Scott Myles at a well-designed security workstation

End users and integrators are bombarded with the opaque phrase ‘situational awareness’ in relation to the operational capabilities of security management and video management systems. But what does situational awareness mean and how can technology and procedures be woven to provide it?

WHEN I think of situational awareness it’s hard not to imagine a war room with a huge table map inhabited by brightly coloured blocks representing threats or assets, rows of telephonists, runner at the door with flimsy in hand, the entire process utterly focused on facilitating lateral cognition in the prefrontal cortex of the officer of the watch. If this version seems too analogue, consider the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, a complex vessel whose operations workstation seems informed by no more than a row of flashing lights, the bland assertions of Dr. Spock and sudden impacts that hurl the entire set sideways yet never terminally breach the hull.

When it comes to modern electronic security solutions, creating situational awareness is no less opaque and no less demanding. At what layer does situational awareness emerge? What inputs inform awareness? What inputs can be ignored so awareness is not overwhelmed by noise? What procedures does event awareness ignite? For every application there is a perfect balance of information and procedure that allows events to flow from cause to effect. Unlocking the delivery mechanisms of this balance is the key.

According to Sean Guiney of Independent Security Consultants, situational awareness is an emergent property of a blunderbuss of inputs that provide security managers with the most accurate picture of the current situation on a given site.

“There is so much information available to us in our daily lives from so many different inputs and we have become accustomed to, even expecting, information to be provided to us with increasing immediacy – I don’t see this increase in information slowing down, and I don’t see an operations centre being any different,” Guiney explains.

“Situational Awareness is essentially how this excess of information from various sources is analysed, translated and presented in a way that our minds can make sense of,” he says. “For the operations centre or control room, situational awareness is critical, as it determines how the operators will interpret the information they are presented with as it relates to them, their site and their role.

“Ultimately, situational awareness is about ensuring that the information presented is comprehensive and yet condensed – able to be easily and rapidly understood so that it provides an operator with the spatial and temporal context they need to decide their response. Without this situational awareness, their response may be delayed or inappropriate.”

Asked to select the primary handful of data feeds that drive situational awareness in a control room environment, Guiney’s comprehensive answer underlines the complexity of brings concepts of situational awareness to life. He says some of the feeds that are essential for building situational awareness should include but not be limited to:

* Fully integrated alarm and CCTV solutions to reduce the time to link the events together
* Condensed and curated CCTV feeds that utilise video analytics and artificial intelligence in the back-end to work through the mountain of visual information that humans are incapable of interpreting in real time
* Alarm information to direct operators where to look and integrated workflows to prompt and direct operators to undertake the correct response
* Social media feeds to increase the information footprint you are receiving data from. This is one of the most powerful tools that lets you know what is happening outside of your perimeter or viewing area, and is typically underutilised in a specifically security setting
* Mainstream media and news services can be utilised like social media but typically lag behind. However, they are good for verification and increased coverage of events/emergencies where the public cannot provide the information
* Data feeds (CCTV, alarms, emergency response initiations) from partnerships with neighbouring sites to increase intelligence sharing and security across wider precincts and areas.

“Although there has been a continual push towards the reduction of overheads, which generally means a reduction in staffing levels, threats and risks haven’t been equally reduced,” Guiney says. “Rather, as we have seen on a global scale, threats and risks to all types of people, premises and organisations are only growing. As a result, we need to fill this growing void with technology that is geared to analyse and condense vast amounts of information into an amount that can be comprehended by an operator.

“By doing so, we can essentially shift the load from the person to the machine and, with the use of the right, site-specific solutions, ensure that the gap between manpower and rising threats doesn’t result in a security event that is missed or overlooked simply due to an operator being overwhelmed.”

Something else that’s important is considering the ways in which a control room could be designed to deliver situational awareness. According to Guiney, control room design is an area that needs to start to be modernised and thought about in a different style than the typical video wall array, desk and monitor arrangement.

“While this traditional configuration might be a good base, it’s neglecting the value that new technologies can provide if integrated and utilised appropriately (and not just merely because they’re new),” he explains. “Consider the Monash University Future Control Room programme where multidisciplinary collaboration project has created a cutting-edge control room that fuses the standard video wall array and personal monitors with large scale touch-tables to enable collaboration and virtual and altered reality headsets to immerse operators in the environments to enhance situational awareness in three dimensions. These sorts of IT and AV led developments need to be taken up by the security industry as they have the capability of enhancing situational awareness and security responses far greater than any new CCTV layout or desk arrangement can.

“In addition to utilising new immersive technologies, the bones of the control room should still be integrated CCTV and alarm systems, or if multiple different security systems are used, an ISMS or PSIM overlay to present the information and interfaces to the operator in a single, easy to interpret manner. Control rooms should also leverage automation as far as practicable as if it’s automated, then there is no requirement for human intervention and no opportunity for human error. However, in saying that, any automation should be set up and tested rigorously in the development and acceptance testing phases of a project as it can easily become the weak link, rather than the facilitator.”

