Exclusive Q&A: Merlin Guilbeau on the Future of the NBFAA

Feb. 3, 2006
NBFAA's Merlin Guilbeau talks about a possible name change, membership reciprocity and other top association concerns

On Jan. 26, 2006, the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA) met with 51 attendees for a strategic summit. At issue was the very future of the association, which has overcome a number of challenges in the past, including financial difficulties and the loss of some chartered state associations.

As part of the strategic summit, the organization revisited its mission statement, reviewed its board of directors structure, and developed new technology focus groups. As part of the discussion, the NBFAA has even proposed changing its name, feeling that the "burglar and fire" emphasis no longer reflects the diversified nature of today's dealer and integrator companies. The newly proposed name, "Electronic Life Safety & Systems Association", will go to the membership for approval.

According to Merlin Guilbeau, the association's executive director, 2005 was a year of change for the association, as it was able to regain its financial footing, establish lobbying efforts and begin to establish the organization as the leading organization for security systems dealers and integrators.

On Friday, Feb. 3, 2006, SecurityInfoWatch.com caught up with Guilbeau by phone from the organization's Dallas-area offices to get a full report. The interview with him appears below:

SIW: You've recently published a report on the strategic summit that has been sent to members, and the first thing it covers is the rephrasing of the organization's vision statement. In terms of the changes in the vision statement, is the vision of the NBFAA changing or is it just refocusing?

Guilbeau: I guess the statement itself has changed somewhat from what was approved back in fall of 2003. We are now able to say it in a much more concise manner and probably in a more focused effort.

The old one says "Through the anticipation of socioeconomic, technological and environmental changes and their effects on the industry, this association will become the go-to entity for services guidance and information."

Many people feel as though, for our segment of the industry, we are the 'go-to' entity. Over the last 3 or 4 years, we have stabilized ourselves financially. We're in a much better position. Now we need to assume much more of a leadership role and we need to lead the electronic life safety and security industry and systems integrators. By doing that we'll benefit not only our members but the consumers and overall public safety.

SIW: This report mentions that you're proposing a new name as the Electronic Life Safety and Systems Association. What does that proposed named change reflect in terms of the overall shift in the organization?

I think it reflects what the industry has seen over the years. Back in 1948 when the association was first formed, it was known as the national burglar alarm association. Some years later -- I think it was the early 1950s -- they added the word fire to the name. And for many years the industry has been known as a burglar alarm or security industry. But quite frankly it's now much more than that.

There is much more than burglar alarms in terms of providing security and safety to consumers and the public. So we wanted to bring the name more in line with how technology is reflected today and how the terms that are used.

Our members do much more than just burglar alarms. They do fire alarm systems, which are known as electronic life safety. They do telephone systems, home theater systems, and of course video surveillance and access control. Those are all things that are being referred to as systems. So we felt like that it encompassed a much broader scope of what our members do, rather than just burglar and fire.

SIW: When we spoke in January before the NBFAA summit, you had mentioned that the NBFAA did not want to lose its focus on security. How did the strategic summit reflect that desire to keep security as the primary focus of the organization?

Security is our roots; that's our heritage. We're not going to lose our focus on the security elements. But, again, security is just one aspect of what our members do. Albeit a big aspect, or a large portion of what our members do, there are still a lot of other things that we have to pay attention to in order to serve our members. So we will continue to support our security-specific members. As a matter of fact, I think that was said loud and clear just in the technology focus groups.

If you look at the technology focus groups that were established out of this strategic summit, you have intrusion detection , you have access control, you have video surveillance -- all elements that help deal with security.

SIW: One of the new technology focus groups is "Communications". What is reflected by that name?

That was an interesting element. That was one which we did not bring to the table initially, but which developed through discussion at the summit. And the group felt as though they didn't want to limit it to telecommunications, even though a large number of the members do install telecommunications equipment. They wanted a more broad aspect of communications that involved transporting data as well as voice, so not just telecommunications in that extent, but all communications that affect our industry, whether it's IP whether it's through Voice over IP or any of those things. They thought communications would be broad enough to lump all those things together -- such as intercom and nurse call.

SIW: How much of an effect was Voice over IP on forming this Communications technology group?

I don't know that voice over IP had that much of an effect. That issue right now, the way I see it, is really at a legislative stage, where we have to deal with the FCC, so it's more of an industry issue which would fall under our industry affairs committee and department. What we envision this group doing is finding out those kinds of things before they become an issue that affects the industry. It means being involved on the front-end in a proactive phase, rather than a reactive. Learning about new technologies is what we envision these groups doing.

SIW: Can you share with us an example that our industry has had to react to, something where if that industry group had been formed earlier, we would have been able to be proactive about?

I think to a certain extent, Voice over IP is an example -- it's just that we're beyond it really being part of a technology focus group. We're really having to deal with the issue. If for example, we had a technology focus group with subject matter experts in the communications area both on the manufacturing side and the installation side, then that forum could have discussions that talk about this new technology coming down the pipe and about what kind of impact it would have on our industry.

It has to happen before the technology is really out there and impacting us. That's one of the things we envision these focus groups doing. We also envision these groups as being a very good place for a manufacturer to come in and discuss how new technologies fit digitally and how integrators would accept or reject those technologies, much like you would with any type of focus group.

SIW: In the summit report, one of the other items of interest was the reciprocity of membership. What was the discussion like on this topic at the summit?

I think you could label the discussion "spirited." It certainly was done very professionally. There certainly weren't any yelling matches. Both sides of the issue were addressed and discussed. They talked about the pros and cons for both state chapters and a national organization of requiring members to be members from the local level all the way up to the national level.

Ultimately, the group came to the conclusion that it's a benefit for all organizations. I think the primary thing they walked away is that we're not separate associations. We are one association and we happen to operate separately and autonomously from each other at times, but ultimately we're here for the benefits of members and the industry.

The more we can stand together side by side, the better off the industry is. A lot of people lose sight that the things we do don't just benefit the 2,500-plus members that we have, but that they benefit the entire industry. It benefits everyone, not just the members.

So they felt very strongly that we should stand as one...even so strongly that they felt we should consider meshing the dues together so that there really is no choice, and that it's one association, and not only do you get your local, but you get your state and national, all in one.

SIW: Was that approved?

The dues? No. I think later on you'll see in the report that they want to see the membership committee begin studying to see what effects a flat dues structure would have. There are a lot of differences between our dues structures all across the states. Some states are similar to us in that they charge based on number of employees. Some charge a flat dues amount, and they're all in varying amounts. And some states charge a flat dues amount and then an assessment for lobbying efforts. So a lot has to go into consideration before we move down that road. But ultimately what they did decide is that, yes, we want to be a chapter, and the chapter program should require membership not only in national, but in the states as well.

SIW: Was there a sense that cost of dues is prohibiting companies from joining the NBFAA?

I think certainly there are situations where some would-be members find it cost-prohibitive. But again, we have our members say they see value at the cost where it is right now. Most of them have even said they'd be willing to pay more than we're paying right now because of the value that the NBFAA is delivering today. Cost will always be an issue, just like's it is an issue in the market.

SIW: Do you think the reciprocity of membership agreement will continue to be an issue raised in the future, or has it finally been settled?

I think it's been settled.