The Great Debate

Oct. 27, 2008
Getting everyone to agree on how to reduce police dispatches for false burglar alarms can be a true challenge

When looking at the electronic burglar alarm industry as a whole, one of the hottest topics of debate is the issue of false alarms and how they can be reduced. With some jurisdictions having false alarm rates as high as 98 percent, it’s easy to see why police departments across the country are either demanding increased accountability or putting a lower priority on responding to burglar alarms. Complicating the matter further, how (or even if) the police respond to burglar alarms in your area can affect the public perception of the service being provided by alarm dealers.

But not all of the news is bad.  According to Stan Martin, executive director, Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC), Frisco, Texas, the national dispatch rate has decreased by 70 percent over the past ten years, going from an average of three annual dispatches per burglar alarm down to 0.8. However, Martin also pointed out that the number of burglar alarms in the U.S. have gone from 18 million up to 38 million in that same 10-year time period, so the total number of dispatches hasn’t been reduced significantly.

The late Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, once stated that “All politics is local.”  A few decades later, that phrase is very applicable to the various burglar alarm ordinances and situations throughout the country. For instance, even if the national trend is a good one, it means little to you if your town has a big problem with false alarms stretching your police resources too thin or if your police have effectively stopped responding altogether.

For cities that are still debating their alarm ordinances, many factors have to be taken into consideration. How much should the fines be and who should pay them?  What type of burglar alarms should be permitted?  What criteria should be met before the police are dispatched?  And perhaps biggest of all, what does this all mean for alarm dealers and the value of their businesses?  As you can imagine, there are differing viewpoints on these questions and Security Dealer & Integrator explores the various viewpoints in this article.

Devaluing the alarm business?
Lee Jones, owner, Support Services Group, Los Angeles, works with alarm dealers to help them understand trends and influences in the industry.  Jones is very concerned about the direction of the burglar alarm industry and to back up his case he tells the story of a large European company that was looking to invest about $1 billion in the U.S. electronic burglar alarm industry four or five years ago.  Before making the investment, the company wanted Jones to dig up as much “bad” information as he could about the alarm industry.  He did just that and after reading his report, the company on the advice of their legal counsel opted to stay out of the U.S. burglar alarm business. 

Jones supports “Zero Tolerance” programs such as Verified Response and has been vocal in his disagreements with the various alarm associations on the matter.  He charges that certain segments of the alarm industry engage in “deceptive business practices” and “consumer fraud,” citing the discrepancy between how long consumers think it takes police to respond to burglar alarms and how long it really takes.  Jones makes the argument that many cities are practicing “Default Verified Response” where, without officially stating it, police departments simply have lowered the priority on burglar alarms to the point that they might or might not get around to responding to such a signal.

Jones noted that the possibility exists for a class-action lawsuit against the alarm industry for not being up front with customers as to how long it will take police to respond to an alarm. “Alarm dealers don’t realize that the value of their business is plummeting,” he warned.

But is this the case?  Mel Mahler, owner, ADS Security, Nashville, Tenn., has alarm companies in 13 cities and doesn’t think the value of burglar alarms are going down.  He continues to invest in the burglar alarm industry, recently pouring $2.5 million into software and hardware upgrades for his Nashville monitoring center.   

Mahler’s strategy with ADS Security is to operate in 2nd and 3rd tier cities population-wise where there isn’t likely to be a problem with police not responding to alarms.  He said that his company has a good relationship with the local municipalities where they operate, although problems can develop from time to time, especially where there is a new city manager looking to flex his muscles. 

Overall, Mahler recommends that alarm dealers work to have a good relationship with the city councils and police departments in the areas where they install alarms.  He said that communication is crucial, especially when showing police departments exactly where the false alarms are coming from.  If a police department can set up a computer database to track specifically which alarm companies are sending the alarms and whether or not they’re coming from residential or commercial buildings, then that can go a long way toward understanding the problem.

“The biggest problem with false alarms is with municipal buildings, believe it or not,” said Mahler, “and second is schools; third is churches; fourth is restaurants.”  On the other hand, he noted that the average homeowner has a false alarm only once every 18 months.

Furthermore, Mahler emphasizes the fact that not all alarm companies are the same.  “It’s like everything else in this world, it’s a 90-10 problem,” he explained.  “Ten percent of the alarm companies are creating 90 percent of the false alarms.”  He added that often times police departments are surprised to learn that the bigger alarm companies in a given area, such as ADT, Brinks, Alarm Detection Systems and ADS Security tend to have lower false alarm rates than some of the smaller companies. 

What about police response times?
Multiple sources interviewed for this story confirmed that in some cities police response to burglar alarms could be poor.  For large cities that don’t have a quality ordinance in place for managing burglar alarms, it’s easy to see how police departments could get inundated with burglar alarms, nearly all of which turn out to be false.  In such cases, it’s hard to fault the police for putting burglar alarms at a lower priority on the list of situations which they have to handle daily.