Sean Guiney

One of the things about situational awareness that’s seldom considered is the awareness-procedure interface – the axle that converts awareness to layered response. How important are procedures, according to Guiney? How important is it that they are known far and wide at all levels of an organisation?

“Procedures are integral to the success of any security response and need to be worked into the design and operation of security systems for operators,” Guiney explains. “The most efficient and effective way to do this is through integrated workflows in the security system (or ISMS/PSIM), to enable a degree of automation in the emergency response and expedite the awareness-procedure interface.

“It also restricts the degree to which different operators have the liberty to respond in their own manner, therefore ensuring that each event will have the right response actioned, and the right follow-up steps followed to ensure both risk, security and WHS are managed correctly. Essentially the use of automated workflows that restrict operator actions until they complete the required steps bypass any issues around people not reading, properly comprehending or forgetting manuals or procedures.”

For Guiney, the best way to ensure the entire security team, as well as management and staff, is across unfolding events is with the use of automation.

“Much like the function of automated workflows, communication and notifications throughout a specific group can be managed primarily through an automated process that utilises the analytics that determine the event and threat to prompt the system to notify the correct people with the correct communication, without time delays,” Guiney explains.

“This allows those responsible in the event or emergency to communicate as required to manage the response, rather than fielding multiple calls from different people telling them the same information, or incorrect contradictory information. The same system can be used to push the appropriate information (including alarm events, contact details, CCTV footage, communications) to relevant individuals as events/emergencies unfold and progress, whether this is on a time basis, an event basis, or an operator action basis. This allows those not on site, or large sites, to be able to manage situations in real time by leveraging the site-specific technologies that have been designed to facilitate this.”

Guiney argues that good automation and AI have a critical role in the ability of SMS and VMS to deliver and manage situational awareness – in many cases far beyond the capacity of any human being – and he says this functionality will see such technologies proliferate in the future.

“Although AI and automated systems can still be fooled, hacked or cloned in some cases, a human’s ability to manage a security system and ensure an air-tight site or system is equally, if not more, fallible,” Guiney says. “However, I think any reticence in the market towards AI will quickly fade as people come to be aware of the multiplicity of advantages, both within and outside of security, that AI enabled security systems can bring.

“Ultimately, we must ensure that mission critical or life safety decisions still rely on human intervention, and overrides (with the correct authority levels) must be built into automated systems to enable humans to supersede the decisions of the machine if it becomes apparent that it is not appropriate to the event/emergency.

“The next generations of VMS and SMS need to look to the future – do they want to be a standalone proprietary solution (and potentially risk extinction) or will they be open to the internet of things, where everything can connect seamlessly and provide the level of interaction that we are seeing in the home automation market?

“The costs for a true PSIM today is about 10-15 per cent of a high-level system. This is way too high, and both costly to implement and maintain. If the PSIM market wants to expand, solutions need to be cost effective, intuitive, easy to implement, maintain and operate.”

What should end users and integrators attempting to attain situational awareness most value and what bells and whistles can they do without, according to Guiney?

“Predominantly, end users need to consider what their 3 to 5-year business plan is and analyse how this intersects with their security philosophy and strategy,” he explains. “The solutions for attaining situational awareness need to align with both their requirements for today and their goals for the future to ensure that any infrastructure invested in today is modular, adaptable and won’t become obsolete in the foreseeable future.

“To a degree, it’s also impossible to truly know where an organisation will be in 3-5 years, so it’s important for end users and integrators to ensure that any solutions are truly modular in the sense that they can be continuously added to and adapted as the needs and operations of the user change.

“Finally, while the security industry and the solutions it offers need to take on the new IT and AV developments such as VR and AR, end users and integrators need to make sure that they are not simply adopting a new technology because it is shiny and new. Every technology utilised needs to have a defined purpose and provide the user with a quantifiable benefit. If it doesn’t, it’s simply not needed.”

Over at Network Optix, James Cox explains that Nx thinks of situational awareness as the ability to capture, process, and assimilate real-world events.

“We need to understand the world surrounding us in order to accurately predict, prevent, and react to threats,” Cox says. “The better a system can capture and present real-world information in real-time, the better an operator’s situational awareness. Getting information to the point where it’s easily consumable is crucial to a control room environment.

“Every situation is unique in terms of the value of information and its impact on control room response. Given what we know of human cognition – including things like human channel capacity – it makes sense to organize and present relevant data in forms that are innately familiar to operators – primarily video and audio, augmented with text and iconography with a focus on changes in state.”

According to Cox, humans are great at noticing instant changes, but don’t do so well when it comes to noticing slow changes over time.

