An Earnest Proposal for Solving the Problem of False Alarms - Part 1

March 22, 2005
False alarms are choking our industry... Isn't it time we looked at the technical causes of these nuisance calls?

"Electronic physical security provided by alarm systems aids in the crime prevention effort."

Given the unacceptable high number of "false" or "nuisance" alarms confronting local law enforcement departments, the statement quoted above can be viewed as a false premise, an unacceptable paradox or an oxymoron. If anything, effective crime prevention efforts are and continue to be frustrated by this problem of false alarms. It's time we looked at why these nuisance alarms occur, and not just whether a cat walked in front of a motion detector.

As Sal DePasquale, CPP, puts it, "Security does not cure diseases; it simply deals with symptoms. The task for security is not to correct the system that manifests the antisocial behavior. Security's goal is to prevent the behavior from impacting the organization, to drive the criminal elsewhere. To do that means raising the bar to a height that compels the criminal to seek another target."

These improvements translate into "THOR": Target Hardening Opportunity Reduction.

To overcome the problem of nuisance alarms, it may be necessary for jurisdictions to harden the target. This would mean issuing guidelines for site preparation, sensor selection, installation practices and specifications for alarm system components to include monitoring head-end equipment. Transmission media and electrical service standards may even have to be mandated.

Why issue all these guidelines and specification requirements? It's because interference is the direct cause of many false alarms. Radio frequency interference (RFI), Electromagnetic interference (EMI) or Electromagnetic radiation (EMR), whatever you want to call it, has two sources, interior and exterior. This includes electrical and phone services to the building, and to overcome these problems of interference, in-depth site-specific training even may be required for owners of facilities and alarm systems.

So, here's what we do. When the proposed requirements and specifications concerning sensor selection, site preparation, installation practices and specifications have been met, the owner and the owner's alarm system will then pay a fee to be licensed by the governmental agency charged with responding to the alarm.

Should there be more than three "false" or "nuisance" alarms in a 12-month period, the alarm system will be technically inspected for deficiencies and where found, corrected at the owner or monitor's expense. If it is determined the owner is responsible, the license will be suspended and an appropriate fine imposed. The owner and the system will be on probation for 12 months. If during that period of time there are "false" or "nuisance" alarms, the system will be disconnected and the license revoked.

This may be looked upon as excessive; however, considering the police resources devoted to answering spurious alarms, this is the alternative to not answering any alarms. In many jurisdictions, residential alarms already are given the lowest assigned priority for response by law enforcement officers. By meeting technical and inspection standards, this standardizes the residential and business establishment alarm process and better fulfills its role as an effective crime prevention tool.

Moving forward with Knowledge

I am sure there is an unintentional alliance of those who do not know and those who do not care, and I think this "alliance" contributes mightily to this ever-vexing problem.

An Internet search on "False Alarm" confirms the seriousness and complexity of this problem. Both camps on this problem proclaim the size of the false alarm problem and the note the adverse publicity generated for the equipment manufacturers, installers, monitoring agencies, and the alarm system owners and operators. The alarm owner often receives the criticism that he or she does not know how to properly put the system into the "alarm" or "safe" modes.

But let's take an example: The owner is away at work and at 2:30 p.m. when the monitoring station gets an alarm indication from the residence. Remember, the owner is at work. Law enforcement responds, finds nothing and reports an apparent false alarm and another black mark is placed against electronic physical security systems.

Who or what is to blame? Is it the owner, system or component manufacturer, installer, environment, phone company, electric utility company or the monitoring equipment? Do we know if it was a perimeter sensor or an interior sensor? Do we know if there was excess noise on the phone line? Do we know if there was an electrical power anomaly?

We know one thing for sure, government entities have issued ordinances or are planning to do so that impose fines, and failing that, will move to non-response policies.

So, before they do that, we need to find out what's causing these "false" alarms.

[Editor's note: Available on March 29, 2005, the second part of this Bill Warnock's "Earnest Proposal" will take a look at the sources of failure in a building or home and the interference that can lead to a false alarm. It examines what facility systems can come into play when an alarm is tripped and looks at mechanical and electrical systems that either help create or prevent false alarms.]

About the author: William J. Warnock is a private security consultant specializing in comprehensive physical security inspections and surveys, and supervised court security from 1985 to 1991 for the U.S. Marshals Services. He directed the special security upgrades for the District Courthouse in Washington, D.C., and developed the residential security guide used by security and law enforcement personnel in conducting surveys of federal, state, and municipal judges' residences. He has also overseen security operations within the U.S. Army.