Security Dealer magazine interviewed representatives of four central stations to discuss the evolution of service and the many facets of monitoring—from the reduction of false alarms to providing critical life safety response services. We thank them for their insights and contributions.
Johnson: How have the activities of central stations changed and evolved with new technologies and innovation in remote monitoring? Is there more supervision, maintenance and value-added service?
Suzie Avondet, vice president of operations, AvantGuard Monitoring Centers, Ogden, Utah: I have seen a vast improvement in central station automation systems. Current automation systems are capable of performing functions that had previously been done manually. The advances in automation system technology have enabled our central station’s operators to devote more time to focusing on customer service and response times, reducing the workload burden on our operators. Also, the new technology alarm receiving units reduce the amount of time devoted to troubleshooting signals and format information with our dealers. These advances in technology have allowed us to streamline our processes and increase efficiency. When we went from a DOS-based system to a Windows-based system the benefits were realized immediately with the speed in reporting and customized reporting we could provide.
Kerry L. Egan, vice president, Security Partners LLC, Lancaster, Pa.: Central station activities have been simplified through features in automation software but the art of monitoring is still done best with the best people. Our list of services continues to expand. We have moved beyond just offering basic monitoring services and look for new ways to stay a head of industry trends which help our dealers stay competitive. Our services include not only monitoring but also video verification and video notification. Technology makes it feasible to manage a central station remotely 24/7. We can accomplish this through hardware and software technology as there are many programs rich with features that allow us to minimize operators while at the same time increase coverage. Reporting is set up so that they are e-mailed to me daily. This allows for the on-going review of central station activities.
Mark S. Fischer, vice president/CTO, Nationwide Digital Monitoring Co., Freeport, N.Y.: There have been dramatic changes in the types and quantities of signals being sent to the central stations. Today most manufacturers provide a means to supervise all essential components of the alarm system. This supervision means that system failures are reported, documented and repaired. In older systems a subscriber may fail to notify the installer of a trouble which could result in there being a gap or total loss of protection. The introduction of alarm monitoring through the Internet allows virtually any alarm system to benefit from line supervision, eliminating the problem of a communicator disconnected from the phone lines going undetected. Video verification and other video related services are becoming the key selling points of a growing percentage of new systems.
Jeremy Wyble, general manager, Alarm Central, Kansas City, Mo.: With the central station becoming more automated, we are able to provide instant notification to the end users via text messaging or e-mail notification. We are also providing more non-related security services: latch key child services, temperature monitoring and more. In addition more customers are signing up for online account access.
What is the process of training central station operators and what are some of their critical challenges? How do you keep these operators on top of their game?
Avondet: For our entry level operators we employ a 90-day Level 1 Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) training course which includes 128 hours of class room academics and 32 hours of supervised on-the-job training in the employee’s first 30 days. After the first 30 days, the new employee completes 320 hours of supervised on-the-job training in our central station. Once the operator has completed these requirements, they must pass a test given by our training department with a minimum passing score of 85 percent.
There are also additional levels of training that address education of employees in emergency operations and contingency planning, data entry procedures and protocols as well as classes which focus on the fundamentals of leadership, management and administrative skills.
Egan: Our training of all operators involves a two-week intensive regiment that includes telephone etiquette, professionalism, team building exercises, handling alarms through simulation, shadowing a supervisor, learning different panel types and basic operations. In addition we utilize the CSAA Operator Level 1 training course and require a 90 percent or better before allowing them to process an alarm independently. At 90 days we move to advanced operator training which includes education on receivers, signal processing and alarm communication formats. All central station operator-handled alarms are reviewed every 24 hours and the results posted. We run quarterly incentive programs for best response time and alarms handled with 100 percent accuracy.
Fischer: Our operators go through an extensive training process before handling their first alarm. We believe in order for operators to properly communicate with alarm installers, authorities and subscribers they need to be taught the terminology and implications of the signals they are handling. As a Five Diamond Central Station all our operators must also pass the CSAA operator exam. Operators are also given special training for the handling of Personal Emergency Response Systems (PERS), two-way voice, video accounts and for new technologies as we bring them online.
To prevent operators from becoming stale from not handling certain types of signals for long periods of time we introduced simulated scenarios to operators; this provides us with a way to gauge operator performance under real-life conditions. We also have several in-house operator merit programs and an “Operator of the Month” award. These awards help keep operator morale up and allow for a little friendly competition resulting in improved service.
