California fires create havoc for monitoring companies

Saturday, December 1, 2007

NORTH HOLLYWOOD and SAN DIEGO, Calif.--The daily operations of security firms in southern California couldn't escape being affected by the wildfires that spread over 515,000 acres in California and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.
American Two-Way, located in North Hollywood, was flooded with incoming alarms from customer locations. "We were inundated with fire emergency signals as well as power failure signals throughout the Southern California region," said Christopher Baskin, chief executive officer of American Two-Way. "We immediately started calling in extra operators as well as senior management to handle all of the signals that were hitting us."
Although the station's operators were dispatching calls correctly, American Two-Way was notified that limited first responder and fire department resources would be unable to respond to a majority of situations.
"It's very difficult for an operator to call a homeowner or a business and let them know their place is on fire having already been told that first responders will not be going," Baskin said. Though the flames never came near its facility, American Two-Way set up an improvised system in its monitoring station to track the spread of the fires.
"We took the event center screens on the walls that normally track signals hitting us and converted those screens so we could watch live feeds from various news channels in order to better track the progression of the fires," said Baskin. "Because we knew that certain areas were so inundated [with fire] we would ignore power failure signals and alarms from those areas on purpose."
SDA Security, a commercial monitoring company located in downtown San Diego, was not only concerned with its customers' properties, but also with the safety of its employees and their homes. "For me, it's about the lives of the people that work for you," said Shandon Harbour, president of SDA Security. "We're servicing our customers and we don't want to lose a single signal, but ... there was a sheer state of panic in the city and no one wanted to leave their kids and family and come into work."
However, monitoring stations can't just stop monitoring their accounts. "We're a 24/7 business and this is affecting us, but we do monitor in other parts of California, so it's not an option to just shut down for three days, we had to keep being there," Harbour said.
In an effort to will the fires out, the company provided staff with firehouse chili with ice cream on top to "put the cold stuff on the hot stuff," Harbour joked.
Despite being surrounded by wildfires to the north, east and south, SDA remained open and operating during the wildfires. None of SDA's employees lost homes in the blazes, despite some close calls, said Harbour. "If it had gotten much worse, we might have had to call in help from other companies because we couldn't get staff in to take care of the calls and customers, but fortunately we had enough to cover," Harbor said.