Central Stations Aim To Serve

Burglar alarms have come a long way, from the days when they were literally a concoction of bells and whistles monitored by the local police department, to today’s high-tech intrusion alarm systems which are monitored by private firms. The number of such firms monitoring alarms grew over much of the last century until the 1980s when the field began to consolidate as the bigger companies started gobbling up the smaller ones.

The landscape of third party central monitoring stations continues to change today as advancements in technology and communications infrastructure make it possible for a single station to monitor alarms all across the country. It is another reason the number of central stations has gone down as the number of alarms being installed continues to go up. It is not necessary to have a central station in every town (or even in every state) in order to monitor alarms there.

Of course, just because a single central station can monitor accounts across the country does not mean central stations rely on one system. Many central stations have fully redundant counterparts. In the event that one of them were to go down in a disaster, the calls could be seamlessly routed through the other. In fact, some dealers won’t consider a central station if it doesn’t have a redundant back-up. Tom Mertz, Springville Security, explains, “If a central station… is not redundant in the event of a catastrophic failure (hurricanes, snowstorms, system upgrades etc.), they are not in the running in my book regardless of what other services they offer.”

While central stations are becoming smaller in number, their capabilities are rapidly expanding and they are offering more services than ever before. A current challenge for them is to meet the ever-changing demands of a dynamic market.

“Technology by far is the biggest change and challenge to this side of the business,” says Mark Ramsey, COO, Crime Alert. “Areas such as web services, VoIP and web video monitoring are just a few examples to bring vast changes to the industry.”

Computer networks are changing everything and with millions of homes and businesses switching from Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) to Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP), central stations have had to adjust accordingly. Many services provided by central stations, and made available for dealer integrators to offer your residential and commercial customers, are experiencing a lot of growth. Internet monitoring, medical monitoring, and video alarm verification are among the most popular. Take a look…

“VoIP telephone service at the premises is now driving the change to monitoring using IP-enabled panels or IP modules on existing panels,” says Brett Springall, IT director, Security Central. He adds that IP panels are one of the items in which the central station has had to make a significant investment.

“Internet monitoring has definitely become more popular over the past few years as more and more individuals move away from the traditional POTS service,” says Kevin McCarthy, national sales manager, EMERgency 24. “Because of this transition, we now offer our dealers several different options in Internet monitoring. The ‘always on’ connection that is provided with Internet monitoring allows our dealers to use this technology for high security applications and eliminates the need for a daily auto-test.”

Personal Emergency Response System (PERS) is usually what is meant in regard to a central station’s medical monitoring services. Typically it would be used by an elderly person who is at higher risk of being stricken by illness or injury alone in their home, unable to call for help. With a PERS, a person has an emergency button on them at all times. When they need help, they push the button which sends a radio signal to a panel connected to their phone line which in turn alerts the central station. The central station can then call the house and establish a two-way voice connection that allows them to talk and listen to the person in need. The central station also has that person’s medical history and hospital of choice, allowing them to make an informed decision regarding medical help.

“With 36.8 million adults now over the age of 65, two-way voice and medical alert monitoring accounts are on a steady rise,” says McCarthy. “Adult children who care for their elderly parents may see this as a safeguard for those who are not yet ready for full- time care.”

As the security industry continues to look for ways to reduce false alarm dispatches, video alarm verification is gaining significance. The idea being that when an alarm goes off, the central station can remotely view what is happening on the scene in the vicinity of the tripped alarm and see if the situation is worthy of a dispatch. This can save money on false alarm fines, and more importantly, allow the police to better concentrate their efforts for the public’s safety.

More robust video surveillance, on the other hand, has not made quite as much headway with central stations as video alarm verification. Likewise, remote facility control management and remote security access management are two convenient services offered by some central stations but are still confined to niche markets.
“The costs to do remote video surveillance from the central station make it unsuitable for most users,” Springall says of the current situation. “In addition, the video services such as guard tours are less effective than video verification where traditional sensors are used to trip an alarm, for which video would be available. There is a very small niche market for remote facility control. The implications of remote access on the central station make it very difficult to market effectively. As remote access products mature and allow dealers and end users to manage their own access systems, these systems will become easier for central stations to implement.”

“The role of central stations has had to evolve in order to give their dealers more information on demand,” says Howard Avin, vice president of sales and marketing, Nationwide Digital Monitoring. “It is not enough these days just to give fast response to an alarm and great customer service. Municipalities have put the onus on the dealer to reduce false dispatches.”

Avin continues, “The other portion of this ‘information on demand’ change is the ability of the central station to give their dealers instantaneous information about their accounts. Whether it is in the form of a report e-mailed directly to their customer or the effective management of their accounts via the Internet, the central stations have had to adapt. Only with dispatcher training on these new technologies (plus the right automation package) can the central station provide the flexibility and the ability to exert change not only now, but in the future as well.”

“Alarm installers have become increasingly aware of issues like site redundancy and information technology functionality,” says Bob Heintz, COO, Criticom. “Monitoring stations used to be considered ‘redundant’ if they had back-up receivers, servers and phone switches. Today, ‘redundancy’ means something very different. Central stations need to clearly understand the path a signal takes from an alarm panel or similar device and work to ensure that multiple paths exist from that panel right through to the automation system in the central station. If the signal can not travel on its normal path, does a back-up exist? Is there a single point of failure as telephone lines enter the central station or do two entry paths exist? What happens if an IP modem is shut off? Those are just a few of the considerations…”

“In the last five years, the biggest change that central stations have had to contend with is the rising number of ordinance and licensing issues,” says Dave Simon, senior manager of industry and public relations, Brinks Home Security. “For the larger national companies, this has added to the overall complexity of monitoring both residential and commercial accounts as we have struggled to meet the requirements of the various emergency agencies that we work with. False alarms and unnecessary dispatches have been the drivers of local legislation as agencies work to free up their overworked labor force. In the central stations, not only do we work to ensure that the requirements of the ordinances are met, but we also have begun working more with our customer base in educating and assisting them in obtaining alarm permits.”
McCarthy agrees that the false alarm issue is huge in the industry, and he is frustrated that it has gotten to this point. “The security industry as a whole allowed this issue to get out of hand,” he says. “Now we are scrambling in a reactionary mode to try and remedy the problem. For some cities, it was too late. Verified response to burglar alarms has become a way of life for many residential and commercial customers. Municipalities across the nation are looking at ways to cut down on the expenses associated with false alarms, and unfortunately, many police chiefs see this as the answer.”

The security industry is currently looking at alternatives to verified response to reduce false alarms, says McCarthy. He adds that enhanced call verification (ECV), cross zoning, and smarter alarm panels are all the new buzz words that he hears nearly every day as alternatives to verified response.

“Five years ago, all we had to worry about was processing an alarm when we received it and that was rather simple. You called the alarm location and if you did not reach anyone, then you called the police,” says Simon. “Today, we have entered the world of verified response and enhanced call verification.”