THE MAKING OF AN A1 GRADE MONITORING CENTRE

By Vincent Lim.

The implementation of a monitoring centre is one of the most challenging projects a security company can embark upon. Once launched, there is little chance for turning things off, changing things around or turning back without the risk of massive failures or expense. Many monitoring centres a heavy price for decisions made during the planning process because not enough consideration was given to things like choice of systems, physical capacity, architectural design or future-proofing.

Having made the decision to build a monitoring centre from scratch, we looked what other people had done, not just in Australia, but around the world. This article will explore some of the issues we identified and how these were managed.

Grading Not A Question Of ‘If’, Just Of ‘How’

We had decided to build and operate our facility according to AS2201.2 Monitoring Centres at the A1 grade, the highest possible level within the Standard. This not only qualifies a control room to monitor systems for clientele such as government, banks and embassies, but also to provide a high-quality service to smaller consumers, private residences
and businesses.

Obviously, the decision to build to A1 requires a massive financial investment in both capital expenses (building) and running costs (staffing levels). Lower grading levels require a substantially reduced outlay and, in many cases, are more than adequate, particularly for smaller operators who are unlikely to target major customers. We also based our decision on the fact that police in nearly every state have indicated they will only deal with certified monitoring providers.

Site Selection

Besides the obvious decisions in choosing a site (location, location) there were additional items of key importance. Some sites lend themselves well to construction of an A1 facility. In particular, industrial warehouses or factory units inherently meet a number of requirements such as reinforced concrete construction and a fire rating, as well as permitting generators and 24-hour use.

However, the neighbours in a typical, industrial estate are beyond your control and might include smash repairers or factories whose operations are incompatible to your operation. In planning your operation, this is an important point to consider as we wanted exclusive control over our land and also didn’t want CEOs, bank managers and government leaders tripping over busted-up sedans and forklift pallets on their way into our facility. So we opted for a stand-alone building with an easily-secured perimeter.

The next challenge was to find a site which had ample electrical power to support a carrier-grade data-centre, full accessibility for employees with disabilities (of which we are a major employer) and a location which was not flood-prone. The site we chose, near Port Botany and Sydney Airport, was lacking in data services which meant extra expense as we had to bring optic fibre to the building to provide us with the bandwidth required into the future.

Design and Construction

The design stage is critical. Any mistake at this point can be tremendously costly. For example, if during an inspection, an AS2201.2 auditor determines that a supporting wall needs to be moved, or hydraulic services need to be relocated, it can be very expensive. We had heard of ‘ghost’ monitoring centres which were built by companies who hadn’t done their homework and blew their budget on remedial works. Because there are only a handful of A1 monitoring centres in the country, there are not a lot of experienced designers or builders, so terms of reference and specifications need to be very closely defined and supervised.

Electric and Data Cabling

As with most cabling jobs, the early construction stage will often be the first and last chance you will have to pull a number of cables. Any which are forgotten will be virtually impossible to add later, once slabs are poured, penetrations are sealed and walls are lined with steel. Our wiring plan consisted of a mixture of fibre, CAT-6 for voice/data/CCTV and various other wiring for security, access control, building automation and signalling. As a general rule, whatever we pulled would have several spares. We may never use these, but it was a small price to pay for future-proofing and worth doing.

For security reasons, operator workstations do not have their own computer (or USB port access) and instead use a keyboard, video and mouse (KVM) extender to a restricted-access server room where the workstations or virtualised server/client systems are housed. This involved substantial horizontal cabling to the workstations, beyond the usual ‘phone and PC’ connection, to allow for multiple monitors, telephony devices and other command and control equipment.

Power redundancy is important and every adjacent workstation is on a different circuit. Should any circuit trip or fail, other workstations will be unaffected. Within the data centre, redundancy is critical so we determined that each server or network device
should be powered via a pair (or more) of power distribution units and circuits so that there is no single point of failure.

Although the site we chose for this project is not in a flood-prone area (something that must be considered in this type of building), to further safeguard against flooding from burst water mains or even tsunami projections, all electrical connections and critical systems should be raised well above ground level.

More Power To You

AS2201.2 requires a standby power source such as an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) and an alternate power source such as a generator set. We implemented a 120kVA, diesel three-phase generator with enough capacity to power the entire building (including lifts and air-conditioning), not just the monitoring centre. A 60kVA, redundant UPS and battery bank keeps the monitoring centre running while the generator starts-up. While the Standard requires one-hour minimum battery back up, we chose to implement enough battery capacity for several hours for those occasions when generators refuse to start or fail unexpectedly. Despite regular testing and maintenance, this can happen and the UPS provides contingency planning to allow time to implement ‘Plan B’.

