Best Practices in Managing the Central Station: Part 1

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, SecurityInfoWatch.com 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 SecurityInfoWatch.com 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."

Both Vector and Alarm Detection Systems recognize that a central station's "man trap" is a unique work environment. That's why Raper and Bonifas from Alarm Detection Systems don't hold back.

"Part of the on-site interview is to be brutally honest," says Bonifas. "There are no windows; it's close quarters, and they'll not necessarily be working the daylight hours."

"We have a frank discussion about the job," adds Raper. "The first month is tough; so is the first year. We work at finding people who are well-suited for working at midnight and who can handle emergency situations."

Getting it right every time

While the hiring process is the cornerstone of good people management skills at a central station, it's what happens after employees begin that creates continued excellence in the business.

Here again, our respondents were in concurrence. Alarm Detection Systems' Raper and Bonifas, as well as Vector's Petrow and Stoler all agreed that the sign of a good central station manager wasn't that they made sure people did their jobs. Rather the sign of good management for them was that employees were recognized for doing things right. It may be a subtle difference, but while one approach means going through recorded call logs to find errors, the other approach takes the tactic of going through customer calls to find successes.

At the core of good people management is good people retention, and Vector Security and Alarm Detection Systems both use strong incentive programs to make sure that employees are recognized for doing things right.

With more than 25,000 accounts monitored by the 38-year-old company, Raper and Bonifas note that Alarm Detection Systems sees about one "real" and serious event per calendar day. That presents a challenge, because it means that staff could become complacent. Instead, Alarm Detection Systems tries to turn that complacency on its head and create a spirit of anticipation for that "real" event.

They do that with a number of programs. First is that the operators who handle those calls are often recognized for doing an excellent job in handling a serious alarm situation. The company also names an Operator of the Month, to recognize an employee who has proven him or herself in not only proper alarm handling, but also in their reliability. The company also has a "Way to Go" program that gives tickets to recognize operators, which can be traded for benefits or prizes. A particular event and central station operator also is recognized each month in the company newsletter.

Over at Vector Security, incentive programs are also the linchpin of good morale in the man trap. Petrow and Stoler note that they use "Yes" chips, which are simple recognition awards that the employees can trade in for a bonus. They also award their "Smooth Operators" to recognize those operators who handle situations efficiently. "We try to emphasize things they do every day," says Stoler.

"We also do position bonuses. No tardy days? No sick days? Those employees can earn financial bonuses," explains Petrow. "The biggest risk is that if you sit all day and say, 'Vector Security, what is your code, please?' We have to maintain that high level of attention."

Stoler, Petrow, Bonifas and Raper all stress that they're constantly seeking ways to create incentive programs, so that the programs themselves don't become as repetitive as dialing out to alarm owners to confirm or deny their alarm signals.

Coming next week in our second part: More employee programs, plus finding that elusive "personal touch" in central station management.

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