Special Report: False Alarms

Companies take a pro-active approach to false alarm issue
Thursday, May 1, 2003

Los Angeles Police Commission decision highlights need for industry-wide policies, planning

Alarm monitoring companies are stepping up their efforts to stay on top of the ever-changing landscape related to false alarms.

The reverberation of the decision by the Los Angeles Police Department to not respond to non-panic alarms unless they are verified by video or an eye witness has put local alarm-related ordinances in the spotlight as never before.

Knowing what ordinances are in place, as well as what might be coming down the pike, is critical for central stations as they plan their resources from personnel to equipment.

Tim Sproul of Total Monitoring Services, Sacramento, Calif., said he has conducted video verification seminars for his dealers in response to what has occurred in Los Angeles. “We have to educate people on what’s happening. It will impact…how you do business.”

Verification, whether by phone or through video, requires additional operator time and, as a result, more staff, Sproul said. Video services also warrant a different experience and training level. Consequently, he said, “there’s more cost to the dealer and to the homeowner.”

Sproul said one key to addressing these current issues is to be an active member of an alarm association, where much of the latest information is disseminated.

Keeping abreast of the situation

National Monitoring Center, which operates in the California market as well as in many other jurisdictions nationwide, also has relied on an alarm association to keep abreast of the changing scenario.

Woodie Andrawos, executive vice president at NMC, said the association in California “does a good job of keeping us apprised.”

While he takes exception with the Los Angeles decision, Andrawos said “we’ll continue to provide solutions for our clients,” which may include services such as video monitoring.

NMC President Michael Schubert said it’s unclear what the additional costs might be for the central stations with video verification. “Many are looking at Los Angeles to see what’s happening,” he said.

Start at the local level

Although the Chicago area hasn’t implemented any restrictions as tough as Los Angeles, Tim Newman, president of Infinity Monitoring Services, Elk Grove Village, Ill., said local law enforcement does ask if alarms have been verified when they are called in.

The verification process, Newman said, may add 30 seconds or more to the station’s response, but it is critical “because the last thing you want is for the customer to get fined.”

He said operators are well aware of repeat offenders with false alarms and alert dealers with that information.

Participating in the Illinois Electronic Security Association keeps Newman up-to-date on the false alarm issue, although he noted it hasn’t been a “hot topic” of late.

Implementing a multiple call policy has cut dispatches by at least 50 percent, noted Jim Osborne of American Response Center, Euclid, Ohio. The addition of video at his central station will allow customers - most likely commercial accounts - to have the option of video verification.

April Cannon, general manager for ACM UL Monitoring Station in Phoenix, employs a series of steps to keep herself and the dealers she works with informed about ordinance changes.

Phoenix has its own alarm coordinator, Cannon noted, who sends out changes via fax, email or some other form.

In turn, Cannon said she sends dealers information that is pertinent to their accounts, or seeks information from the dealer, such as permit numbers, using customized software to identify the accounts in question.

Keeping on top of ordinance changes is important, Cannon said, because it can impact how an alarm should be handled. And dealers, especially those who operate in multiple counties, may not always be aware of the changes, she said.

Most changes, she said, have been related to verification. Some communities may require a call to the premises; others may require multiple verification or multiple attempts. Depending on the scenario, Cannon said the additional contact could add five minutes to an hour to the call, especially if the contact list is a long one.

“And if one dispatcher is tied up for a long time, it could delay other responses,” she said.

Using technology wisely
Cannon said even with cellphones and the Internet as avenues for contacting customers, the technology is only as good as the user makes it.

The move toward multiple call verification or video verification will continue, Cannon added. “In my opinion, it (the Los Angeles decision) is the beginning of a trend. As budgets get smaller, communities get larger and crime goes up, we’ll have to verify.”

Having dealers involved and aware is one of the most important steps in reducing the false alarm problem, she noted. Cannon said dealers are notified by form letter about repeat offenders and can also access this account information via the Internet.

Alan Howland, general manager for Protect-A-Home, a dealership in Kenner, La., that has about 1,000 alarm accounts, has taken his own pro-active approach to the false alarm issue.

Working with police

The former false alarm coordinator for the Louisiana Burglar & Fire Alarm Association, Howland said he has worked directly with the New Orleans Police Department on the Target Zero Program, which is aimed at eliminating false alarms.

Howland said the association helped draft New Orleans’ false alarm ordinance, so he was well aware of what it required. Other parishes in which he has clients haven’t yet adopted false alarm ordinances.

By accessing information from daily reports, Howland says he can follow up with clients to find out why an alarm went off, if they need service and also to tell them about the letter they’ll receive if this is a first-time offense. New Orleans requires residents to fill out a registration form after the first alarm call.

Howland uses three contract central stations in Florida, North Carolina and Louisiana that must follow Howland’s procedure for alarm verification. The process, he said, involves contacting the premise before sending the police and then reverifying the signal. Usually, he said, they will get the owner on the second call and can, if necessary, cancel the alarm before the police actually reach the house.