When Disaster Strikes

Q: How can I make sure that the central station that monitors my accounts can manage through a crisis like Hurricane Katrina or a 9/11? Are there new methods being developed to address this issue?

A: Anxious readers are constantly asking this question. One individual from Katrina’s affected area told me that, while their central station functioned well on backup power, the real problem was that phone lines were down and all their planning for this was not successful.

UL and NFPA have standards for a central station requiring backup power and redundant receivers and computers. However, the digital communicator “revolution” that began circa 1975 has totally changed the character of the central station and standards have not kept up.
Back over 25 years ago in the security industry, a central station’s area of coverage (i.e. where the customers were that a central station monitored) was governed by Ohm’s Law. With direct connect and McCulloh circuits, driven by batteries at the central station, the distance a circuit could go was a direct function of how much resistance the wire posed to maintain the required DC current.

The original voltage used was 52 volts. To attain more distance, central stations went to 78 volts and then to the maximum the telephone company would allow for the safety of its employees, 130 volts. Central stations then were located near or at the center of its coverage area. UL standards were fine for the time. If, for some reason, a central station incurred a disaster, only those local accounts were affected.

While many regional and national monitoring centers have taken the initiative to either build redundant central stations or partner up with others to affect redundancy, the fact remains that this is not a UL requirement, only a prudent business strategy. But even with a geographically removed, redundant central station, the Achilles Heel of monitoring is communications.

First responders to Hurricane Katrina, as well as those in New York City four years earlier on 9/11, all had the same issue, interoperability of communications. Likewise, this disaster adversely affected a nearby major Verizon center, which took the alarm industry in the New York area to its knees. While some issues are not directly the same, the primary one remains: what can you do if telephones lines are down and your backup cellular services are also down?
Damage could not be assessed in hurricane affected areas until government officials finally entered these areas days or even weeks later, yet CNN, FOX and other news feeds carried pictures right from the eye of the storm using live, full bandwidth video and lower grade picture phone via satellites. No serious efforts are being made to use expensive satellites for alarm monitoring to date. However, the need exists for “infrastructure-less” communications from premises to central station. “Infrastructure-less” means the link does not use a telephone facility, repeater nor cell tower in its path.

A solution might be Low Earth Orbiting satellites (LEOs). They are less expensive versions and make it easy to communicate using inexpensive radio hardware. Terrestrial solutions also exist that can give a central station independence from a seriously compromised communications infrastructure.

Louis T. Fiore is a consultant from Sparta, NJ. He is Past President of CSAA (1997-1999) and President of L.T. Fiore, Inc. His practice includes the use of wireless and the Internet for alarm monitoring, as well as regulatory issues for security systems in general. He also serves as Chairman of Central Station Alarm Association’s (CSAA) Alarm Industry Communications Committee (AICC) and Standards Committee. He is the current chairman of the SIA’s Security Industry Standards Council (SISC) and a long-time member of the Supervising Station Committee of NFPA 72. Send your questions to Lou.Fiore@secdealer.com.