Adding method to the madness
Adding method to the madness

Mar 1, 1999 12:00 PM

The guards at a nuclear weapons facility failed to notice - on one of the command center's CCTV monitors - the shadowy figures of a group of naked men performing jumping jacks in front of a perimeter system camera. Yet the guards were looking straight at the monitor, recalls security consultant John Strauchs. After conducting many similar tests to evaluate complex security systems, Strauchs concludes that more attention must be paid to operator conditions. Otherwise, the sophisticated equipment they operate is pretty much useless. Although Strauchs was not personally involved with the test at the nuclear facility, he uses the event to illustrate his belief that command centers are not designed with human dynamics in mind - such as the fact that the job can be boring and tedious.But too little attention to operator conditions is only one of several common mistakes relating to command center design, according to Strauchs and other security experts. In conversations with Access Control and Security Systems Integration, consultants and suppliers identified essential conditions for efficient operation of command centers - many of which are overlooked during the design and planning process. Strauchs, CEO of Reston, Va.-based Systech Group, says 90 percent of command centers are designed without regard to issues such as:- information overload, - future growth, - serviceability, - command center location, and - structural conditions such as heating and cooling, lighting and ergonomics.

Many building owners are more preoccupied with the "cosmetics" of security - glitzy equipment and blinking lights - than they are with whether the systems really work, Strauchs contends. "If designers don't see the distinction, then their systems are extremely vulnerable, and the people they are protecting have a false sense of security."Strauchs, who has helped to design up to 400 command centers with his 13-year-old company, points out that more security experts need to be testing systems in the field.To emphasize the importance of command center design, this article will share solutions and guidelines from consultants and suppliers. Their insights point to an informal set of instructions on how to design the ideal security command center and what to avoid during the process.

Location, location, locationThe location of the security command center should be out of public sight and not mixed with other departments. A frequent "dumb" mistake, according to Strauchs, is placement of command centers in lobbies to serve also as information and reception desks. Such a location can distract command center operators from their primary jobs; it can also allow potential intruders to observe the systems. "The security person can't possibly monitor the system and greet visitors at the same time," says Strauchs. "Yet people do this all the time. One reason is because they see this example everywhere and assume it's the right way."Building owners may also choose a lobby location to keep from losing rentable space. Instead, Strauchs advises using a room in an area least likely to attract renters.The security control room should not serve as a multi-purpose room for the security department, adds consultant Marty Vitch of Oklahoma City-based C.H. Guernsey & Co. The monitoring system and the operator ideally should be separated from the break room, lunchroom, guard headquarters and supervisor's office, he says. Smoke from cigarettes can build up on monitor screens and wires, rendering the system unreliable, Vitch says. "You haven't lived until you've seen what a cup of coffee dumped into a video motion detector can do," he adds.

Plan for serviceabilityWhen designing a control center, inclusion of an easily accessible space behind the console wall can add convenience of serviceability and allow technicians to repair and maintain equipment without distracting operators.If the equipment is configured with no room to get behind the console, equipment maintenance could suffer, causing greater wear, consultants say."You don't want your technicians to have to perform acrobatic contortions to get to the equipment," Strauchs says. "It's like a car. If it's hard to get at the spark plugs, you won't change the spark plugs that often."For example, Altera Corp. in San Jose, Calif., built its wall around the console so that one side of the wall is actually the back of the console, says Steve Piechota, a security consultant with Apex Communications in Mountain View, Calif., who helped design the manufacturer's control center. Then a separate room was constructed behind the console to create room for technicians."Quite often, the command centers that are provided to security departments are too small for a normal-sized console," Piechota says. "What happens is they have to place the console 20 to 25 feet out from the wall and they lose that space. In the design and construction of new buildings, they often don't include a space for servicing."Building a "cable vault" behind the console leaves plenty of room for repair and maintenance without interruption of officers, another strong reason for providing the space, Vitch says.Vitch also recommends providing a raised floor for the cabling and a separate cooling system just for the equipment.

