The Most Frustrating Surveillance Operator Job

By Carlton Purvis, Published on Jan 09, 2014

Think your job is tough? You have it easy compared to this senior surveillance operator for a Fortune 500 company with more than 50 sites all around the world. In this note, we share our exclusive interview and insights into the operational problems and challenges he faces.

Constant Alerts

What makes the job particularly frustrating is that during the day there are almost constant alarms. His whole job is to respond to these alarms and log the causes.

The company has around 50 sites around the world including New York, Texas, South America and Europe, including data centers, warehouses and office buildings. Some sites have as little as three cameras and the biggest has about 40. In all there are just over 1,000 cameras, he said.

“I’m at a desk and I’m surrounded by computer monitors. There is always an alarm going off for sites all around the world. When the alarm goes off, a video stream will pop up an show us where the alarm is going off and then we have to investigate it by reviewing the footage to see what was going on. It gets kind of monotonous after a while,” he said.

Many Alarms Synced to the Camera System

In some cases, like at night or in remote areas, the alarms are motion activated. They also have window break alarms, the company’s executives all have personal panic alarms and some are synced with access control systems.

All False Alarms

More than 99 percent of these alarms are false.

“There are alarms that constantly go off for no reason like when someone walks by or someone opens a door and well tell the sites about it and put a ticket in for it. I suspect they don’t want to pay the money,” he said.

A glass break alarm at one site goes off every time a loud car drives by. The DVR at a site in the US is faulty and at another site few camera views take extremely long to load.

“For some reason we can’t review the video on those cameras but you start to get a feel for which ones you can pull up quickly and which ones are harder ... we just keep those available on the main screens,” he said.

Sometimes the software doesn’t give an alarm when it should, but “nothing really horrible has happened,” he said. “I’ve been here a year and everything has been pretty smooth.”

Outside of faulty equipment there are also “courtesy alarms.”

“For example, after hours if someone opens the main office building door then we get an alarm,” he said. But from there it becomes a judgement call. The company has thousands of employees so it’s impossible for operators at a remote site to know them all.

“We have to guess whether that person is an employee or a cleaning person or a maintenance person so there’s that little bit of room for error. A thief could probably walk in wearing a suit and steal everything and we wouldn’t know until he was walking out the door with all the stuff,” he said.

They get a legit alert about once per month, generally for people vandalizing property, breaking in or often homeless people looking for somewhere to get warm.

A Typical Day

The global command center is located at one of the company's data centers, its most valuable asset.

“It’s like $10 million lost for every minute the data center is down so they have people there 24/7 and critical systems technician and we work pretty closely with. Sometimes we’ll relay [alarm] information to them to go and check it out.”

The shift starts with the day’s briefings, “then we sit down, and we wait for the alarms to start coming in,” he said. “Halfway through my shift the other guard leaves. Then I get all the cleaners setting off the alarms because they don’t have badges, they have keys. Near the end of my shift it totally dies down though and you have more time to review the video when you get alerts.”

Being good at this job means getting good at reviewing video quickly and closing out alerts.

“You just have to stay on top of it. People get overwhelmed by it, but I actually like it because it keeps me awake,” he said.

When An Alarm Is Real

When an alarm is real, the company has a click-through flow chart program that takes and operator through all the response steps for specific incidents from alerting managers to notifying police. The web-based program allows them to enter notes. They export video and attach it to generate an instant report.

False Alarms Cause Intra-Company Animosity

The company's bigger sites have security guards on-site that they can coordinate with. When those guards go on tours they transfer all of their alarms to the global operating center.

“So then we’re constantly calling them to check things out and they don’t understand that we’re trying to help them. They think we’re a big bad watchdog, always watching over them,” he said. He says his managers will get complaints from managers from other sites that they are calling them too often.

Who Can Handle a Job Like This?

A veteran with military surveillance operator experience, he has quickly moved up in the ranks at the company.

He says people usually first train as operators at the global command center to see how proficient they are at it. The people who can handle the amount of alarms coming in get to work at bigger sites. The ones who cannot either do not get the job or get stationed in areas with less going on.

The most recent firing happened after a guard decided he would mute his computer station. Alarms were going off at the data center unresolved, triggering bigger alarms.

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