“For example, if you have a house with no grass and one day grass appears, of course you’ll notice,” he says. “But if you plant grass, it slowly grows over time and you’ll be unlikely to pay attention to the actual length of the grass until it’s time to mow it. Fundamentally, Nx provides alert thresholds for continuous monitoring and includes a way to quantify change – the grass is now 3.75 inches long – time to mow it!”

When it comes to laying out a control room to best deliver situational awareness, Cox argues that a deeply composite view – many views, from many angles – is one key.

“Physically, we would recommend creating dedicated spaces for operators that give them the ability to focus on their own area of responsibility and from a tool standpoint, it’s important to drive attention to non-conformal situations, and to allow for feedback so operators can confirm they are aware of and acknowledge any anomalies,” he explains. “I also find it’s really important to be able to zoom into a critical event and view it in-sync from all devices on which it was captured, often over and over (e.g. bookmarks). You need to clarify the situation to drive the appropriate response.”

Cox argues that having standard procedures is a cornerstone of any good security operation.

“Procedures offer standard guidelines on how to react to given situations,” he says. “Building the machine in terms of procedures allows companies and teams to create and solidify a long-term shared culture, as well as to create measurable, data-driven approaches to problem solving that can be iterated and improved upon over time. More specifically, you have to design a set of detection responses – notifications, acknowledgements, alerts, and action – for every situation.

“The structure of procedures must be defined such that some actions the operator must perform, some events are automatically escalated above operator level, some actions trigger a follow-up. Every environment has unique needs and ideally, a systems integrator works with the customer to determine the most appropriate procedures to match their requirements.”

Cox says that the best way to ensure the entire security team, as well as management and staff are across unfolding events is to have a single, unified system that allows the team members to parse and deliver events to the correct person, at the correct time, with a clear plan of escalation for all event types.

“In Nx Witness software we have an events & rules engine that allows administrators to filter and deliver events to the right people, at the right time,” he explains. “We also have mechanics that allow sharing with others using a combination of real-time distribution mechanisms like instantly updated layouts, preconfigured video walls, and 2-way HTTP calls that allow integrations with third party devices and systems. With our built-in-browser capabilities, Nx Witness also allows operators to stay in one app while interacting with additional browser-based applications.”

Does automation and AI play into the ability of SMS and VMS to deliver and manage situational awareness? After all some things need to be monitored and actioned but don’t need a human response – where would you argue the balance lies?

“Automation and AI are already changing how we work and live,” Cox says. “I don’t use a key to get into my office – a motion-detection camera triggers facial analysis and unlocks the door for individuals who are recognized. If it’s our usual FedEx guy, the doorbell will ring so he doesn’t have to drop our packages. Everyone else has to knock. The core of AI behaviour is the creation of structured data, from complex events rules (IF this AND this BUT NOT that, DO this) to the analysis of massive amounts of data for pattern detection that a human simply does not have the compute time or capacity to perform.

“In general, and with specific regards to situational awareness, deep learning driven solutions are better at parsing large amounts of data in real-time when compared to their human counterparts. For right now, at least, they aren’t multi-faceted and don’t do a great job of synthesizing disparate data sets to form a cohesive picture of the whole – which humans are great at. So, AI can extend the ability of humans to sense changes by adding new types of events and doing the lot of heavy lifting on specific data streams, including video, but ultimately it will be the human brain that decides what’s best to do with the results of the AI’s work.”

When it comes to reaching a singularity of SMS and VMS, Cox believes there’s still work needed.

“We’re all in the development phase,” he says. “The study of emergence indicates we’re likely to produce something that is more than the sum of its parts. But we have a way to go before that occurs in any meaningful, useful way. Of course, during the process of development, we need to be careful we don’t fall into the trap of wanting too much information. Information overload is a real concern and too much information can be as detrimental as having too little.

“All consumers should make sure their basics end-user needs – who sees what, on what platform, who can react and how – are met, and that system requirements are simple to implement and more importantly, to change as your needs shift. Again, the basics – ability to integrate all device types, full control of streaming and image quality, internet and mobile access, flexibility and control over storage, backups, and system expansion or merging – these are much more important than any bell or whistle. Nothing takes precedence over reliability, stability, and flexibility. The foundation of situational awareness is recognizing and absorbing valuable information that arrives in an instantly recognizable and usable form. That’s what we design our product to provide.”

CCTV Command Centre from Intelligent Security Integration – puts situational awareness wherever you need it

Scott Myles of Independent Consultancy Services (ICS Group) sees situational awareness as by definition a general understanding of the specific operational and security environment at any site.

“As such, it is extremely site specific, and situational awareness has a different meaning and interpretation to different organisations, depending on their individual and unique risks,” he says. “In general, it is the awareness of pre-defined situations as they occur in real-time, and it should provide a magnitude of information to the end-user that allows them to anticipate what may occur in the future. Situational awareness can also be useful for post-analysis in simplifying the process of searching for events.”