Anticipate future expansionIt is important to have extra space available for expansion as the system grows to cover more areas. When designing a command center from scratch, security directors should request more space than they really need, consultants agree. Cramming the equipment into a tiny room because it's possible - and cheaper - will prove expensive in the long-run, they say."A lot of times, security is an after-thought for architects, so they find a broom closet some place and stick the command center in there," says Strauchs.One of Piechota's clients had to dish out $50,000 to move its command center to a larger space in the same building because the client had not anticipated future growth."What happens is other departments get more space and security is often overlooked because it doesn't make money for the company," Piechota says.Randy Smith, marketing manager for Minneapolis-based Winsted, which manufactures consoles and cabinetry for security equipment, has often been involved with dealer installations of his company's products. He has seen cases in which the consoles are too big for the rooms because security officials did not get accurate measurements.Strauchs describes one of his experiences relating to a prison installation as being "like trying to cram a basketball into a medicine cabinet." Failing to persuade prison officials to find a larger space for the command center, Strauchs had to hang lesser-used equipment from the ceiling. He presented prison officials with a broomstick to use for pushing the buttons.The choice of modular equipment racks - such as those made by Winsted and Amco Engineering, among others - allow for flexibility in design and expansion after a space has been assigned.Says Jim Walenda, director of marketing for Amco: "Modularity is important because you can reconfigure your system easily; you might want to add slopes instead of a vertical layout. Another reason is that if you order equipment and decide on a different design by the time it arrives, all is not lost. You can split it up into two sections."Winsted makes wraparound corner units, wedge units that can be angled down from atop a stack of monitors and double-wide modules, which provide room for 21-inch monitors.

Make it user-friendlyDesigners should consider the availability of nearby bathrooms so operators will not have to leave the command center, especially at night when there is often just one person manning the station, says Vitch. It is just one of the ways experts recommend a control room can be made user-friendly. Paul Dubois, executive director of Los Gatos, Calif.-based Tomasi Dubois and Associates, frequently is asked to update command centers. What he finds are rooms designed without a fundamental understanding of the users' requirements."How are they going to use the room?" he says. "What are they going to do in there? Are they bringing in a data monitoring system in addition to security? Are they responding to various types of alarms and if so, all these systems need to be located so they are functionally accessible to users."Here are some recommendations relating to user-friendliness: - Use event-activated CCTV and voice annunciation systems tied to intrusion detection or other trigger systems. When alarms are activated, they trigger cameras to videotape what is happening. A voice system and/or red light on the console alerts guards to view monitor screens. Explains Strauchs: "Most of the year, nothing happens, so the notion that you're going to have people sit there watching a screen for hours and hours and actually see something is a misconception. The eyes may be open, but the mind is miles and miles away."Voice annunciation systems, programmed with instructions, are "a good way to grab their attention because it can often be a very boring job, and they could be getting a cup of coffee or in the restroom," Strauchs says.- Avoid information overload. Using a "passive" approach to design is one way to avoid another control room pitfall - information overload. It is a common problem in command centers with complex systems. For example, if red lights beam each time a person enters a door or passes a motion detector, it creates a "boy who cried wolf" syndrome, Strauchs says. With a more passive approach, the only time a light flashes or a sound is created at the console is if something is wrong. General guard confusion can also result from a system that flashes green lights on the console for every trigger point just to indicate that the particular area is not experiencing problems. "There have been times when guards have missed incidents of doors being forced open because the red light that is supposed to be alerting them is buried in a 'Christmas tree' on the console of flashing lights," Strauchs says. "Typically, prison guards figure out ways to eliminate the alarm sounds that go off on the console because they happen so much. If the system is annoying to the operator, then it's poorly designed. Eliminating all those lights reduces operator stress."The equipment in the command center reflects how it functions, says Dubois, of Tomasi Dubois. "When I walk into a command center and see a lot of lights flashing, it tells me there's too much data being presented to the operator. A control center has no value unless the data catches the eye of the user. The operator doesn't always see all the data coming to them. They need a stimulator to get them to notice. The easier we make this presentation to them, the more sure we're going to be that they will see the data and react to what's going on."- Keep operators comfortable. Maintaining the temperature at a perfect 70 degrees is paramount, Vitch says. If it is too cool, the guards will be paying more attention to keeping themselves warm, and if it is too warm, the guards will get drowsy.- Protect operators. Guards also need to be protected, Vitch says. They should be equipped with a duress sensor under their consoles or buttons under their work desks or on the floor so they can push with their feet if they get into trouble.- Accommodate different numbers of operators. Brad Wilson, senior vice president of RFI Communications, San Jose, Calif., says a common mistake in command center design is not providing the flexibility for a fluctuating number of operators."You may have a workstation at one end of the console for access control and alarm monitoring and the workstation for radio and other controls on the other side," he says. "On the weekend, you may only have one worker, and he has to keep moving from one side to the other."Wilson advises his clients to use software to route all systems into one station during after-hours and weekend shifts.- Locate frequently used equipment conveniently. Vitch constantly sees the most frequently used equipment located far apart, which forces the operator to keep moving around. The solution is simple, he says: "Put the most-used equipment near the operator. Put the least-used equipment farther away."- Use color monitors. Though more expensive, color monitors are better because the eyes get less fatigued by color than black-and-white, Strauchs says. Though black-and-white monitors are sharper, the human mind thinks color is sharper because it's more in a normal context, he says.- Adapt lighting to user's needs. It's also important to provide adjustable lighting because each operator has different needs. Vitch insists that lighting should be indirect because this type of lighting is scattered evenly throughout the room. Direct lighting fatigues the eyes more quickly because it causes a glare on the console and screens, he says.

