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October 1, 2010

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Control room design advice

Security has become central to ensuring that society is free from the threat of terrorism and the worries of anti-social or criminal behaviour. It permeates our lives as never before.

Control rooms are central to achieving this state of affairs in an efficient way, and as such are rapidly evolving.

It’s fair to say that three trends have emerged in the design of such control rooms. First, the economic imperative is a major driving factor throughout the sector.

This is taking operators down the route of ‘life extension’ – how to get more out of existing facilities without compromising performance and objectives.

A key part of this is to prioritise which elements truly need to be refurbished or upgraded, and which parts are most likely to fail within a given period. One challenge is how to modify the building to render the right working environment and ensure staff can work to their best effect.

The ‘life stretch audit’

Undertaking a ‘life stretch audit’ is a quick and effective way of evaluating what you have, prioritising investment and making the right choices.

Realising more from the existing environment is an achievable ambition. Improving the working environment can lead to greater productivity – better concentration levels, better vigilance, better motivation.

A relatively small investment in interiors, improved lighting and ventilation and providing natural daylight really works. A more rigorous maintenance schedule can achieve a lot simply by showing respect for the working environment.

Some organisations are facing the need to move to much leaner operations in order to reduce costs without compromising effectiveness.

By using the right techniques to predict performance and understand how people work, organisations can make the right decisions to streamline by improving processes and removing redundant elements in the system, whether that’s people or equipment.

Trend towards consolidation

A second significant trend is that of consolidation. Organisations that once operated multiple sites with a small Control Room in each location are seeing how they can operate with fewer and larger control rooms.

Often, this trend is being driven by economic considerations and the need to save money. Consolidation has a number of other consequences, such as the impact on team working and the retention of local knowledge.

As control room operators will tend to know the ‘patch’ less well, designers are having to create systems that provide them with better contextual information.

New interface technology such as 3D photo realistic mapping is helping in some situations. For example, where operators might be controlling a large complex facility in a different region, the use of more detailed, intuitive mapping can prove effective.

In other situations, for instance where the layout of the facility is simple or the operators are very familiar with it, it will often be unhelpful and unnecessarily expensive.

Technology has automated many processes, changing the role of the operator from the hands-on, minute-by-minute control of processes to a supervisory function with intervention when and where necessary. This generates the need to support and maintain operational awareness at all times.

Questions in relation to operators

Technology has always been largely effective in reducing workloads and increasing overall efficiency.

However, there are pitfalls and these are not times to waste money. Managers need to think carefully about what operators do when an event occurs…

What are they doing at the time? What information will they already have at their disposal? What new information will they have to absorb very quickly? What do they need to know to take the right decisions and fashion the right response?

These are the questions that need to be asked with the growth in the use of CCTV. Hundreds of images will create an overload that can hinder rather than help Control Room operators do their job.

Creating a balance

Conversely, too little information will mean that, when something does happens, those same operators are not in a position to quickly assess the situation and take the appropriate decisions. The danger of technology is creating a work pattern that is mainly ‘underload’ rich with rare peaks of overload.

In the future, multi-touch screen technology will become more important. It enables the use of gestural movements to produce commands, such as a pinching movement commanding zoom or a flicking movement turning the page.

The benefits are its intuitive nature – making it safer, more efficient, with lower training costs. The dynamic nature of the interface gives added potential for shared controls and collaborative working.

The ergonomic challenge is to maximise the potential benefits these might offer and avoid putting them in simply because they look good.

People-centred control rooms

The overriding element that draws this all together is the need to put people at the centre of the design of Control Rooms and systems to realise the dual benefits of increased efficiency and cost savings.

It’s designers who must champion the needs of users through a better understanding of how human factors can reduce error while streamlining operations. The benefits of user-centred working environments are greater satisfaction, better safety and improved effectiveness.

By putting people – the operators – at the heart of control room design, the designers themselves can achieve the twin aims of lower cost and better efficiency.

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