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by: Leif Kothe - Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The trend of municipalities outsourcing false alarm collection services continues, and as in past instances, the most recent agreement involves Irving, Texas-based PMAM, a global IT firm with four U.S. offices and an office in Mumbai. Their slogan is “Around the World, Around the Clock,” so you can see why their false alarm tracking and billing services might appeal to cities hoping to nip the problem in the bud. 

According to an article from KSMU (Ozarks Public Radio) in Springfield, Mo., the police department in that city is the latest to do away with its in-house handling of false alarms, opting to transfer those duties to PMAM. Springfield Police Department dispatchers receive as many as 400 false alarm calls a month, the article noted.

Like any outsourcing move, the new arrangement saves resources, authorities say. In addition to being a drag on budgets, false alarms also stretch law enforcement in potentially harmful ways, sometimes preventing or delaying response to critical calls.

The advantage of outsourcing false alarm services to a company like PMAM is that, ideally, the IT giant has the capabilities to identify a false alarm, home in on the cause (an installation flaw or dated system is often the culprit), and then teach people how to avert future false dispatches, and the fines that eventually accompany them.

According to the article, the Springfield Police Department has received roughly 2,100 false alarm calls thus far in 2013. The city’s ordinance levies a civil penalty fee, between $15 and $50, for those who have at least four false alarms. The charges escalate with each additional violation, according to the article.

False alarms are both a fiscal and logistical drain on towns and cities. But some of the things that might mitigate false dispatches, including system upgrades and more regular maintenance, are not always at the forefront of many customers’ minds.

It seems that until there’s more public awareness of the problem, and more measured steps to cripple the problem at its roots, municipal bodies are going to continue seeking out IT behemoths like PMAM for false alarm damage control.     

by: Leif Kothe - Monday, July 15, 2013

The quest to reduce the dreaded attrition rate remains a high priority for anyone in the monitoring space, and companies continue to explore new ways to predict and prevent cancellations. Companies don’t just track attrition rates; they look for clues, like usage patterns, that could yield information about whether certain customers may be more prone to stay or go. 

While usage patterns remain a valuable tool for evaluating customers and forming effective business strategies (conventional wisdom says upsell to active users, and reduce prices to the less engaged), it’s not the only predictor companies use. There is also a significant correlation between credit scores, or Beacon scores, and attrition rates, according to Michael Barnes, a partner in the consulting and advisory firm Barnes Associates, who in a response on the CSAA’s Accent forum, said his firm reviewed data on over 2 million accounts. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

“Generally speaking, the correlation changes over four ranges of scoring. Below 600, the statistical experience is very bad. That is, the accounts have a very high cancellation rate. Between 600 and 650 the results improve dramatically, with a general inflection point around 620+/-, which is why so many dealer programs (and, in some cases credit facilities) have restrictions around this area of scoring.”

Barnes added that scores above 700, in terms of attrition and retention, tend to behave the same as scores around 800. Scores in the ballpark of 650 tend to have poor cumulative performance, with the rates of cancellation almost twice as high over the first four years, Barnes notes. Unsurprisingly, rates of “infant mortality’—cancellations within the first year of existence—were exceedingly high among those with sub-650 Beacon scores, according to Barnes’ data.

While the data sample is large enough to provide a thorough understanding of the relationship between credit scores and attrition, Barnes points out that some qualifications are needed, since a slew of factors can create exceptions. Some of these key variables include installation fees, services provided, pricing and payment method, and even geographic location.

The above graph, made for SSN in 2009 by the Edmonds Group, also charts the correlation between attrition rates and Beacon credit scores. 

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by: Leif Kothe - Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Earlier today, a participant in the Central Station Alarm Association listserv broached the topic of turnover in central stations. The author discussed several themes relevant to this topic, including the potentially negative impact on the bottom line, the strain on the training department, and the relationship between turnover and a central station’s culture.

The redeeming point from the post was the author’s statement that supervisors, rather than accepting a lack of continuity as inevitable, should instead take steps to better understand why people are leaving, and resolve to change the culture before more operators are out the door.

It’s a highly sensible approach to addressing the problem. But in the monitoring world, it’s easier said than done.

Steve Doyle, vice president and CEO of the Central Station Alarm Association, said turnover is a “perennial problem” for central stations, particularly when it comes to operator jobs, which are entry-level, often require late (or very early) “graveyard” shifts, and are seldom viewed as long-term career jobs.

