Video alarms help police prioritize response

While efforts by the alarm industry and law enforcement community have helped reduce false alarm dispatches dramatically over the past decade, innovations in surveillance technology are poised to bolster that effort even further.

A city that has implemented one of these policies with positive results is Charlotte, N.C. According to Maj. Eddie Levins of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department, the city passed an ordinance two years ago that required alarm owners to apply for permits and if they suffered too many false alarms, the police department would no longer respond.

However, with the department's prioritized response policy, if an alarm owner has video evidence that a crime is being committed on their property, Levins said the police department will respond even if they've repeatedly violated the ordinance.

"We always respond to video alarms or when there is video evidence that (the alarm company) can send to us," he said. "Even if you've been cut off by the alarm ordinance we still respond with the idea that the information is so much better. The idea is to increase the capture rate because we know what we're responding to, we have better information so we make it a priority one call so it's an immediate response."

Levins said that the alarm companies have done a good job of vetting video feeds from their customers so that police are not simply responding to a person on the premises.

"They don't send us on the dog running across the beam, which was the problem we had with a lot of sensor alarms," Levins explained. "They give us better information and it tells us what we're looking for. I think when you have officers responding to situations like this, they respond more informed and basically in a safer environment because they know what they're getting into."

According to Levins, the city answers about 100,000 alarm calls each year, but they only average around 8,000 break-ins. Video surveillance systems working in conjunction with alarm systems will only help to reduce the number of alarms that the city responds to , Levins said, because if there is an alarm and the video doesn't show any corroborating evidence then police won't respond.

An alarm with corresponding video evidence also dictates a different type of response by police.
Once the officers have the information (from the video) out there, it does dictate a lot of the response, the way we respond with lights or sirens, how many cars we're going to have to send and it gives us point-of-entry quite often so we know where to start," Levins explained.

Levins believes that the entire e-911 system is moving towards a framework where people are able to provide information to police and other first responders more quickly using different types of mediums.

"It's going to open up a lot of doors for a lot of people. It will save us a whole lot of trouble responding to calls we have no clue about or just continually respond to. But, we are recommending video where we have constant repeat offenders that they just can't figure out why the alarm's going off," he said.

Levins said that he hopes that the alarm industry begins moving more towards the utilization of video in conjunction with sensors because it will give people better options.

"The people who constantly have false alarms who don't have the video, we're not going to be responding. The way the ordinance is written, we're not going to respond," he said. "Hopefully the video will decrease our need to respond, which saves us and the taxpayers a lot of money, but also increases our capture rate because when we do respond we know we're responding to something that's real. Hopefully, as the (alarm) industry grows and takes (video) up more it will be just as cost-effective or better than the current set of alarms."

Levins said that law enforcement needs to make sure they catch up with the technology curve in the industry so that they can handle these new data streams.

"I envision, down the road, being able to get the information across the bandwidth and be able to show officers in their cars what (the scene) looks like," he said.

Another jurisdiction in the process of establishing their own priority response policy is the Boise Police Department in Idaho. According to Curt Crum, supervisor of the BPD's crime prevention unit, the policy represents another step in the city's efforts to reduce false alarm dispatches.

"We've kind of taken our false alarm reduction in increments for years," he explained. "We started by implementing a city ordinance that basically allowed people to have two false alarms per calendar year and then you start attaching fees for dispatches to those properties after the two free ones. That actually cut our false alarms by 40 percent, but then we started to see them tick back up again and so about 10 years ago we cut it to one free (false alarm) per calendar year and doubled the fines, which has allowed us to stay pretty steady... but there are still way too many. I think we have about 3,800 false alarms that we send officers to every year."

When the county's unified dispatch call center has the web portal necessary to handle the new policy, Crum said he expects it will allow police to know much quicker if the alarm is real and to more efficiently utilize their resources.

"It will definitely enhance our response and provide enhanced safety to the officers that are responding to that alarm if they know that someone is indeed in that building and what they look like," said Crum.

Crum pointed out, however, that the department has not switched to a verified response policy and that they are still going to send officers to traditional alarm calls. Though they will still respond to sensor alarms, if they don't have any additional information about the alarm, Crum said that it could hold for 15 minutes before it's dispatched. If they receive information from the alarm company that an intruder is in the protected facility, Crum said the call will be dispatched as a crime in progress.