“Every police department has different response priorities,” said Stan Martin, noting that in small cities the response time could be between four and fifteen minutes, whereas in larger cities (populations approaching 500,000) the average response time is 45 minutes to an hour.

Martin acknowledged that some alarm dealers might not be leveling with their customers about police response times, but that’s a relatively small group.  “Smart business owners are forthright with their customers,” he said.

David Meurer, business development officer, Armed Response Team, Albuquerque, N.M., knows all too well what it’s like for a police force to be stretched so thin that it’s unable to respond to burglar alarms in a timely manner.  He recalled times when police would arrive at a home hours and hours after the alarm sounded and the homeowner would be confused and ask, “Why are you here?” or if it had been an actual burglary, the homeowner would be irate, demanding to know, “Where were you guys?”  

Armed Response Team was actually formed by a group of Albuquerque police officers who saw a business opportunity to provide fast, professional responses to burglar alarms.  As it turned out, the company is able to use police officers who are recently retired as responders to alarms.  Meurer said that it has allowed these retired officers to extend their careers and, by only serving as alarm responders, prevent a draining of police resources into alarm response.  He added, “It has worked.”

While ADS Security’s Mahler would prefer to avoid getting into the guard (private armed response) business, he said that those he knows who are in it say it’s profitable.  “So the worst case that could happen in this industry is that we all have to go and get into the guard business,” said Mahler, but he doesn’t see things coming to that. 

Enhanced Call Verification
“Enhanced Call Verification (ECV) should be required by municipalities and responding agencies,” said Michael Horgan, owner, H&S Protection Systems Inc., Stevens Point, Wis. “ECV is currently the industry’s most effective tool in reducing false dispatches.  Law enforcement continues to embrace this concept more and more through education and through published results.  The alarm industry continues to implement ECV but has a long way to go, particularly with the mid-sized and smaller companies. 

Although, not everyone is convinced that ECV is the way to go.  Aside from the extra time required to make the additional call (or calls), some people think ECV could put homeowners and business owners in the dangerous position of checking on their own alarms.

Alarm Response Team’s Meurer explained that with Enhanced Call Verification there is the potential to call a responsible party who will answer the phone and say, ‘I don’t know.  I don’t think there’s a problem, but I’ll go check it out myself.’  “Now we’re taking private citizens and literally putting them into a law enforcement role,” warned Meurer.  “That’s a very risky undertaking and putting the client in enormous peril.”
While there have been documented cases of business owners checking on their own alarm and discovering an armed criminal on the premises, that is not how many in the alarm industry envision ECV working. 
ADS Security’s Mahler, for instance, insisted that he would never want one of his customers in the position of going onsite to check their own alarm.  “We prefer that they never do that because they could walk into danger,” said Mahler.  “The only time I ever see that is when somebody is just refusing to fix their alarm system and they’re already up to five or six false alarms in the last 12 months and they don’t want us to dispatch because they could be in the $100 fine category.”

Mahler said that the best way to implement ECV is to call the primary number (or secondary number) and see if somebody is able to tell you that indeed the alarm is false.  In almost all cases, according to Mahler, the alarm owner knows exactly what happened (such as opening the wrong door or setting the wrong pass code).  In a case where the alarm owner doesn’t know what happened, then immediately do a dispatch.

Solutions going forward
Thomas Sweeney, chief of police, Glastonbury, Conn., said his town has implemented an ordinance which is based on “The Model Ordinance” designed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) and the alarm industry, and they have seen a drop in false alarms by about 40 percent in the last couple years. 

Sweeney sees three different strategies that a police department could pursue in order to deal with false alarms.  The first is to just do nothing and be a victim.  (Not something he recommends.) 
“The second (strategy) is to actively manage and focus on the small percentage of alarms that account for a disproportionate amount of the alarm calls,” said Sweeney. “You’re dealing with a percentage of somewhere around 10 to 15 percent of the alarm calls that account for probably 50 to 60 percent of the calls every year; and you go back to them and you deal with certain establishments that have 30 and 40 false alarms every year when the average home is less than probably one a year wrong.  So you have to focus on the abusers.”

“And the third strategy is one that came out of a few of the western communities.  They weren’t going to respond unless a third party such as a guard service could verify that there was indeed a legitimate reason for the police to come on scene,” continued Sweeney, referring to verified response, “but there could be delays associated with that and other things.  Dallas went to that and withdrew from it… [Verified Response] is the fastest way to get rid of alarm calls but it draws probably a bigger blowback in your community.” Of the three strategies Sweeney outlined, he favors the second one.

With police departments being asked to do more with less these days and the alarm population exploding, the issue of false alarms will remain a complicated one.  However, the alarm industry can claim some success stories and keep fighting the good fight.

“Manufacturing standards like CP-01 and operating standards like Enhanced Call Verification have had a tremendous impact on reducing false dispatches with implementation of these standards far from complete,” said Horgan.  “Perhaps more importantly, the industry is working with police departments and city governments with increasing regularity to find solutions that benefit all stakeholders.  So while there is much work to be done, I believe the industry is working very hard to reduce false alarms with encouraging results.”