial and public facilities, and they’re rethinking whether they are adequately prepared for emergencies. Links in infrastructure that used to go unmonitored are now expected be secured, both in public spaces and all along companies’ supply chain.
This increased scope puts additional burdens on control rooms. They must be able to scan wider areas with much more precision, process that information, and share it as needed. They must be able to dispatch immediate updates to personnel responding on the scene, at the incident and the surrounding area. That likely requires external sharing.
In a large industrial complex responders could include:
- security personnel that are shared by other companies across the site
- public emergency workers
In addition to security information, the volume of what comprises actionable information is now much broader. “My background is policing,” said Dreyfus-Gibson. “In the UK there’s been a large increase in calls for assistance that are around welfare and public safety rather than criminality. Mental health incidents, vulnerable people, missing people, these sorts of things. All of this has impact on the sort of information and the sort of decisions control rooms must deal with.”
Dreyfus-Gibson says useful information is available, but it’s spread out among various organizations and databases. “All of that information is valuable, but only when synthesized and presented in the right way. Emergency calls are fast moving and you need to deal with them quickly. You don’t have time to read through pages of notes.”
Despite organizational boundaries between these sources of information, and despite that many control rooms are not yet equipped for it, the public expect that all critical and relevant information will be available and used to best effect. “Historically we haven’t known that we have this information. A control room doesn’t have time to open all these databases, especially if they don’t know the information exists. Technology has moved us to a space where it performs deep searches within nanoseconds. There is less and less of an excuse for an individual not knowing something in an operational moment that you know as an organization.”
Synthesizing information for greater value
Achieving this more comprehensive view is expected in sectors beyond public safety. Across industries, interest in machine learning and artificial intelligence are transforming how companies view decision support. As computing capabilities advance, the variety of information that is expected to be acted upon is growing, and that pressure falls to the control room.
"In the example of public safety, when somebody calls an emergency number, it’s important to know if they’ve called before, who the number belongs to, any warnings or facts that we have about the person, whether they’re vulnerable, a repeat victim, if they’re calling about a known issue or whether it’s the first time the issue has arisen."
"Information enables decision-making if it is relevant to the user and presented visually and efficiently."
Envisioning the ideal control room
Control rooms now need a modular, network-centric approach, with a recognized media distribution platform. To determine which inputs are critical for your industry, you need the right partners - and a vision."You need to design with no limits. You want to start with a blank sheet of paper, no limits, no constraints. Do your research, but with unconstrained thinking. You might imagine something that doesn’t exist yet. But if you replicate something you saw on a visit, you won’t necessarily end up with a control room particular to your needs," said Dreyfus-Gibson.
Insight into your ideal needs is valuable to suppliers so that they understand what the market is looking for. They can also help you understand the practical limits and potential of your hardware, as well as methods of visualization that will be most effective for you.
Chris Dreyfus-Gibson is a former senior police officer with experience in counter terrorism, operations and response policing who has worked on assignments with the UK’s Home Office, NCA, DCMS and the National Police Chiefs' Council. He is the Product Manager for control room solutions at Sopra Steria and is the founding Vice-Chairman of the International Critical Control Rooms Alliance, which brings together users and suppliers in critical control rooms globally across all sectors.
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