Emphasis on ergonomicsPaying attention to ergonomic guidelines in designing a control room can help cut back on repetitive injuries and increase worker attention span, efficiency and accuracy.Experts agree that good ergonomics are essential for command center efficiency, although the industry lacks standard guidelines. Strauchs recommends the U.S. Army Redstone Arsenal's 20-year-old book "Human Engineering," which provides the best dimensions for console operators, chair heights and distances between monitors and operators. These guidelines were written for Army control centers, but they are applicable to everyone, Strauchs says. Security officials should also pay attention to useful tutorials that come with CCTV systems that instruct operators in the correct distances between monitors and operators and what size monitors are best at what distances, Strauchs says."There's no motivation for the security industry to come up with guidelines," Strauchs says, "because it would not be commercially profitable for anyone. So the same mistakes keep getting made over and over."A common mistake is to stack monitors on top of each other up to six feet high with the operator only a couple of feet away, says Piechota of Apex Communications. The vertical setup forces guards to strain their necks by constantly rolling their heads back to look up.In the command center at Altera in San Jose, Calif., the monitors are built into the wall 4 feet in front of the operators, says Piechota, who helped design Altera's center. "They put the least-used equipment farther away; the multiplexers and fiber transceivers are rarely touched, so they're off to the side," he says.Altera also uses larger, 20-inch monitors, which have been proven to cause less eye strain than smaller nine-inch monitors, Piechota says.Other crucial ergonomic factors include providing comfortable chairs, a writing shelf to rest forearms, and headsets to free hands and avoid neck injuries. Use of a slope design rather than a vertical design minimizes head movement because the equipment is placed directly in front of the operator.