We installed an alternate connection point on the main electrical switchboard to facilitate the quick connection of a replacement generator which may be brought in by truck. In this project, transfer switches and generator control functions are fully automatic and multiple distribution boards are located separately to clearly distinguish critical circuits from those that are non-critical.

Ergonomics

Ergonomic considerations are paramount. Many A1 monitoring centres are windowless and, quite often, horrible places to work. Happy staff are good staff, so significant research was undertaken into lighting to improve efficiency and comfort and also to minimise electricity consumption wherever possible. Lighting designs in breakout rooms should be brighter, with a different colour temperature, in order to have a refreshing ‘wake-up’ effect for staff on a break, or those needing to decompress after dealing with an incident.

CCTV screens displaying the perimeter should also be larger than necessary, not only to support surveillance, but to provide a nice outside view in lieu of windows. We also found that having screen savers on unused workstations display various nature scenes, improved the ambience and moral.

Noise control is important (too loud, and a call centre becomes unpleasant; too quiet, and fatigue sets in). Ducted vacuum systems allow for a largely dust-free environment and also permit vacuuming without disturbing staff or callers. They also prevent a cleaner’s cranky old vacuum cleaner from tripping a protected circuit and threatening our operation.

The interior climate should be controlled, and filtered, with fresh air brought into the space and regularly replaced. We also decided that the extraction fans in the toilets should be massively over-specified to guarantee odour control and maximise comfort. We also provided showers for staff to encourage them to exercise in what can potentially be a very sedentary job.

Tremendous amounts of research went into the choice of coffee machine for our breakout room and we have been delighted to watch staff develop from cappuccino drinkers (two sugars) to discerning, short-black espresso drinkers. We are also the only monitoring station in the world with a rooftop garden and hot tub. It’s the little things…

Technology

The choice of ‘automation’ technology is one of the major decisions required. Some of the most common automation software packages used in monitoring centres haven’t had any significant upgrade or development in years. In some cases, customer web interfaces are non-existent, integration with third-party systems, such as video and telephony are impossible, and customisation is out of the question. For an established monitoring centre, changing software is akin to changing aircraft mid-flight — potentially possible, but likely to end in disaster. As one overseas colleague joked, it would be less painful and less expensive to replace your spouse than your software.

We travelled internationally to meet with software suppliers and their clients to get a real-world opinion and we spent more on researching our software than many companies spend on the software itself.

We finally settled on automation software which could be tightly integrated with the phone system, as this enables the tracking of inbound as well as outbound calls in order to maintain service levels and provide a more customised service to clients. It also allows for field technicians to place accounts on-test and perform other account control functions without needing to wait in a call queue or talk to an operator. This can also be done via laptop or tablet (iPad) but, it is sometimes easier to use the phone. These tools not only improve technician efficiency (and billability), but also free operators to deal with alarms, rather than service issues.

We found that it is extremely important to customise software functions so as to be able to follow highly specific instructions from clients without relying on operators having to decode pages of notes. Automation flow-logic can determine who to contact based on an alarm zone, time of day or other event, and the operator can rapidly respond and get it right rather than waste time attempting to interpret notes before ultimately getting it wrong.

In a modern control room, it is also imperative that one is able to integrate video from dozens of different camera systems (with the list growing everyday) through a unified operator interface. This also helps to minimise training requirements and any margin of error. We don’t know what the future will bring, but we know we can write ‘middleware’ to interface new technology with our platform.

As part of ensuring that the monitoring centre could meet the 21st century demands of clients, it was important to ensure that IP monitoring was heavily supported. This function was complimented by the inclusion of a carrier-grade data centre and numerous communications links that include a combination of fibre and DSL links underground, as well as a 150Mb microwave link on our roof, in case any underground connections are damaged or cut.

Training

Everyone has their own views on how staff should be trained. In the case of this project, it was decided that staff should be selected from outside the security industry so they could be trained from scratch and not have to spend time unlearning previous systems and procedures. A virtual environment was built to allow operators to train and learn in a sandbox without exposing them to real customer data.

Due to a shortage of professional development opportunities within the Australian electronic security marketplace, as well as our own training program, we worked with the American-based Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) which has developed a number of training and development tools for monitoring operators. In addition to an A1 grading certification by ASIAL, this centre is the first Australian monitoring centre to be ‘Five Diamond’-certified. While not necessary, I would encourage other quality providers to look at this program.

Mr Vincent Lim is General Manager of Calamity Monitoring. He can be contacted on 1300 300 247 or via the website: http://calamity.com.au.

 

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