September 26th, 2016

Special Feature – We go behind the scenes at Bromsgrove’s CCTV control room

CCTV cameras are all around us and we are probably captured on hundreds each day as we walk down high streets, through town centres or in parks or when we drive around on the district’s roads.

Sometimes they are criticised for enabling local authorities to play ‘Big Brother’ and occasionally they are praised for helping prevent or solve crimes.

But surely there’s much more to them than that?

The Standard went to the check out the control room that monitors all of Bromsgrove’s 91 cameras.

The room features three big screens, each containing 24 mini screens, showing what is being filmed on 72 of the service’s cameras.

The cameras and their views alternate and operators are sat in front of them with their own individual screens that they can use to closely examine any footage they want or need to.

The control room, based at Redditch Town Hall, covers 54 cameras in Redditch, the 91 in Bromsgrove and 17 in the Wyre Forest (Bewdley, Stourport and Kidderminster).

CCTV monitoring and maintenance is a shared service between Bromsgrove District and Redditch Borough Councils and, in the last financial year, the service cost BDC £222,431 and RBC £347,151. Wyre Forest paid £52,775 for its cameras to be operated.

Monitoring the many cameras are four trained operators in the daytime, three from 4pm and two after 8pm – although that is increased to three on Friday and Saturday nights, when revellers are most likely to head out to the towns’ pubs, clubs and other nightspots.

Of the 91 Bromsgrove ones, 22 are in the town centre, 17 are in Rubery, there are eight in Hagley, five in Alvechurch, four in Barnt Green and Wythall and Aston Fields have three each. There are also 27 cameras covering every level and stairwell in the town centre’s multi-storey car park.

Almost all of the cameras have the ability to span 360° and can focus clearly up to about 100m.

The cameras have been strategically positioned at hotspots, from cashpoints and pub doorways to parks, busy junctions and bus stations. On Bromsgrove High Street, each camera spans as far as the next one, so the whole of the High Street is more or less covered.

Every camera is checked each day to ensure it is working properly and, although you would think vandalism would be the main cause of malfunctioning cameras, that is not the case – most of them are deliberately positioned high up where people would struggle to get them and those that are not have protective measures placed upon them. The main times maintenance is needed is to remove dirt, insects or fix electrical faults.

As well as maintenance, the cameras’ positions are reviewed by operators every two weeks so they are not monitoring areas where they are no longer needed.

Rachel McAndrews, the CCTV and Lifeline manager, said: “If a nightclub has a camera looking towards it and then it closes, we move it to somewhere else.”

As you would expect, different areas are monitored, depending on what time of day it is. During so-called ‘rush hours’ junctions will be looked at more and first thing in the morning – from 8am to 9pm – and in the afternoon – 3pm to 4pm – cameras are trained on school routes.

Then, later in the evenings and through the night, town centres and nightspots would be more their primary focus.

Footage, recorded and stored at hubs in Bromsgrove and Redditch, is kept for 31 days until it is deemed no longer needed.

And, as well as recording what is happening, the CCTV control room is linked to the police so officers can view images they need to see. There are also links to Shopwatch and Pubwatch so it can help out those organisations with incidents when needed.

One operator told us: “When you have worked here for a while you just notice things out of the corner of your eye that you know need to investigate and then you zoom in and take a look.”

But, Mrs McAndrews said: “CCTV is not just about catching criminals and preventing crime, it also acts as a deterrent and helps with community safety in general.”

She said, in the past, camera footage had also been used to help people prove their innocence when they had wrongly been accused of a crime – dated and timed shots of them in one particular place have backed up people’s alibis and helped them prove their innocence.

While we were there, operators zoomed in to look at youths climbing on goalposts, alerting officers to go and have a word with them.

There was also a missing person reported which, Mrs McAndrews said, was probably the commonest use for the CCTV. Operators were able to hone in on areas where it was thought the ‘misper’ could be and the clarity of the shots gave those viewing the screens all the tools they needed to find someone matching the description circulated.

And, whilst you naturally enter the control room, thinking you may see criminals caught and others prevented, you have to admit it is a pretty useful tool for the powers that be to have should they need to search for your missing child or loved one.

And on the subject of looking after people, as well as the CCTV, the same department also takes out of hours calls for Bromsgrove District Council, Redditch Borough Council and bdht and runs the NEW Lifeline service for the elderly and vulnerable residents. Users, who pay £3.60 per week for the service, have a pendant or wrist band that is linked to their landline or mobile equipment. The computer system at the control room contains a multitude of information for each of the 1,666 Bromsgrove people and 1,993 Redditch residents who use it. Then, if they get into trouble and press a button to get in touch with the operators, the computer will bring up details including, their age, who they live with and their medical situations and needs. Operators can also talk to them through the pendant or wristband to offer help or advice or, if needed, they can call an ambulance.

In the last year, there have been 176,236 Lifeline calls and the CCTV cameras have been used in connection with 1,391 incidents in Bromsgrove, 1,225 in Redditch and 929 in Wyre Forest.

A total of 1,072 were spotted by operators who alerted the police or the pub/shop watches and there were 729 occasions where West Mercia Police viewed camera footage after incidents. CCTV provided evidence on 193 occasions.

Whatever your views on CCTV, whether you agree with how much it is used and how much revenue is being spent on it, our trip to the control room was a very eye-opening experience.