"If that alarm company calls us and just them verbally telling us that 'we have video authentication that this is an in-progress crime that someone is in the building,' just them telling us that is going to make it a higher priority," Crum explained. "But, the fact that they could send us a short video clip that would allow the officers to actually see the person, what they're wearing and a basic description, that would help immensely. "

Keith Jentoft, president of RSI Video Technologies, maker of the Videofied system that integrates PIR detectors with surveillance cameras, says that prioritized response is not about false alarm reduction, but rather to build on top of the work that has already been done in this area. While some may argue that these policies are "anti-alarm," Jentoft said that they are simply a way for law enforcement to make their response to alarms more effective.

"What's different here is that instead of a stick of non-response that people have been using, law enforcement is using the same concept as an HOV lane to encourage consumer behavior," said Jentoft. "Just as HOV lanes are not anti-car, priority response isn't anti-alarm. It's just a carrot side. They continue the response that they've always done to traditional alarms, they just go faster to video alarms.

Jentoft also pointed out that video alarms are not the same as 24/7 video surveillance.

"What we're talking about in priority response is moving video alarms up in the queue. That's the core issue. Video alarms are not surveillance, they're an incremental step in doing what alarm companies have always done, detect and notify," he said. "But, we're going a step beyond detect and notify in that we see what we detect and we can notify differently. Most importantly for our industry, it's not some new nanny cam that's self-monitored by the consumer that's going to flood the (911 call center). It's real security monitoring by real security companies."

Even many police departments that don't have a formal prioritized response policy will still respond faster to video alarms, according to Jentoft, because they "like making arrests."

With the sour economy forcing municipalities across the country to slash their budgets, Jentoft said that cities are keeping an open mind about prioritized response and video alarms.

"You can't just have a service for the rich. The fact that video alarms have become cost-effective in competing with regular alarms makes a big difference," he said.

For alarm dealers, Jentoft says that video alarms give the industry something of higher value to sell.

"What you think you're buying (when you buy an alarm) is the police," he said. "The argument is you can get a free system and have police when they get there or maybe pay a little bit more and have police put you at the top of list and respond like a 911 call. And, because it's a crime in progress, they make more arrests and there's nothing like an arrest to have deterrence."

Stan Martin, executive director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC), says that the alarm industry can't ignore the advance of video technology and that companies need to start thinking about how it's going to impact business moving forward. He cautioned, however, that video surveillance is not a cure all for false alarms.

"We've spent years reducing alarm dispatches around the country to the point now where (false alarms) are off the radar screen for most police departments," he said. Alarm dispatches have come way, way down 70 or 80 percent from where they were 10 years ago. It's time to get back to doing something even greater for police departments and that's not just getting them there after the fact, but getting them there while the crime is in progress and video technology, if structured properly, can achieve that."

Martin says the industry still needs to develop guidelines and standards regarding video alarms to ensure that the technology is applied appropriately. He explained that the industry doesn't want to produce volumes of video clips for police that turn out to be nothing.

"In other words, there is a person in a store or home, how do we know it's not the owner or an employee that forgot to turn the system off or enter the proper code?" Martin asked. "We've got to have some type of verification procedure to understand what we're seeing a picture of. The second point I would make is the importance of having these surveillance cameras or clips positioned in a way that we're getting the protected premises."

Martin said he has heard of cases where cameras were positioned where they were looking out over the perimeter of a facility that catch people, who while they may seem suspicious, are not actually engaged in any criminal activity. Of course, another application for video alarms is the protection of equipment that is located on the perimeter of homes and business, such as air conditioners, solar panels or radio equipment, which also will need some guidelines.

"We have to be smart about where we're applying this technology and how operators are going to respond when these video clips come in," Martin said. "Many of the police departments seem to be willing to respond quicker with just the additional intelligence that there is confirmation of some person on the protected site... even if we can't confirm it's criminal.

"And that's got some really strong points, many departments will say 'hey, we're willing to come a little bit quicker and investigate that because we believe there is a greater probability.' But yet I know there are going to be departments that want that filter that we've got to confirm criminal activity because they don't want to respond to just find an employee or homeowner that forgot to turn off their system. We have to kind of flesh that out with police departments and understand that some departments are going to have different standards for dispatch. "

Martin says another area of concern for the alarm industry is the potential for sales people in the industry to mislead consumers about the benefits of video alarms and police response.

"Our sales people, overall, do a very good job, but we know there is a percentage or an element of people that will exploit priority dispatch," he said. "They will walk in with a customer, tell them 'if you upgrade to video we guarantee the police will get here quicker' and maybe that's true in some cases, but I think we better be honest and genuine with the specific circumstances. There is nothing wrong with a sales opportunity, but we better not abuse that. I would like to see us kind of self-police and make sure we approach this properly and professionally, and if we do, I believe police departments are going to be very excited about the opportunities we present them with to take more of these bad guys off the street."