Primary data feeds that drive situational awareness in a control room environment are also site specific for Myles.

“But in a general sense, situational awareness should consist of a combination of drivers centred around video, analytics, integration with security and access control, as well as dynamic Graphic User Interfaces that include comprehensive floor plans and maps,” he explains.

“Firstly, being able to understand specifically where cameras are positioned and what they are capturing in relation to the operator, is an integral factor in situational awareness. Floor plans and mapping data provides control room operators the ability to easily decipher which camera is monitoring which situation, thus allowing them to understand and appreciate the location of situations as they occur.

“Video analytics and integration with access control and security systems, are an essential data feed required for situational awareness, as they increase the usefulness of information presented to control room operators. Moreover, automation through use of analytics and integration help ensure that critical information captured by the systems, is not missed by the operators.”

Building a control room to give situational awareness is application-specific and the application will drive the data feeds and the overall layout and functionality.


Milestone XProtect and Gallagher Command Centre give capable operators an holistic feel for a site.

“The layout of a control room is site dependent, as the purpose of the room will vary depending on the organisations appetite for security,” Myles says. “However, as common with most sites, when designing the layout of a control room, the notion of monitoring by exception is an important factor when considering that most control rooms monitor multiple data feeds.

“The control room should be designed to ensure any alarm events or other triggers are dynamically brought to the operator’s attention. As such, while a portion of the control room should be delegated for monitoring areas of interest, a significant quota of the room should be solely dedicated to alarm events and corresponding video and data pop-ups. Integration between access control systems, analytics and video management systems will ensure that alarm events triggered, provide information critical to decision making processes and responses.

“An additional consideration is the number of camera views within a control room environment, and the effects of over-stimulation from excessive numbers of feeds, may result in important events being overlooked. It is essential that time is taken when predetermining views that populate the control room view screens, and that the views can be quickly reconfigured to compensate for situational changes throughout a 24-hour cycle. Monitoring configurations, and the decision on which cameras are most suitable, should flow from extensive collaboration between security and management stakeholders.

“At the same time, procedures are also very important and should be complemented by analytics and third-party software triggering,” Myles says. “Modern video management systems can facilitate policies and procedures to become part of the solutions automatic reaction to an alarm event. For example, a fire alarm or bomb threat, can trigger the corresponding procedure to be presented to the end user within the solution. This can significantly reduce reaction time, by eliminating the need for responders to find the correct procedure in a book, file cabinet, or digital database.”

According to Myles, the best way to ensure the entire security team, as well as management and staff are across unfolding events, is with careful strategy.

“The organisation needs to establish and implement clear strategies that define the roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders, regarding the response to events as well as the undertaking of appropriate actions in real time,” Myles says. “Without a defined strategy, the organisation will not have clear unified procedures and policies, and the response will be more dependent upon the skill of the individual control room operators.

“Additionally, technology plays a role informing stakeholders through mobility, that also assists with the awareness factor, by informing in-the-field or external stakeholders of events on the ground as they occur. Getting needed functionality is site and budget dependent – strategy and the organisations appetite for security plays a big role in defining what is required and what is a nice to have. We must always look towards a strategy which has been developed from the unique challenges and risks faced by an organisation to establish what is ultimately required.

“Budgets always play a role in this, as well as the dependence upon the nature of an organisations security operations,” Myles says. “Some clients with active control rooms may benefit from the deployment of tools that provide enhanced situational awareness, resulting in efficiencies with the allocation of resources such as man power, reducing the number of operators and allowing these resources to be deployed in-the-field as a more proactive crime prevention approach.”

When it comes to finding a balance between AI and automation and human engagement, Myles has a granular approach.

“It is certainly possible for a lot of noise to be generated around unwanted alarms; and this needs to be properly managed without the need for intervention,” he says. “An overarching strategy should clearly define and identify the types of alarms that need to be prioritised. With a specific policy in place to manage alarm events and delegate these events to the appropriate stakeholders, will ensure resources are appropriately allocated to situation as they occur. Utilising a tiered approach for alarm management, can allow for lower priority alarms to be utilised for non-security purposes such as operations and maintenance.”

Myles argues that when it comes to attaining an affordable singularity in SMS and VMS the industry is already undertaking the process of developing systems that offer greater unification.

“We have seen a lot of development in recent times with the unification of access control and VMS into one overarching solution,” he says. “Integration between separate systems is increasing and my feelings are that as systems develop that we are going to see a lot more unified solutions going forward. Regarding affordability, some of the less expensive solutions are already providing unified systems that are user friendly and adaptable. The benefit of an integrated system is that only one upgrade is required – experience suggests there are significant issues associated with updating separate systems individually.”