Best Practices in Managing the Central Station: Part 1

CSAA award winners share tips on effective central station management

At its recent meeting in Savannah, Ga., the Central Station Alarm Association presented awards to what judges had decided were some of the best people and companies in the alarm business. As part of those awards, Vector Security was named as their 2006 Central Station of the Year, while Rick Raper of Alarm Detection Systems was named the central station manager of the year. (See earlier CSAA awards coverage on SIW).

Since central stations don't manage themselves, and because stations present a working challenge of what is often a high stress, repetitive, no-error environment, got on the phone with managers from Vector Security and Alarm Detection Systems to "talk shop" so to speak. From Vector Security, we caught up with Ted Stoler, the assistant vice president and station manager for Vector's East Central Station in Plymouth Meeting, Penn., as well as Pam Petrow, executive vice president for Vector Security. Over at Alarm Detection Systems, Rick Raper, central station manager, and Ed Bonifas, vice president, joined on the phone to share what they've learned over the years. These folks shared a wealth of expertise (we've got hours of great tips for central stations on our interview tapes), and we'll be presenting their ideas in this first part and in next week's installment as well.

The first thing that everyone recognized is that running central stations isn't easy work. Everyone involved stressed that while central station work may be perceived by the industry as simple production work, it's far from it. Bonifas noted that there's a real stress element native to the job in that addresses have to be transmitted accurately and all information has to be handled quickly, because of the off chance that a burglar or fire situation may just be life or death. On top of that you have long shifts that often stretch through the night, a work environment that doesn't allow for simple distractions like windows, plus a repetitive line of work that will have employees saying "Hello, this is Sam from XYZ Security; I'm calling in regards to your alarm system..." over and over again to the point where it becomes almost an automatic function, like breathing while you're asleep.

But beyond the use of technologies which can prioritize alarms and thus help take the edge off the intensity that can exist in a central station (especially when a heavy electrical storm sets off a number of the city's alarms), there seem to be a few key attributes to good management of a central station that produce the end results of 1) better quality service, 2) happier employees and 3) ease of operation.

Getting it right the first time

Some people manage numbers, but much of business management is about the people, and in a central station, you depend on your people. The next shift has to be there ready when the midnight shift comes off duty. They have to be focused and precise. "It's the people part of the job that is the hardest," says Vector Security's Pam Petrow.

Where does this lead us back to? The beginning, of course.

All of our respondents stressed that the hiring process is, without a doubt, the most important first step to good central station management. Over at Vector Security, where they have four central stations and 155,000 monitoring customers, the company has a very clearly defined program designed to pull the right employees. Petrow and Stoler says that they start by having applicants respond with a message left on a company voicemail system.

"We want to know how their voice sounds and how they communicate," says Petrow. "And then after that, we go to an in-depth telephone interview, and often more interviews after that. It's a very rigorous hiring program."

Background checks and substance screening are all part of the vetting process, and Petrow says they ask tough questions up front to their applicants. Each applicants is also reviewed by a number of different managers, and "everyone has to agree before we'll bring someone on."

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