Be attentive to people issues The cost of constructing a command center is less than 1 percent of the cost of operating a command center, Strauchs says. "That tells you the investment should be in the people, not the hardware. Because your most expensive cost is people, if you make a command center more ergonomic, kinder to people and easier to use, you're going to protect your investment."The biggest challenge when designing a security system is to address the needs of the operator, agrees Larry North, manager of strategic technology for Westec Interactive Security, Newport Beach, Calif. The company monitors about 200 businesses ranging from small mom-and-pop operations to national account chains such as restaurants and convenience stores, primarily from the Westec Visual Command Center in Newport Beach."In our interactive command center, which has an audio component as well as a video component, the operators have to use their eyes, they have to listen and they have to use their hands at the same time to type dates into a keyboard," North says. "All of these factors have to be taken into account so that operators are not burdened with a tremendous load of hand-and-eye coordination."Westec uses a two-screen system with one keyboard that reduces the operator's workload during alarm situations. Westec integrated two video transmission systems and an alarm panel monitoring application. Upon an alarm activation at a client site, the left screen receives the video information first, which triggers the software application to bring up the customer information such as address and phone number, on the right-hand screen. This saves the operator from spending valuable time searching for this information on a database. "The overall goal is to reduce the number of human motion activities," North says. Vitch advises against allowing duties such as key and lock control, badging and control of incoming and outgoing packages to take the operator's attention away from the primary task of monitoring. Because of likelihood of multiple tasks, staffing is more important than most people realize, he says.

"Whoever you hire has to be able to walk, talk and chew gum at the same time," he says. "A lot of companies try to hire the cheapest labor they can find, like people who can't write. You want a skilled, trained operator."Another way to cut back on operator functions is to integrate systems and to replace traditional analog VCR recording systems with digital recording systems, such as Loronix's CCTVware Enterprise digital recording system."With analog systems, if the operator wants to see something, he has to leave the command center and go to a room where all the tapes are stored," says Daniel Kimmitt, CCTVware product manager. "Then he has to scan the video to find the day and time. The whole process can take anywhere from 30 minutes to one hour. But if he already has it on his desktop computer, it will take under ten minutes to locate the data."Strauchs recommends using a pre-programmed set-up system to minimize operator setup duties, which involve tasks such as resetting access control for entrances and exits and operation times for cameras. A pre-programmed setup saves time because guards only have to push one button to reconfigure the system at the start of their shifts.Ring-down phones also cut back on duties. The phones are programmed to dial police and fire departments when the receivers are lifted; guards are free to perform other necessary tasks during emergencies.

Keep up with new technologiesSecurity departments should always be looking to new technologies for solutions to problems and plan accordingly. Dubois, a proponent of using technology to improve design, says many of his clients request his services to update their technologies."Flat screen technology is the next major step in security control center design, Dubois says. "Designing the video walls with the new flatter monitors gives us the ability to get rid of racks we've been using and start looking at wall displays, so the control center will look more like a desk laid out with data spread out across the room. By putting data on the walls, we can make better use of the space and control centers and also be more ergonomic in our presentation."Other significant changes in technology include integration, the flowing of alarm, access control and CCTV data through the same screen, and the ability to change the media upon which data is displayed, Dubois says.Smaller monitors are gradually being phased out as more end-users are turning to larger, 20-inch screens that can display more than one camera input at a time and can be viewed from farther away.In addition to fighting for more space, all security departments should plan to integrate their systems, Piechota says."If you have four different systems and four computers sitting in front of you, that takes up a lot of space," he says. "That's four slots in your console, plus you've got a guy who has to watch four different screens. If you have all your alarm points coming into one system, now that person only has to watch one screen. It makes your guard staff more efficient and allows for a smaller staff to do a more complete job."First and foremost, designers should define the needs and functions of the operators, identify the equipment they need to achieve those goals and configure the equipment in a way that will be most efficient for the operators, says Dubois. Interaction with the workers - finding out what is most comfortable and efficient for them - helps with the design.

