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De-stressing the environment

19 Dec 2011
Southampton is looking to upgrade its 2001-installed VTS system to control traffic in its waters

Southampton is looking to upgrade its 2001-installed VTS system to control traffic in its waters

The working environment is just as important as the equipment itself for VTS operators. Paul Eastaugh reports

A busy port in foul weather near the end of a 12-hour night shift is no time for a VTS operator to start losing concentration. There is nothing that port authorities can do about the weather but everything else is their responsibility.

Traffic volume is, of course, a measure of a port’s prosperity so there will be no incentive to change that, but increasing attention is now being paid to the idea of reducing the stress levels within a VTS control room.

By looking at the working environment of their VTS controllers some port authorities are turning-up obvious and also some surprising factors that can influence their performance.

“One potential problem nowadays is data overload created by CCTV,” explains William Heaps, assistant marine advisor and hydrographic manager to Associated British Ports. “How does the operator decide what data is relevant?” he asks.

He and the VTS team at ABP Southampton are planning to upgrade their system and are seeking any shortcomings with the present equipment and creating a wish-list of the latest technology that might overcome them.

“For example, it would help to have some more intelligent alarm systems that can reliably identify two targets on a collision course in crowded conditions,” he says and he sees the development of new displays and software as being a way forward.

William Heaps is working on the upgrade project with Ken Warren who is the VTS controller for ABP Southampton. Together they are considering every technical and physiological option available to them.

Mr Warren has already done his best to address any problem of fatigue by ensuring that shifts are interspersed with adequate recuperation time but he is aware that small things can make an operator’s work easier.

For example, spectacle wearers are encouraged to choose bifocals made for viewing the display screens and also the paperwork on the desk in front of them. When eye strain can be a symptom of fatigue it makes sense to eliminate anything that might induce it.

The present equipment has been in use at Southampton since 2001 so now is being seen as an ideal opportunity to consider new technologies and to also look beyond the purchase of new hardware to all aspects of the control room’s operation.

This is expected to include a trial of the C-Vu 3D display software created by GeoVS which presents the area controlled by the VTS as a 3D image that can be viewed from any point within the port’s VTS coverage. This even includes providing 360-degree views from aboard any AIS-equipped vessel within the VTS area.

Such presentations are familiar to computer game players but have been unknown in the world of VTS. By presenting the AIS and radar targets as graphical images of themselves it is claimed to enable instant understanding of the real-time situation so that even the weariest VTS operator can make sense of what might be complicated situation.

It may be some years before such a 3D display becomes the primary data source for VTS operators but it is expected to perform a valuable supplementary role in the control room today by providing a visual alternative that also includes a play-back capability that can be used for the analysis of any incidents.

The views of VTS equipment manufacturer Transas Marine endorse the importance of the software design and Chris Loizou, director of the company’s shore-based systems business unit explains current thinking. “The most important general questions which have to be addressed when estimating VTS software usability relate to how easy it is for a VTS operator to work with the system for the first time as well as when the system is already familiar to the operator, how fast and efficiently they may perform the required VTS operations. If an operator hasn’t used the system for quite a long time, it is important to know how long it will it take him or her to start using the system with the same efficiency as before.

“Working conditions are also vital for the performance of the VTS operator. Not only the workstation design has to be optimised, ensuring convenient disposition of monitors and controls; comfortable sitting and furniture, lighting, but also the whole control room design shall be well thought out,” explains Mr Loizou.

The importance of ergonomics in the control room has already been recognised by the ABP VTS managers in Southampton. They have commissioned John Hargreaves of HAM Associates to analyse their working environment and recommend improvements. His company specialises in the ergonomics of emergency control rooms for the police and ambulance services so he has been spending long periods at Southampton noting how the VTS operators work. Although the aim is to ensure the optimum design of the new control room, lessons learned already are enabling the existing set-up to work more efficiently.

 “The very nature of vessel traffic work is very tiring but there are things we can do to improve the situation,” says Mr Hargreaves. “Ultimately our aim is to reduce fatigue and thereby increase vigilance.” His preliminary observations have already recommended improving the lighting and changing the arrangement of displays so that less head turning is required by the operators in Southampton.

Having already completed a study of the ABP Harwich VTS, John Hargreaves is aware of the need for the effective integration of the various systems in use. He looks to reduce the number of mouse clicks needed to complete a task and he has learned a lot by asking the VTS operators at Southampton to think aloud as they work. By encouraging the operators to give a running commentary on what they are doing, Mr Hargreaves has been able to examine how decisions are being made.

“Overall, the Southampton VTS is a good room with good features and a good team,” he says but he is confident that he will find ways to improve it further. “Based on our systematic examination system there is usually an awful lot that can be done to reduce the cognitive load of the operators,” he says.

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The importance of ergonomics in the VTS control room cannot be overstated Southampton is looking to upgrade its 2001-installed VTS system to control traffic in its waters

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