Font Size: A A A


Bristol visit

By merging four small control rooms into a larger one, a city council housing department will see a return on its money in a couple of years, and will provide a better service. Mark Rowe visits. 


Gordon McLanaghan turned right, and left behind the busy mid-morning traffic of Bristol city centre. Another right turn, and we were parking at one of the city’s blocks of flats. There were no marked car park places and no signs, literally or metaphorically, as a guide. The only clue was the door intercom at the otherwise plain metal door. Gordon did the necessary and we were inside the control centre. First, the lobby, with lockers; then a corridor, and doors leading off. First a room for the Dallmeier recorders and Synectics servers, where judging by the chill at my back I can confirm the air-conditioning keeps the machinery cool. Gordon pointed out the dome camera in the corner as security; and sensors, ‘that will alert me over at Brunel House’ to any rise or fall in room temperature.  Next, a manager’s room, ‘which I can use for meetings’; said Gordon. Because this new control room can control all the Bristol City Council emergency control room cameras, usually monitored from Brunel House a mile or two away, and vice versa, ‘there’s complete business continuity from a CCTV point of view’.  


Gordon went on: “This is my fall-back position; because I used to pay external control rooms to do my disaster recovery on my behalf; now I do my own disaster recovery. And the good thing is, this control room is on a different telephony network from Brunel House, so there are two telephony service providers; so I hope I don’t lose two telephony providers at the same time. This room is all ready for my staff to come over from Brunel House, if the need arises.” That attention to detail and the avoiding of unnecessary cost is a hallmark of Gordon McLanaghan, nine years now at Bristol, the emergency control room manager. The February 2010 issue of Professional Security featured the links between the city’s traffic control centre and Gordon’s emergency-CCTV control room; Gordon then spoke of buying domestic, not commercial, TV monitors for his monitor wall. His reasoning then as now; why pay more for a commercial monitor when the domestic model gives a perfectly good image?  


Some shortcomings in public space CCTV – which in fairness apply as much to private-space systems also – have arisen because CCTV has grown since its early days in local government in the 1990s. Again, let’s be fair, few could have predicted how systems and control rooms would sprout. But it has led to some ugly, uncomfortable and plain peculiar set-ups. In this housing department control room, three control rooms were in neighbouring but separate rooms. As more blocks of flats had CCTV fitted, it was easier to add monitors in an empty room than to keep the monitoring under one ceiling. It meant however that an operator might be following a suspect on his cameras and have to pass the suspect on to another operator, but would have to ring or dash into the next room to ask. One control room ‘just makes far more sense’, Gordon sums up. But how was there the money, in this age of public sector austerity?  


Gordon set out the business case, for bringing Bristol housing’s CCTV into one control room. It meant laying fibre to another (!) Bristol housing department stand-alone CCTV control room in Hartcliffe on the outskirts of the city. In our February 2010 we described how the city council’s purchase of the fibre network – dating from Rediffusion days – has meant that unlike many other councils Bristol does not have to rent cable from a telecoms company such as BT. Bristol-based Select Electrics were the installers of the fibre, and for the housing control room. Bringing those cameras to the new single city centre housing control room means the housing department saves on operators. The extra fibre cost about £30,000, and the control room work £255,000; but housing expects to save £150,000 a year. A capital cost spend is justified by the saving on revenue spending – arguably something local government CCTV has been grappling with ever since both main political parties in the 1990s spent hundreds of millions on cameras and other hardware (capital spend) while leaving each council to work out how to pay for the operators year after year (revenue). The housing department will set aside money for a renewal account to go towards any upgrades of the CCTV, as is the case for Gordon’s emergency control room CCTV.  