Wyble: We have an in-house 90-day training program using the CSAA Operator Level 1 training course. With the advent of all the new advances in central station software, training operators has become easier. Once an operator is past the initial training it is very important to keep challenging them to learn new things and take on additional responsibilities. We have implemented a quarterly employee meeting for our personnel to voice their concerns and discuss what issues they feel they need more training on. Since we are a third-party central station we need to also balance the dealers’ needs which may vary from our standard procedures.
How can the customer become more involved with the central station as far as determining their needs so the central station can more fully address them?
Avondet: As a wholesale monitoring company, our quality assurance program is able to identify trends and issues that may affect our dealers and their customers. We regularly review voice recordings with operators to improve where it is needed. We have a dedicated dealer relations staff that works closely with our central station and our dealers to keep them informed of trends with their accounts. We also provide our dealers with reporting options to assist them with customers’ issues.
Egan: Our dealers utilize the automation software online portal to actively maintain accounts on a daily basis. I encourage dealers to actively review their customers’ recent alarm activity and dispatch reports so they can contact the customer to follow up for service or additional user training.
Fischer: Subscribers need to communicate any special needs they may have to the central station. The subscriber also needs to understand how their alarm system operates and communicate properly with the central station. We find that most problems with the end users are a result of lack of understanding of their role and that of the central station.
How has alarm verification and no-response or other policies changed the way in which the central station does business or will do business in the future?
Avondet: We have always strived to work closely with law enforcement, alarm associations and our dealers to provide the best and fastest monitoring response possible within the parameters of a given jurisdiction’s ordinance. As the industry changes, necessity has dictated that we are flexible enough with our response procedures to adapt to new procedures or ordinances, which might include implementing ECV (Enhanced Call Verification) or adding a guard service.
Egan: We are currently doing alarm verification through enhanced calls and in some cases live video. I foresee the demand for this continuing to increase with added security requirements and false alarm reduction. I do not believe that “no-response” should be an option. Educating the alarm user is the most effective way to reduce false dispatches.
Fischer: The role of the central station is evolving; video verification and other video services are becoming a major aspect of our business. This is largely in response to the recent implementation of alarm verification laws. In areas where police have elected a no-response policy we have teamed with local independent response agencies to provide private response to subscriber locations.
Wyble: With alarm verification and no-response policies in effect we have had a greater push to implement video monitoring services. Within the past year our video monitoring accounts have doubled. We are a huge supporter of ECV. This requires two calls before dispatch, one to the premises and one to a phone number not at the premises. Studies have shown that this procedure can reduce false alarms by as much as 40 percent.
What can and does your central station do to more fully engage and train the actual system operators/users at the protected premises, because studies continue to show that most false alarms are from user error?
Avondet: Again, our central stations are wholesale only. We work very closely between our central stations and dealers to keep them up-to-date on any issues that their customers may have. We notify our dealers on a daily basis on issues that may be affecting their customers. We work closely with many alarm associations and law enforcement agencies, customizing our response procedures to accommodate the customer, dealer or Authority Having Jurisdiction over procedures. We maintain the ability to be flexible and customize our response.
Egan: We offer 24/7 technical assistance to all customers. Through this service we will assist customers in restoring zones, bypassing zones in trouble, powering down inoperable systems and dispatching service. Ultimately, I think the responsibility is on the installing company to provide literature on false alarm reduction and to educate the customer on system operation. We make it easier for the customer to be active with the central station. Reviewing alarm activity and updating call list information adds value to customer’s overall service.
Fischer: We see the problem as being driven by the end user and in many instances fed by the dealer. Most of today’s control panels have excellent methods of determining subscriber error and communicating the fact that an alarm was probably the result of the user. However, most dealers find it more effective to sell a customer on how fast the authorities will respond rather than trying to explain the benefits of the false alarm reduction features. To their defense, most times the subscriber is insistent that they want response every time an alarm is triggered, without any regard for a cancel, error-on-exit or other false alarm reduction signals. When we receive a subscriber contract that indicates “Ignore Cancel Signals,” “Do Not Verify” or a similar message we explain to the dealer the possible problems. Usually the dealer asks us to contact the subscriber directly and explain our position. Sometimes we cannot accommodate these requests because they would violate false dispatch ordinances.