Education answer to alarming problem of user error

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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

MESA, Ariz.—“Alarm schools” run by law enforcement agencies—where repeat false-alarm offenders go to learn about their systems to avoid more false dispatches—have been found to work very well.

And now the Arizona Alarm Association (AzAA) is considering a new approach that could make them even more effective: encouraging alarm owners to take such classes before they ever offend—to help make sure they don’t.

“Several of the residents going to the schools have asked if they could take this before they get a false alarm,” Maria Malice, president of the state association, based here, told Security Systems News. “So now we’re trying to think about if that’s something we want to do. Do we want to go maybe to a Block Watch and offer an alarm class or something along those lines? Because people really need to know about their alarms.”

The idea was floated early in February at a meeting of the AzAA’s Public Safety Committee, and the association is now considering it. But really, being proactive about fighting false alarms is nothing new to the AzAA. It has been a leader in that battle for about two decades, and Malice said other state associations and even individual companies need to do their part as well to combat the widespread industry problem.

Security alarm companies, for example, should find out if the municipalities where they work have an alarm school, she said. If they don’t, Malice said, “I would really suggest they go to them and talk to them about it and really see if it’s something they could implement. Because it’s good for all companies, not just theirs, and it really helps that communication between the police department and the industry.”

False alarms cost police millions of dollars each year and waste thousands of hours of their time, according to “It’s Alarming,” a brochure produced jointly by the AzAA and the Phoenix Police Department. The city distributes the brochure with every alarm permit application and every alarm permit renewal, Malice said.

Alarm owners are most often the source of false alarms. Ron Walters, director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, said SIAC has found that “77 percent of all our false alarms are caused by user error.”

That finding led SIAC to develop a “train the trainer” program for alarm dealers, which the organization officially introduced in December 2011. Walters also goes around the country speaking about the program, at events such as the ESA Leadership Summit 2013 in late February in Orlando, and at central stations.

For no charge, alarm dealers also can go to http://siacinc.org/training.aspx to download training materials. “We’re urging them to take the materials and embrace them and if they want to change it a little bit to suit their company, none of the materials and the handout are protected so they can go in and they can do that,” Walters told SSN.

The materials include instruction sheets for customers on how to use their alarm systems, he said. Because different customers have a variety of systems, “it’s not equipment-specific,” he said. “It’s just the general materials written in good old plain English.”

SIAC, a national organization based in Frisco, Texas, has been involved in the battle against user error for years, Walters said. He said SIAC had worked with Phoenix for 16 years when it became the first police department in the country to have an “alarm abusers school.”

“It was kind of like a traffic school, and if somebody got a fine and went to this class, they could use this certificate [that they got for attending the class] to waive paying one fine per year,” Walters said.

He said the classes were very effective, with 90 percent or more of attendees not having false alarms again.

He said SIAC took the alarm school idea and “really pushed it hard across the country.” And while it did spread—Los Angeles and Bellevue, Wash., were among communities that started classes—Walters told SSN that today there aren’t enough jurisdictions offering them. “There’s not enough of them that are doing it,” he said.

But Arizona is one state where the classes are thriving, according to Malice. She said alarm schools are offered by most of the major cities, including Phoenix, Mesa, Chandler, Scottsdale and Tempe, and in smaller communities as well. “They’re really popular here,” she said.

Malice said the fact that the AzAA is actively involved in the schools is one reason for that.

She explained that the way the alarm schools are run in Arizona, “there’s someone there from the city talking about the city impact [of false alarms], but from our side, there’s always an industry person there representing the association. They’re not representing their company, they’re not allowed to bring any business cards or anything like that. They’re there on behalf of the association to talk about what causes a false alarm, things you can do to prevent it.”

She said the majority of the participants in the class are there because “they’ve had a false alarm and they do it because they don’t have to pay the fine because the class is free. It’s a couple of hours but they really learn what it does to the police department when they have a false alarm, how taxing it is, how expensive and what the police code is regarding false alarms.” And they also learn basic information about alarms and motion detectors and get to ask questions, Malice said.