Monitoring, of course, is not the only industry to encounter this problem. Traditional call centers, Doyle said, have an even higher rate of turnover. But while the issue may be native to the industry, there are steps central station managers can take to mitigate it.

Doyle said educational programs are a good idea. They can help operators “get a wider perspective of what they do, and how they relate to the authorities who have jurisdiction.” Recognition is another means of decreasing turnover, he said. CSAA, in particular, has been at the vanguard in terms of recognizing central station operators, particularly through its CSAA Excellence Award for Operator of the Year, which was recently presented for the eighth year running. But individual central stations can also present their own intra-company award.

Certifications and awards have become a source of pride and credibility for many central stations, not to mention a form of public outreach, Doyle said.

“If you go around to central stations and see certifications on the wall, what they’re saying to the public is that we didn’t just put somebody in the chair here,” he said. “We taught them the right way to do things.”

The takeaway from my conversation with Doyle was that even a problem as persistent as central station turnover can, to some extent, be curtailed. 

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by: Leif Kothe - Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Fifteen days after the Senate passed S. 744—the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act—the House Republican caucus will hold a meeting to discuss immigration, just as the House prepares to tackle its own legislation, should it follow through on Speaker John Boehner’s plans to scrap the Senate bill. The meeting, which will be private, is slated for Wednesday, July 10. 

The Senate bill, which passed 68-32 on June 27, would earmark about $46 million to bolstering security on America's southern border over the next decade. The border security portion of the bill includes some large-scale provisions, most notably the installation of monitoring technology along the southern flank, the construction of an additional 700 miles of new—and higher—fencing, and a substantial increase in the number of Border Patrol agents.  

Also included in the sprawling piece of legislation—it’s nearly 2,000 pages in length—is a measure that would require foreign workers to carry biometrically verifiable ID cards, which include a photo and a fingerprint.

Last week I spoke to Marcus Dunn, director of government relations for the Security Industry Association, who said he was encouraged by this inclusion, and optimistic that even if the House does its own immigration bill, biometrics would remain part of the equation. 

In our conversation, Dunn made a strong point regarding technology-based measures included in mammoth—and often polarizing—pieces of legislation like the Senate Immigration bill. Such measures, he said, have the advantage of being less emotionally charged than, say, debates about paths to citizenship, employment implications and wages. So, should the House take its time crafting piecemeal immigration reform, it’s not unrealistic to imagine a technological solution preceding a policy one.

Testament to the relative emotional neutrality of some of the security measures can be found in the amendment package, proposed a day before the bill passed, by a pair of Republican Senators: Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D. Many of the aforementioned provisions were contained in their eleventh hour proposal, and several commentators have credited the amendment as a key reason the bill gained enough bipartisan support to pass. It doesn't seem like a stretch to say that the security portion of the bill was crucial in allowing the Senate to function as it's supposed to: like a political "cooling saucer," a chamber where cooler heads prevail and compromise can be struck. In an era defined by deep ideological fissures in Washington, these things cannot be taken for granted.

With political pressure mounting to get some kind of legislation passed, the meeting scheduled for Wednesday bears close watching. Will Speaker Boehner backtrack on his statements about the House doing its own legislation, or stand firm? Will the Senate bill be jettisoned, or does it have more support in the House than many think? For my part, I'll be looking for what lawmakers have to say about that $46 billion figure. Stay tuned...

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by: Leif Kothe - Tuesday, July 2, 2013

For my “Monitor This!” debut, I’d like to use this space to introduce myself, now that I’ve completed my switch to associate editor at Security Systems News.

My name is Leif Kothe, and I’ve covered the security industry since September 2012, when I joined SSN as web editor. In that capacity, I covered—and learned about—most facets of the security industry, while also writing for other trade journals at United Publications, not all of them security-related. The position was as edifying as it was unfocused. As associate editor, I welcome the opportunity to zoom in on the central station side of things. And I am equally eager to cover the legislative topics of most relevance to the industry.

My wish is to make the transition as seamless as possible. In the interest of continuity, you'll find that we’ve kept many things the same. The blog has retained its title, it occupies the same spot on the homepage, and it will still cover topics germane to central station alarm monitoring.