‘Morning guys, how are we?’ Gordon greets the operators in the new, single housing control room. ‘Morning,’ they reply. They are sitting in a low, long room; white ceiling, cream walls. Four signs around the monitor wall say ‘St Paul’s-St Jude’s’, ‘Easton’, ‘Barton Hill’ and ‘Hartcliffe’, the districts of Bristol covered. Each quarter of the monitor wall is made up of 12 small monitors around a larger Samsung monitor in the middle. ‘I do things a bit differently,’ Gordon says. His big monitors are the spot monitors; he does not have spot monitors on the operator’s desk. The reasoning; the operators look at the big screen, and will see other things happening on the nearby monitors. Otherwise, Gordon feels, a monitor wall is so much wallpaper. The dozens of screens show what you might expect local authority housing CCTV to monitor; doors, gates and car parking. As in other city councils, the housing CCTV covers corridors, lifts and entrances of blocks of flats, and laundry rooms. That said, one main monitor has what appears to be a traffic accident – or to be exact, a car is stationary as if it’s been in a collision when pulling out.  Gordon says that the housing control room tends to see more police operations, for example if there’s drug dealing in a flat. If a tenant has 40 or 60 visitors, at all hours, it may mean that they have many friends and relatives; or that the property is, for whatever reason, in use as a ‘crack house’, and of interest to the police. The housing CCTV control room can let tenants in or out of the block of flats, if they do not have their entry fob. If a tenant loses their fob, they are supposed to go to the housing office and pay for a new one. Gordon relates that the control room did have complaints from residents that operators were abusive to them over the intercom; operators on the other hand would say that the residents were abusive to them. Telephone calls and the door intercom are now recorded, and there are signs to that effect; and residents have not complained of verbal abuse since.


Gordon points out another saving; rather than bring in one of the control room furniture contractors to lay out the room, he asked in the council’s in-house joiners: “All they charged was the cost of the materials.” Unless you were told that, you would not be struck by anything different about the control room furnishing. Carl Battams of the Cardiff-based engineering consultancy URS points to the lack of clutter: “We worked with the council’s joiners to make sure there was sufficient room inside the desks to put technology in, if we needed to.”  Another point stressed by URS was the need to do the work without much or any down-time, as council housing door entry could hardly be out of action for long before residents felt the lack of the service. 


Behind the room with the monitor wall and operators’ desks, with a wide opening about the width of a double door, is a back room with another long wooden desk. The new control room used to be a store room; what is now the back room used to be one of the old control rooms. Sliding shutters can block the one room from the other, so that police can use the back room for perhaps sensitive operations, without interference from (or interfering with) the housing CCTV operators. Police can besides use the spare room as a control centre at events, such as St Paul’s carnival. The monitors on the wall in the back room reflect the monitors in the main control room, so that the control room superviser can at a glance see what operators are concentrating on. To continue this theme of work with police, Gordon points to the Airwave radio on charge on a desk; the housing CCTV operators, as those in Brunel House, can listen to the city police channels. Likewise the retail radio, Storenet, is run from Brunel House; if Brunel House cannot answer the store radio at once, if there is a Careline-related or other call, the housing control room can deal with it. In short, the housing department over the 24 hours uses fewer operators (Mitie has been the contractor since winning the competitive tender in the spring), but can have a superviser in place, and offer a more efficient service; and offer the police more. As for the case of the stopped car, the monitor shows two police cars arriving and two police officers in white short-sleeved shirts and black body armour get out and begin taking particulars. Another like-dressed police officer has come into the control room and is watching behind the operator. I can hear a woman reading what sounds like someone’s criminal history. On the other monitors, city life goes on: mothers and children play, a community transport minibus parks by a kerb. As we leave, two women with prams are on the walkway above. In the car again, Gordon sums up present-day local government CCTV: “You just have to be smarter how you do things.”  


The passing traffic lights remind me that earlier I saw at Clifton Down, one of the shopping areas to the north of Bristol city centre, one of the city council’s black Metal Mickey cameras on a traffic light pole, rather than a CCTV-only pole (pictured is Park Street near the city council main offices). Gordon says: “It cuts down on the street clutter, so there’s only the one piece of street furniture there, and why not? We [traffic and CCTV] are both using the same power source and actually using the same fibre network, anyway.”  The council does still have many Mickeys on poles; for instance, on the A38 main road in Stokes Croft, that becomes the Cheltenham Road, that skirts the inner-city St Paul’s district. On this road in April 2011 a new Tesco Express store was the scene, or the excuse, for a night riot. The glazing got stoned, but (like the shutters) held. Today that branch of Tesco looks like any other – indeed its walls outside are free of graffiti unlike most of the commercial buildings of the area. Bristol also had its share of riots in August 2011; unusually, also, the Bristol Evening Post also had part of its frontage broken, thought to be because of its publishing of CCTV stills of riot suspects. That frontage has since been updated. All this is not said to knock Bristol but merely to set out what one of the largest cities in the UK is like. The city has many good points; plenty of development; many events, such as the annual balloon festival at Ashton Court outside the city, one of the places that Gordon set up re-deployable cameras.  


