Reading Between the Lines of a Study on Verified Response Policies

Verified response isn't usually something that the security industry typically promotes. Instead it's the kind of policy that, when proposed by town mayors and police chiefs, usually elicits grassroots opposition from within local and state alarm associations and creates letter-writing campaigns from alarm owners.

So, it came as a bit of a surprise to those closely following police response issues when Pennsylvania-based alarm company Sonitrol released a whitepaper last week that lauded praises on the effectiveness of verified response policies.

The published survey is mostly a 17-page booklet of glowing praise for verified response policies, citing statistics such as drops in dispatch rates and impacts on police time, and filled with quotes from police departments quoting how much verified response helped them out.

Yet, despite the whitepaper's rosy disposition on verified response, it also brings up issues of those policies' effects on burglary rates. While a pool of 20 cities is hardly large enough to make sweeping generalizations on how verified response will affect burglaries, it is interesting to note that some cities saw major increases in burglary rates after verified response polices were put in place. For example, the survey notes that Salt Lake City's burglary rate jumped by 13 percent following the new policy. In Fremont, Calif., the rate increased by 14.4 percent; in Eugene, Ore., the rate increased by 11.3 percent, and in Arvada, Colo., the increase was just over 10 percent. To be fair, other cities with verified response policies claimed a decrease in burglaries. For example, Salem, Ore., dropped its burglary rate by 23 percent and Westminster, Colo., saw a rate decline of 14.6 percent. (All percentage increases and decreases were based on the rate change in the first year of a verified response policy's implementation.)

The survey also touches briefly on the challenge of what "verified" means. Typically it's assumed that a private guard will be dispatched to reconnoiter the home or business in question, but with technology improvements, alarm system owners are now commonly allowed to use video and audio surveillance for "verification". Sonitrol, of course, sells audio surveillance as part of its intrusion alarm systems.

Still, what does electronic surveillance mean for verification? According to Stan Martin, the executive director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC), a group that has become a watchdog for alarm response policies, says that today's verification techniques can present their own challenges.

"Law enforcement wants us to be certain of criminal activity [before reporting an alarm signal], but there are millions of existing alarm systems that aren't set up for verification," said Martin. "Then you have the challenge that your average home could have 10 to 15 rooms, and your typical commercial building could have even more."

The problem says Martin, is that it becomes a real headache to try to offer digital audio or video verification inside those facilities because of equipment and installation costs. In addition, monitoring stations can also be faced with the quandary of whether an audio recording of someone going through a desk is a common criminal or just a common employee who did not correctly disarm an alarm system. From a video standpoint, verification may be much easier than audio recordings, but unless it's an obvious ransacking, it still may be impossible to know whether the person belongs in that residence or facility or simply accidentally tripped the alarm.

Martin says that while audio and video surveillance is certainly a boon to the alarm industry and can be used successfully for verification, the challenge comes when verification is mandated and doesn't fit with the kinds of systems installed across America.

"We're not opposed to video or audio verification, but mandating it causes problems with alarm customers," said Martin.

But back to the survey itself, there are weaknesses when trying to generalize from the information. For one, the "survey" only turns to 20 cities which currently have a verified response policy, which some would say is akin to asking Washington Redskins fans who the best football team is. It also draws criticism in that the report was commissioned by an alarm company that specifically works in the "verified" sector, making the Sonitrol-sponsored "research" nothing more than a marketing venue for its own audio verification technologies.

In addition, SIAC's Martin said he was a bit perplexed that support of verified response would be coming out of the alarm industry. According to Martin, enhanced call verification (ECV) policies are proving that they can reduce dispatches while keeping local business and homeowners happy with police response policies. Martin says that the gains made with ECV have even shocked some of their strongest supporters, with Olympia, Wash., reporting a 70 percent reduction in false alarm dispatch rates -- a number that rivals what many of the Sonitrol-surveyed cities are claiming from verified response policies.

In the end, though, this new survey makes on thing clear: There may not be as much consensus from the alarm industry as originally thought, despite the universal goal of decreasing false alarm dispatches.