With that said, I encourage those in the monitoring space not to hesitate to reach out to me, whether to offer news leads, or to simply introduce yourselves. In my brief time covering security, I’ve found the industry nothing but welcoming, and I look forward to exploring the industry further and hearing your stories in the process.

by: Rich Miller - Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Does anyone remember Carlton, the heard-but-never-seen doorman from the forgettable ’70s sitcom “Rhoda”? Little did anyone realize it, but the character was destined to become a model for RMR more than 30 years later: a remote gatekeeper providing access without the need for actual flesh and blood at the doorway.

Carlton and his real-life colleagues have increasingly given way to remote doorman service, with access granted after audio and video review by a central station operator. Depending on the technology that has been installed, the operator can also escort a person through the building after allowing entry. It’s typically safer and cheaper than a 24/7 doorman, and it negates the need for mindless chitchat.

The problem lies in the recording of the encounter, or more specifically what can happen to the data after the encounter. A security company generating RMR from a remote doorman needs to know what regulations are in place to govern the surveillance and what can happen if they don’t meet the letter of the law.

Industry attorney Ken Kirschenbaum took on the topic in a recent online missive that serves as an effective primer for anyone looking to dip into this stream of revenue. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

The service necessarily has to be concerned with state video and audio laws. Video laws vary; some are rooted in voyeurism laws and others refer to using another’s picture for commercial gain. Audio laws are more similar and are either one-party consent or all-party consent. 

“As with any video or audio system or services, you run the risk of misuse. You also can’t escape the likelihood that other non-consenting people may be in the range of the equipment. For example, while escorting the mailman or the pizza delivery guy in the building, the operator may pick up video or audio of a tenant or others in the corridors or lobby. While the mailman may understand that he is talking with an operator who can see him on video, others [who] may be picked up and recorded are not so advised, and in any event have not consented.

“The real problem is not in the listening or recording, but in the improper use of the data. If data is not disclosed to anyone, then no one is the wiser. It's when the data [becomes] public or it is used for an improper purpose—such as blackmail—that you need to be concerned with violation of the video and audio laws and the consequences that flow from such improper conduct.

For more information on the audio and video laws that could affect your company, click here.

by: Rich Miller - Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Giving your customer list to law enforcement makes sense.

That statement seems to fly in the face of convention for the alarm industry, which hasn’t exactly been cozy over the years with the boys in blue. But Dave Simon, writing recently for the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, makes a compelling case for doing so.

Simon argues that there are far more benefits to cooperating with law enforcement than erecting barriers. Despite concerns in the past that sensitive information about customers could be compromised, that hasn’t happened, he said. And he draws another conclusion (agree with it or not) in this age of surveillance: Police departments will eventually get the lists anyway, so why not partner with them as good citizens?

The bottom line, Simon wrote, is that SIAC believes the cooperative approach bears more fruit. Here’s more of what he had to say:

Besides being nice, alarm dealers are actually helping customers in those cities where they provide the lists. Why? Because the list helps the PD do their job, ensure compliance and get systems registered. All that means a better-run alarm management program, improved enforcement and increased public safety. That’s good for the alarm dealer because customers have fewer false dispatches, saving them expensive fines and the risk of losing police response.

SIAC promotes cooperative problem-solving. This is a great example of how we can be supportive and help local jurisdictions—particularly the police department—conserve resources. We’ve found that even the largest national companies give lists. Cooperating with law enforcement is not a novel idea. Supplying customer lists should be an extension of our continued cooperation to ensure well-executed alarm management programs.

Simon invites opinions on the subject, pro or con, at siacinc.wordpress.com.

by: Rich Miller - Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Looking for a pair of used Osborne Hoffmann 2000 receivers? How about a mix of Philips Lifeline 6800 and 6900 PERS units? Or maybe you have a security item to sell but you don’t want to pay to list it?

Welcome to AlarmClassifieds.com. It’s the brainchild of Josh Garner, CEO of Ogden, Utah-based AvantGuard Monitoring, who launched the free website in May because he saw a need for it among his dealers and in the industry at large.

“Last year, I had a number of our dealers who emailed me a list of equipment or tools that they were trying to sell, and they asked me to broadcast out to our entire dealer base that they had these items for sale,” he said. “I knew there had to be a more effective way for dealers to sell things to other dealers. So I went out and bought the domain.”

In addition to providing classified advertising space, the website features a directory where people serving the alarm industry can list their names (or the names of their companies). The classified ads expire in 30 days, but the directory items stay online for a year. All listings are free.