Remember the basics

Here are some structural necessities to consider when designing a command center:

Power supply. Should be separate from the rest of the building with an independent, unswitched circuit from breaker box to a subpanel in the cable vaults and then broken out as individual circuits to various devices in the console. Backup power. Should have a generator to supply emergency power and an automatic transfer switch to transfer the load from the breaker box to the generator. Between the automatic transfer switch and the generator should be a battery, necessary for the transition of power. The generator usually takes a few minutes to warm up before it can take the full load. The generator should have sufficient fuel to power it for a minimum of 24 hours. Construction.The room should be constructed of solid concrete block or port concrete walls. The entry door should have either a bullet resistent window with a pass-through capability or a CCTV camera monitor and intercom to permit the operator to interface with people without opening the door. Guards need to be able to see what's going on outside before opening the door, which should have a keypad for employees. A raised floor and a cable vault behind the console provide space for repair and maintenance. Equipment. Tape backup for 30 days if using analog system; use 20-inch monitors which can take up to 13 compartments or feeds from cameras.

Temperature. Ideally, there should be two separate cooling systems, one for the room and people, the other for the equipment. The cooling system for the equipment should pump air under the raised floor and up through a hole under the console onto all the equipment. Ideal temperature for equipment is between 60 and 65 degrees. For people, it should be 70 to 75 degrees. Ergonomics. Don't position monitors so that the user has to look up a lot or turn his head from side to side a lot; larger monitors are easier on the eyes; use event-activatedor sound-activated CCTV systems so operator only has to view screens when something happens; comfortable chair; hands-free phone set; minimize tasks through automation and integration; provide regular breaks and nearby breakrooms and restrooms; rotate shifts. Lighting. Indirect to prevent glare and adjustable for different operators. Location. Close to exterior access so firefighters and police officers can gain easy access; not in lobbies. Accessibility. Should be extremely limited; public should not have access. Size. Figure out ratio of cameras to monitors. Amount of monitors and size of console will determine room size. Include extra space for growth.

SOURCES: Marty Vitch, C.H. Guernsey & Associates, Oklahoma City; Paul Dubois, Tomasi Dubois & Associates, Los Gatos, Calif.; Brad Wilson, RFI Communications, San Jose, Calif.

Command centers becoming more showy

Corporate executives increasingly are taking security more seriously and they are more willing to shell out big bucks for state-of-the-art equipment. With funding plentiful, security officials are paying more attention to the appearance of their their command centers.In other words, style is beginning to play more of a role in the design of command centers, especially in the area of colors where there is more room for innovation. Impressing the bigshots with glitz and flashing lights is one motivating factor but not the only one.Brad Wilson, senior vice president for San Jose, Calif.-based RFI Communications, says aesthetically pleasing environments help retain employees."These operators are going to be at the station for eight hours looking at CCTV monitors and doing reports, so you want to make a pleasing color scheme for them," he says. "Also, security command centers are becoming more like interactive hubs. There are more visits to the sites, so we want to make the centers look professional."In building design, architects are being asked to get involved with the command center by tying in some motif from the entire building, he says.Wilson's company hires subcontractors to design custom writing surfaces for consoles because the ones provided by console manufacturers are inflexible as far as connecting parts of the console or making longer or shorter workstations, he says."By doing a custom design, you can pick the material you want and tie it in visually with the other writing surfaces or cabinetry," he says. "It looks nice that way, and the cost is within 10 percent or a little bit more of the original cost."Jim Walenda, director of marketing for Chicago-based Amco Engineering Inc., a cabinetry and console manufacturer, says consoles are moving out of the basement and more into the public eye. He describes a recent customer to Amco's 43-foot mobile showroom that carries samples of Amco's furniture to nationwide corporate campuses."This guy came in and said, 'This is beautiful stuff, but we want something different.' The guy asked if we had it in red. It so happens we did, and he bought 10 cabinets right there."People are more interested in aesthetics and furniture that is unique to their taste, he says.Wilson admits that part of the new interest in style is to impress the people who control the purse strings. It's security directors' way of drawing attention to their work so they can keep making improvements, he says.

