The control room of the future

We’ve been researching the control room of the future to find out what technologies might be in situ in twenty years? How will wider societal changes – including flexible working and changing skillsets – affect how our control rooms operate?

Predicting the future can be challenging, but we can glean potential expectations by examining trends in the macro environment. Technological advances have been, and continue, driving significant influence — from the Internet of Things, to revolutionary interfaces and more. Societal and social trends focused on flexible working arrangements, workforce skillsets and greater collaboration are also impacting this profession.

Let’s look at some of these forces through the lens of the control room to understand how it might have changed in years to come.

1 | Technology


The biggest changes we’re anticipating are driven out of new technology and in particular, the Internet revolution. Today’s world-wide-web has grown vastly in scope over the last 30 years since its inception, connecting more than 3.9 billion people — 51 percent of the global population — and 17 billion devices, according to data from the International Telecommunications Union and market research firm IOT Analytics. It has transformed how we live and work over the last couple of decades and shows no sign of slowing down.

The internet and the Internet of Things (IoT) and their use is also transforming the work of the control room and our emergency services in a number of ways.

Connectivity, making and receiving 999 calls

The speed of connectivity has been growing exponentially over the last 30 years. Nielsen’s “Law of Internet Bandwidth” says that users’ bandwidth will grow by 50% per year (10% less than Moore’s Law for computer speed).

This exponential growth in bandwidth both in fixed and mobile connectivity, as well as how it is being used, has had a significant and growing impact on the emergency services. The continued investment in 4G and 5G networks, including ESN (Emergency Services Network), will continue to improve 999 call availability as well as location information over the next decade.

However, despite the almost ubiquity of connectivity across the United Kingdom, Ofcom reports that there are still 3% of rural premises in Scotland and 2% of rural premises in Wales that are unable to receive either a decent fixed or good mobile service.

The need for connectivity to be available to all roads is continuing to increase, with requirements including vehicle communications, navigation, infotainment, and safety aids. Over a third of all Motorways and A-roads do not have good in-car 4G coverage from all operators. Some 64% of Motorway and A-roads have good 4G coverage from all four main UK operators, whilst 33% only have good coverage from some operators. Three percent of Motorways and A-roads do not have good in-car 4G coverage from any operator. Outside the vehicle, 88% of Motorways and A-roads have good 4G data coverage from all operators, but one percent of Motorways and A-roads do not have coverage from any operator. For emergency calls, where calls can be made on any network, coverage increases to 99%.

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Improvements in interfaces to the control room

As well as improvements to coverage, telecoms operator BT is upgrading the platform that currently handles initial 999 calls. It is expected that the first phase upgrade will be in place by the end of March/April 2021 following a two-year programme. This will provide backward capability for voice, telematics (eCall) and SMS. A three-month migration period will see the old platform remaining in place with extended support. BT plans to have support for ‘normal’ voice calls plus VoIP (voice over IP), and alerts from wearables and smart speakers/digital home assistants to be in place by 2025.

As well as these upgraded voice interfaces, new interfaces will be able to handle data from apps, two-way messaging, and information from smart sensors – so for instance an alert if there is a sharp temperature rise in a building would automatically trigger a request for fire and rescue assistance.

Intruder alerts could trigger requests for response from the police (or private security firms if applicable). In short, the new platform will have the potential to handle a range of new non-voice information streams.

Capacity, speed, security and resiliency are all essential components of an effective communications network, particularly when these networks are relied upon by the emergency services and the public at large.

Scale is especially important: amongst the three main blue-light services – Police, Fire & Rescue, and Ambulance – there are over 300,000 frontline staff using over 50,000 vehicles and 115 aircraft. That’s not to mention the countless workers operating the UK’s 200 control rooms.

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2 | Flexible Working Arrangements

The availability of new technologies can make the working environment more flexible, but only for some roles at the present time – i.e. currently the majority of control room employees cannot work remotely.

Could this change in the future with the introduction of more cloud-based control room functionality? Improved flexibility can make resourcing levels more dynamic and budgets more effective, enabling services to ramp staffing levels up and down as needed and from multiple locations and even remote workers. Technology could even help volunteers provide targeted support to the emergency services during both planned and unplanned events.