“I envision every vendor who is serving the alarm industry would want to put a directory listing up specifically in their category,” Garner said. “Why wouldn’t they? It’s free advertising.”

Categories on the site include brokers, consultants, manufacturers, marketing, software providers and RMR-enhancing services. There are more than 20 categories listed, and Garner said if you have one to add, “tell us and we’ll create it for you.”

Garner modeled the site on the popular KSL classifieds that serve Web customers in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. KSL is the NBC news affiliate in Salt Lake City that has basically replaced Craigslist in the region with the advertising section on its home page, he said.

“If you want to buy something, if you want to sell something, you go to KSL.com for free,” he said.

The only mention of AvantGuard on AlarmClassifieds.com is small text block and company logo introducing the website. There is no other display advertising.

“This isn’t about revenue,” Garner said. “It’s a service to my dealers, but it’s really only a service to my dealers if the rest of the industry uses it. It’s about giving something that’s of value to the industry that I think is needed.”

by: Rich Miller - Wednesday, June 5, 2013

It’s not the kind of press you would expect for video surveillance, especially after all of the positive PR for helping bring down the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. Only onward and upward, right?

Apparently Philadelphia didn’t get the memo.

Last week, City Controller Alan Butkovitz announced the results of an audit of the police department’s surveillance camera program. The news wasn’t favorable: Only 32 percent of the cameras reviewed were functioning as they should, down from 45 percent found to working properly during a random sampling last year.

“That means that at any given time when crime is occurring around our city, only a third of the cameras are able to capture criminal activity at camera locations,” Butkovitz told the Philadelphia Daily News. He said the system is “worse than useless” because it gives residents a false sense of security.

Butkovitz said the problems included blurry images with pixelated edges and condensation in camera domes, making it difficult or impossible to read license plates and identify crime suspects.

“Suppose that had been the quality of photos in the Boston bombing,” Butkovitz told KYW Newsradio, letting listeners draw their own conclusions.

Mayor Michael Nutter was quick to respond to the assertions, calling Butkovitz’s report inaccurate. Nutter said that by his administration’s count, 85 percent of the 216 police cameras were working as of May 27.

Asked by the Daily News why there was such a wide discrepancy in the figures, Nutter said, “I can’t account for the controller’s inability to count. … We know what cameras work. [Butkovitz] does some kind of sampling. We actually pay attention to all of the cameras.”

Regardless of who’s right, Philly’s spat highlights the benefits for the security industry post-Boston. For cities that don’t have a video surveillance system, the law enforcement benefits of adding one have never been more obvious. For cities that are already onboard, now is the time to make sure the systems are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. That goes for the monitoring side as well.

by: Rich Miller - Wednesday, May 29, 2013

After a three-year stint in PERS, Ty Davis has launched a venture to make the security world a more beautiful place: producing keypad overlays that can be customized to match any home or office.

Davis, an SSN "20 under 40" alumnus, got his start at Southwest Dispatch and then moved on to become VP of monitoring at Life Alert. He still sees a great future for PERS, but he also sees a growing consumer demand for something beyond the standard white keypad—something that dealers can benefit from as well.

"I'm not talking about the big guys, the ADTs and such, but the smaller dealers who need to be able to brand their security systems like anybody else," Davis said. "This kind of gives them a leg up on branding while matching the decor of the customer's home, which has always been a stickler for many mid- to high-end properties accent-wise."

Davis' new company, OWOW Designs, is catering to that niche. It just expanded to a 10,000-square-foot facility in Agoura Hills, Calif., where four full-time employees are producing keypads personalized with everything from family photos to patterns matching the foyer wallpaper.

"It's basically a car wrap—it's the exact same material," he said. "After the customer chooses what they want, you can still add your company name and logo. That way, you make sure you get that recurring revenue if the customer moves on and the next customer comes in, looks around and says, 'I need to call this guy' because it's his name on the keypad. It's the same way it works for the major alarm companies."

Asked about his tenure at Life Alert and PERS in general, Davis had nothing but good things to say.

"It was a wonderful experience," he said. "The move to a strictly PERS environment was an eye-opener. It was great to see another part of the industry and how it is truly a help to the elderly, providing them with additional protection inside the home. It's amazing how many independent dealers as well as major guys are getting into the market."

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