I’m sat by Gordon’s desk in a back corner of the emergency control room facing the monitor wall. I’ve used the time while Gordon parked to drink tea and read his certificates on the wall. Gordon’s a fellow of the Security Institute (2011) and gained the institute’s diploma in security management (also 2011); he has a Btec in CCTV consultancy from Tavcom Training (2004) and other Tavcom certificates; there’s a picture of him in a kilt – he is a Scot; he has a diploma in emergency planning from Coventry University (2005) and is a member of the Emergency Planning Society. It dawns on me to ask about the emergency side of his job. 


“We are the first point of contact for anything that requires response,” Gordon says, whether that response involves the 999 services, or the council. He gave the example of a suspect package in Cabot Circus, the city’s newest and smartest-looking retail development, beside Broadmead in the centre (and, it might be said from a risk point of view, only over the road from Stokes Croft). I recall reading about that mid-August incident at Cabot Circus, that had caused much traffic disruption on a weekday afternoon. Gordon replies: “Well, we had a camera right on that, so we co-ordinated things from within here. We arranged for the road closures to be put in place; everything that had to happen from the council’s perspective, we deal with it. Because we’re here 24 hours a day, we get that call.”  Bristol is among the users of the AIMS (Advice and Information Management System) software, that logs actions and allows managers to dial in remotely to see who’s done what, and what has to be done. Out of hours emergencies (a service that Bristol provides for its neighbour South Gloucestershire) may well not be criminal or suspicious; say there’s a flood or other extreme weather, or a roof leaks. If the caller is elderly, or needs evacuating, they may well feel upset: “So there’s a lot for the staff to learn,” Gordon says. The emergency control room runs Bristol Careline, a subscriber service, typically for the old or others vulnerable or living alone, who can press a button that’s to hand if they have a fall, whereas they may not be able to reach a telephone to dial 999. Gordon is taking a ‘breakout session’ at the Telecare Services Association ( annual conference in November, at the Birmingham NEC. While a tele-healthcare event may not be in the diaries of many CCTV managers, Gordon is speaking on income generation and a ‘multi-functional’ control room. Gordon’s point is business-like in every sense; as you have the staff and the control room equipment, why not use them fully? Bristol monitors harbour water levels, women’s refuges from domestic violence, even; and lone worker, intruder and fire alarms, and care-lines for others, which bring the council income; Gordon knows well that CCTV is a cost, and seeks to make that cost neutral to the council. 


I ask him about recent or likely future developments. “We’re getting more re-deployables, rather than putting in more fixed camera positions … we’re sharing a wireless network with the police; but the council are part-funding that. And the reason being, that we are sharing a number of re-deployables between us. So I have re-deloyables that we use for council purposes, targeting fly-tipping, or whatever we need to do. Equally, if mine are lying under-utilised and the police have urgent need for one, they come and ask me.” And vice versa. 


Given the variety of the monitoring work, and that need to bring in work, you cannot, as Gordon says, rest on your laurels. There’s a marketing plan and strategy, and Gordon works closely with the council’s communications team. “You have to be looking all the time at what to do next, what’s new, what can we offer next. How can we improve the service we provide to existing clients.” That involves staying in touch with the industry, through conferences and exhibitions; I recall saying hello to Gordon on the floor at IFSEC in May. He could not attend the most recent CCTV User Group conference, in May; two of his staff went. Gordon’s competition with the likes of ADT and Chubb might not sound the stuff of local government, which is more used to clearing things with managers and elected politicians (which after a vote in May, will include a Bristol elected mayor, from November). But as Gordon says: “You can’t expect work to come to you, you have got to go out and knock on doors; and yet the rewards are there, because there are opportunities.”       


Related News