The city of Casa Grande, Ariz., started alarm awareness classes in 2011 and also recently started stricter enforcement of fines for false alarms, according to Sheila Chavez, alarm abatement coordinator for that city’s police department.

“The classes are very successful, proven by the feedback on the program evaluation sheets that are filled out by each participant,” Chavez said in an email interview.

She said Casa Grande police had been responding to an average of 225 calls per month, with 95 percent of them false. Now, the average number of calls is 117 and only 60 percent are false, a change she attributes to the classes and the tougher billing system.

“Alarm awareness classes are a must for every city,” she said.

Chavez revealed the city’s positive results in February at the AzAA’s monthly Public Safety Committee meeting, where Malice said the group works with police departments around the state to “talk about what issues they’re having and what we can do to help them.” The AzAA now is taking that monthly meeting “on the road,” she said, traveling to different communities to “see, feel and touch what they do.”

But companies shouldn’t just rely on national and state associations and local police departments to tackle the false-alarm issue, Malice said. “As a company yourself, you need to be educating,” she said.

For example, Malice, who also is VP of special projects for COPS Monitoring in its Scottsdale, Ariz., office, said every monitoring station should be looking at a log of its activity from the day before “and calling every single person that had an alarm, whether it was dispatched or not, and see what happened.”

“I think a lot of people don’t do that and I think a lot of people think, ‘I don’t have time to do that,’ and my answer is, ‘You don’t have enough time not to do that,’” she said.

Not only can you help your customers figure out why they had a false alarm and how to prevent future ones, but you’ll build customer loyalty and may generate business for yourself, she said. “You’re showing them you care about them, you might get a service call and pick up some money that way, you might get a referral, but you’ve also made sure you have a customer who is probably not going to leave,” Malice said.

And of course companies must train their technicians, she said. “Techs are the first line of defense,” she said. “And the good and the bad side of the tech is that sometimes they only talk tech … so they have to be trained to train the customer.”

Malice, a SIAC board member, recommended SIAC’s “train the trainer” program to companies as “a great way to learn how to do that.”

Jim Preston, who now works in senior sales for The Systems Depot but has worked in the industry about 30 years and used to train customers when he installed systems in their homes, said he received extensive training in the field and from manufacturers.

Preston, based in Sacramento, said one key is to make sure everyone who will be using the system gets training.

“What I used to try and do was very basic,” he said. “I used to say, ‘I want you to stand here and watch me do this,’ and I would arm and disarm their system for them, just arm and disarm right at the keypad. Then I would say, ‘OK, we’re going to play like we’re going away,’ and we’d arm the system, open the front door and close it, and just stand by the keypad and then open the door just like you were coming home and then disarm it, so they’d get the idea what those sequences would be like. And each time I’m asking questions, ‘Do you understand this? Do you want to ask about this?’”

Now that people can arm and disarm remotely from their smartphones, are false alarms less likely?

“I would hope that it would be less because they have more control, because it’s like carrying around your keypad instead,” Preston said. But he said that remote arming and disarming can create its own problems. For example, he said, “Say you left and you armed it for ‘away’ and your motion detectors are on, but one of your kids is in their room studying and they come out of their room and boom, there’s a false alarm.”

Malice called remote arming and disarming “a double-edged sword” that can create problems. For example, she said, “a lot of systems today can arm at a set time by themselves and there are many instances when it armed at a set time in a retail situation, and there were still people there and then it winds up a false alarm because nobody had a pass code.”

Such situations underscore that even as technology advances, end-user training is still critical. Walters said it is a responsibility everyone in the industry shares.

 “If we’re going to move forward as an industry, it's a vital piece of what we have to do,” he said. “We have to take the initiative and responsibility to train our customers.”