The 'big break'In 1984, security expert John Strauchs was living - temporarily - at the Holiday Inn on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.He was working as a consultant on the design of a security system for the upcoming Olympics when approached by two screenwriters. They asked him to help write a movie script about a group of computer hackers who test security systems.The two writers, Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parks, had just finished the high-tech movie "War Games," for which they were criticized for technical inaccuracies.Strauchs thought it would be fun so he joined the team.Eight years, very little pay and about 12 drafts later, the movie "Sneakers," starring Robert Redford and Sidney Poitier, emerged fromthe experience. Strauchs got a Robert Redford jacket in the bargain."It was fun working on the film," says the CEO of the Reston, Va.-based Systech Group, a design engineer firm. "I never thought 'Sneakers' would make it because the process went on and on. I enjoyed it and it was fun creating the situation. There was a God-like aspect to it."In the movie, the computer hackers get past a highly complex security system to retrieve a small box containing a formula to decode computer encryptions from the hands of organized criminals .Not wanting to make a training film for "junior criminals," Strauchs used his expertise to come up with technical tricks that looked realistic but could never work. He even pulled the wool over his own colleagues' eyes.At the film's premiere at the ASIS conference in San Diego, security experts complimented him but also jokingly reprimanded him for giving away "all those secrets."Strauchs declined to reveal all the film's deliberate mistakes, but he shared one. In one scene, the actor River Phoenix is turning the heat up in a room filled with sensors, to equalize the room's temperature with the human body temperature, which can make sensors malfunction. Then Phoenix informs Redford over a walkie-talkie that the room is now 96 degrees and the coast is clear."If you think about it," says Strauchs, "that's the internal body temperature, not the outside body temperature. Phoenix should have said 89 or 90 degrees to be accurate."Strauchs says he was confident that 99 percent of the audience would never catch any of the discrepancies.But there was one inaccuracy in the film that Strauchs didn't support - the title. Apparently, the writers had heard somewhere that guys who test security systems are called "sneakers.""I'd never heard that before," says Strauchs. "I told them I thought people were going to think the film was a basketball movie. But they liked the way it sounded. I lost that argument."Since then, Strauchs has been approached a few times by other filmmakers, but he has yet to take an offer. While the experience was fun, it was also frustrating, and the compensation was poor.But he did get a film credit ... and a Robert Redford jacket.

Westec Interactive to add third command center

Westec Interactive Security is growing so fast they are building a third monitoring command center. Furthermore, the company's goal is to triple the size of its main center in Newport Beach, Calif., from nine to 25 operator stations.Westec currently has two command centers, including a small one in Aliso Viejo. Its Newport Beach facility handles most of its approximately 200 clients from small businesses to large corporations, using interactive video and audio systems combined with a traditional burglary system.In addition to more workstations, the third center also will double the number of monitors per station from two to four. The company uses a proprietary two-screen technology in which video signals triggered by clients' burglar alarms flow onto the left screen while data about that client shows up on the right screen. The purpose of the second set of computers is to have one inbound and one outbound interaction at a time. The system will be designed so that operators only receive one alarm at a time but can handle two emergency situations simultaneously.Westec developed the system by integrating two video transmission systems by Sensormatic, Boca Raton, Fla., and Ademco, Syosset, N.Y., and an alarm panel monitoring application by Dice Corp., Minneapolis.The system includes a Rose Electronics switching system that allows Westec to connect more than one computer to the mouse.Westec also plans other changes in the third command center. The design will provide more space between stations and keep the noise level down by curving the console stations. Also, operators will be able to have conference calls.Underwriter's Laboratory has not yet approved interactive monitoring, but Westec is working closely with the organization to develop guidelines it hopes will receive final approval by the end of 1999, North says.Until then, Westec must work in conjunction with UL for its jewelry store cus tomers who must have UL-certified monitoring to be eligible for insurance, he says."People are starting to listen more and show a tremendous amount of interest," says Larry North, manager of strategic technology. "We expect our new center will support us for five to 10 years."

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