There are currently 3 different WhatsApp groups covering the LMRID area with a specifically “security” scope. There are a number of people wanting to know why we do not have the LMRID security provider linked directly onto these groups. The short answer is that this requirement was not part of our initial “call for quotes” document, against which the security providers quoted. Thus it was not part of proposals received (from any service provider) nor our contractual service level agreement with the appointed provider.
Changing this would require a re-negotiation of our service level agreement. This agreement was initially signed for 10 months only – to be renegotiated for the start of the next “business year” (01 July 2017). So, a new contract has to come into effect at that date anyway.
The longer answer, however, is that there are some very real challenges that have to be understood and overcome for this to work well. In no particular order these include:
a) For WhatsApp to work in the control room the system needs to be managed from the monitoring computer, and not from one or more cellphones. Running this service directly from a phone will not be feasible. The existing computer is dedicated to monitoring the GPS locations of the vehicles and logging incidents as they are called in. Do we put a second computer in? Do we use the existing computer and have the staff “task switch” between the two systems? How would “management” at the security provider track and monitor activity and response times?
b) Related to a), whatever computer system is used to monitor the WhatsApp groups would need to be Internet connected. This opens up an entirely new area of concern for the service provider as the “online activities” of the control room staff now need to be monitored and controlled. Currently the control room has no Internet Access and there is no “distraction” of social media and related activities to worry about. Anyone who has employed staff before (at least in a desk bound job) will confirm that managing online activity (including drafting “acceptable use” policies, software updates to keep internet connected equipment safe, etc.) is a significant challenge.
c) There is a concern that members of the public will assume a level of response from LMRID solely on the basis that they “sent a message”. This is a big problem with a service like WhatsApp, where there is no guarantee of delivery, and more importantly, no reliability around the timing of a delivery. With a phone call you know immediately that you have reached the recipient. A message will show on a thread with a certain timestamp but that does not mean that every recipient in that group received that message at that point in time. We cannot enter into a service level agreement (requiring certain types of responses within certain times of a message having been sent) if we cannot guarantee the reliability of the delivery mechanism. This problem exists with WhatsApp all the time, but would be exacerbated if, for example, the Internet connection to the control room were down.
One may well argue that we don’t need a formal “service level agreement” for the WhatsApp channels. However if this is a “formally accepted” way of communicating with the control room there will be an assumption on the part of members of the community that there is an agreed service level in place. If someone has an emergency, and they just send a WhatsApp, and LMRID does NOT respond, there will be legitimate complaint.
In the security industry there is a general principal that if you cannot guarantee to provide a certain service then don’t offer it. No one wants to sign up for armed response where the response company responds “most of the time”, or for alarm monitoring where they contact you “sometimes” when your alarm goes off. Our security provider (and to an extent the LMRID Board) are reluctant to offer a service that we know ahead of time will be unreliable – even if that unreliability is probably going to be infrequent. Putting in place a service that we know will complicate the control room experience, cannot be easily monitored / measured and cannot be guaranteed is simply asking for trouble.
SAPS sometimes responds to the WhatsApp group as there are individuals who have it on their phones (whose dedication is much appreciated), so whether there is a response from them depends on who is available at the time and who sees the message. We do not want to have a similar problem where there is uncertainty about who or where the message is going to and whether there will be a response.
d) Another area of concern is that groups such as these are notorious for a relatively high signal to noise ratio. Invariably there is a measure of chatter about non-security matters as well as “non critical” security matters (e.g. “Who can you recommend for alarm monitoring”, which is a security issue, but of no concern to the control room). Additionally, people tend to communicate quite cryptically on WhatsApp messages. These two issues mean that the person reading a message needs to interpret the message before deciding how to respond, and invariable needs to respond by asking for more details.
If you phone the control room the officer will ask a targeted set of questions and will rapidly get to understand the help required. How is the officer supposed to respond to a WhatsApp message that says “Man just snatched a handbag from my domestic. Ran off towards Durban Road”. One needs to know “where exactly are you” and “what was he wearing” and “what does the bag look like” – all of this would take 15 seconds if you phoned the control room, and several minutes of messaging to get anything useful by WhatsApp.
So, in summary, having the control room linked to the various WhatsApp channels has a certain appeal, however if we do not address the above concerns clearly we will simply create frustration and confusion, and will consistently under-deliver on people’s expectations.
The LMRID security subcommittee will be applying their minds to these matters over the next few months and we welcome the involvement of anyone in the area who wishes to participate in this. To be part of this discussion please send your contact details to firstname.lastname@example.org so that we know to pull you in.
In the meantime, our recommendation to the community is that each group should have designated administrators and these administrators monitor the groups and check that the appropriate people are contacted, whether SAPS or the LMRID call centre (08610 LMRID).