Would remote working have a detrimental effect on working relationships, the mental health of remote workers and could it adversely affect the smooth running of the control room?

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3 | Layout and Equipment

The control room plays a central role during emergency situations with operators often making life and death decisions – so investment in creating the right environment, not just for employee efficiency but to enhance morale, foster long-term retention and therefore stability is of critical importance.

A control room today is more than just seats, desks and computer screens. It is a highly organised working environment where nothing is left to chance. Over recent decades, a branch of science and engineering has developed that aims to optimise the relationship between the human operators and the systems they operate.

Having quick access to all the data that drives emergency services decisions helps control room employees add value to the process. However, it is vital that data is presented in a way that allows the operator to understand a situation and to compare it to the bigger picture, so they can make decisions that result in the safest and most efficient operations.

However, operators do not simply need more data. They need the right data, presented in the right way. They also need access to the people that can add perspective and offer the expertise required to allow the best decision to be made in any given situation.

A mix of information presentation and interaction technology; improved opportunities for collaboration around key decisions; and ergonomics will help operators to be effective. For more information on control room design, check out our recent blog post Top 5 Tips for Control Room Design.

4 | Professional skill sets remain unchanged

An emergency services control room operator needs:

  • Excellent communication skills, both verbal and written.
  • To be able to work on their own initiative.
  • To be able to prioritise work and make decisions quickly.
  • To be flexible, responding to changes in situations.
  • To be an excellent listener, able to analyse and interpret information.
  • To remain calm when under pressure or dealing with distressed callers.
  • To be able to maintain accurate records.
  • To work as part of a team.

We don’t see these skill sets changing any time soon for our ‘Heroes in Headsets’, but there will be more new roles and/or new skill sets required over the coming years within the control room.

With the constantly changing crime landscape, public safety agencies must evolve their digital capabilities to prepare for the next generation of public safety threats. Data management is key to fighting crime and responding faster to emergency calls in the digital age, and cloud technology provides the framework for success to keep pace. The ability to act based on up-to-date, data-driven insight is becoming increasingly important to improve strategic planning, calls for service and closing more cases.

5 | Multi-agency Connections

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The Policing & Crime Act received Royal Assent on 31 January 2017. For the first time, the Act placed a new, statutory duty on emergency services to look at opportunities to work with one another better to improve efficiency and effectiveness. The sector led Emergency Services Collaboration Working Group has identified good collaborative practice, for example, joint training centres, headquarters and other joint working arrangements.

Improved collaboration across the services are gaining in pace out in the field with great examples such as development of a Tri-Service Safety Officer (TSSO) in the South Western Ambulance Service to liaise with other agencies. Suffolk has four combined fire and police stations, while Norfolk opened a shared station in 2012 housing police, fire, ambulance crews and the coastguard and Surrey championed the Multi-agency Information Transfer (MAIT) programme, an integrated IT solution which reduces the call transfer time between emergency services from four minutes to a few seconds.

Through the excellent work of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Principles (JESIP), detailed guidance and training has been delivered to improve multi-agency working.

Control rooms play a vital role in managing the early stages of a multi-agency incident. There cannot be a co-ordinated multi-agency response or effective communication if control rooms do not deliver a swift and joint approach to handling them.

Could the control room of the future see a merging of control room operations or a more multi-agency approach to handling calls?

6 | Privacy, Security, Trust, Ethics, & Standards

As the technology around automatic facial recognition, artificial intelligence and data from smart cities’ end devices improves, consideration must be given to their use in control rooms and implications of their use from a privacy, ethical and legal framework.

A recent world-first ruling in September 2019, showed that the use of automated facial recognition used by South Wales Police was lawful. The implications of the final ruling could give way to significant changes for the control room with proactive dispatching of resources in the field that have yet to be reported using huge amounts of data to predict crime, protect and save human lives.

This area is probably the most contentious for the emergency services globally, but the technology is advancing rapidly and so the law and associated standards need to be addressed quickly by experts and government.


Find out more

If you’d like to find out more about how we can help your control room take advantage of the latest technology, visit our dedicated control room page or call us on 01482 808300.