What's Best for Alarm Response Policies?

By Stan Martin

In the past, when a business alarm was tripped, the company could count on an immediate law enforcement response. That may no longer be the case. Ordinances and policies that implement a nonresponse policy to unverified alarm activations are being adopted by a number of cities across North America. The changes put an organizational and financial burden on businesses and increase the risk that they will be targeted for burglary.

The security industry is concerned about the proliferation of these blanket nonresponse policies and their detrimental impact on public safety. We are working with numerous law enforcement agencies on programs to conserve their patrol resources while delivering the protection alarm-owning residents and businesses expect.

The problem.
Though these types of policies--known as verified response--vary slightly in each community, they all eliminate law enforcement's initial response to automatic alarm systems unless criminal activity is first confirmed. In some places, like Salt Lake City, they require that a guard be physically present on the property to visually verify that a crime is in progress before local police will accept a call for service. Even remote CCTV confirmation is not considered sufficient.

Presently only 20 cities have adopted some form of verified response, but others are already actively considering this approach. Unless the problems with these policies are brought to public attention, more and more law enforcement agencies are likely to see verified response as a simple and reasonable solution to the problem of false alarms.

A related concern is false-alarm fines. Historically, alarm users have been allowed a certain number of invalid dispatches prior to incurring fines, which were developed to urge responsible alarm system management. The days of four to five free alarm responses are gone, however, and some municipalities are instituting stiff fines for a first offense, escalating the fines with each successive alarm response.

The alarm industry supports reasonable escalating fines. But businesses must be cautious of fines and penalties that do not reflect public safety as much as a desire to generate new, unencumbered revenue streams.

The business community needs to head off these wrongheaded regulatory approaches both by working to defeat any such ordinances and by proactively working to reduce false alarms.

Why should those responsible for corporate and business security get involved at all? Because if the company does not participate, it may compromise the safety of employees and customers along with the security of the facility and assets. The bottom line could be hurt by steep false-alarm fines, higher costs for on-site security officers, and losses resulting from the absence of police response.

Beyond the concern over asset losses is the issue of life-safety. The safety of employees is endangered when there is no longer a police response. Police are more qualified than private responders because of their training and experience. Law enforcement personnel are the experts while private guards, no matter how well-intentioned, do not have the same skills or authority as law enforcement.

What can be done? Businesses must begin by diligently monitoring the situation in their locality. They must be vigilant, since these changes can be made by circumventing public debate and limiting community input. In Lakewood, Colorado, for example, alarm companies received a letter from the city on May 13, 2004, announcing implementation of verified response on June 1, 2004, barely two weeks later.

Concerned local businesses, citizens, and alarm companies had not been invited to be involved in the process. Even after verified response went into effect, the city council appeared indifferent to public comment.

Organizations like ASIS can help to ensure that all voices are heard by working with law enforcement, local citizens, public officials, and alarm company groups such as the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC), a not-for-profit association created to serve as a centralized resource on alarm management issues.

For those concerned about reducing false alarms while preserving public safety, there are proven programs that have been effectively implemented by many cities. The framework for solutions to reduce calls for service to alarm activations is known as the Model Ordinance, developed jointly by SIAC and the International Association of Chiefs of Police after several years of study in the Model States Program.

The Model Ordinance suggests a range of ways in which alarm owners can reduce false alarms. It is a flexible document that can be adapted to meet the specific circumstances affecting a community. It allows city officials, law enforcement, and citizens to develop an ordinance that meets their needs while continuing to protect and serve the public by maintaining a reasonable alarm-response policy.

One of the most recent additions to the Model Ordinance is the inclusion of Enhanced Call Verification (ECV). ECV requires that at least two phone calls from the alarm monitoring center be made to determine whether a user error has occurred before law enforcement service is requested. This is a change from past practice in which the alarm center made only a single call to the premises, after which the police would be notified.

The single-call policy resulted in a lot of false dispatches. With ECV, if there is no response to the first call, a second call is placed to another number, preferably a cell phone number provided by the alarm user. Quite often the second contact person remembers some set of facts--such as that an employee was working late or that there was scheduled maintenance work--that will explain the alarm activation. That insider knowledge obviates the need for a call to the police--thus avoiding a false alarm.

ECV has already been shown to dramatically reduce the call volume for police dispatch. While even the single verification call helped to clear up as much as 75 percent of all signals without ever having to request police response, industry tests show that a second verification call before dispatch clears up an additional 10 percent to 15 percent of alarm signals.

This means that up to 90 percent of all alarm activations would never result in a call for dispatch from law enforcement if every alarm company in a community participated in ECV. We are seeing a 50 percent reduction in false alarms as a result of this policy.

Another important component of the Model Ordinance is an escalating series of fines and fees for police dispatch when the alarm proves to be false. Ideally, the fines begin with the second false dispatch in a 12-month period. After a certain number of false dispatches, normally four or above, both the alarm permit and police response are suspended.

Alarm users must register for a permit under terms of the Model Ordinance. These permits are renewed annually and provide law enforcement with the information they need to manage alarm systems in their community. In some cases, there is no police dispatch without a permit, depending on local and state legislation governing the issue.

Though most invalid alarm activations are caused by the user, some are related to equipment. The Model Ordinance addresses this issue by requiring newly installed control panels to meet an American National Standards Institute (ANSI) standard developed by the Security Industry Association for burglar alarm control panels. The SIA CP-01 control panel standard decreases false activations by reducing common user errors.

The panels have preprogrammed entry/exit delays that minimize user mistakes during entry or exit sequences. Sensors that may malfunction are limited to transmitting only one or two signals that could cause a false dispatch. In the past, some panels would allow a faulty device to report an alarm 99 times, creating unnecessary calls for service to law enforcement.

In addition, communication to the monitoring station is delayed by 30 seconds to allow on-site personnel the time needed to enter a code and abort the dispatch signal. This feature alone has proven to reduce dispatches by 35 percent without compromising safety and security.

Studies have shown that many invalid alarms occur immediately after installation. To address this issue, the Model Ordinance suggests a seven-day waiting period before an alarm activation automatically results in a request for law enforcement response.

Enforcement is the key to any ordinance and without it no alarm ordinance will be successful. With appropriate enforcement, law enforcement resources are more efficiently allocated, public safety is enhanced, and business assets are effectively protected by security alarms.

Another key element of the Model Ordinance is to suspend alarm response to chronic abusers. On average, 10 percent of alarm system users will generate 50 percent of the alarm dispatches.

The major provisions of the Model Ordinance have proven successful in reducing the number of false dispatches. Huntsville, Alabama, for example, averaged 1,300 false alarms per month from 5,450 sites in November, 1996, when the city had no alarm management program in place. Officials took a proactive approach to educate the community about the issue, explaining the problem and the need for all parties to accept responsibility.

Under their alarm management program, permits and registration were required. Policies were also established regarding proper installation, education and training for the alarm user, and guidelines on alarm monitoring.

Officials chose classes for the alarm user as the primary enforcement tool. On-site classes were conducted for retailers, industry, financial institutions, churches, commercial sites, and other businesses.

Law enforcement officials visited problem sites, and recommended modifications to alarm systems and other remedies to enhance the effectiveness of the alarm system. They also addressed installation and other considerations on how to effectively lay out the system.

The result of this cohesive effort was dramatic. In 2004, even though the number of alarm systems had risen to 18,000, the number of false dispatches dropped to 575 per month.

Many other cities have had similar successes. In Detroit, for example, a concerted program reduced invalid alarm calls by 30 percent. In Boulder, Colorado, calls to the police department from alarm activations have been reduced approximately 50 percent. And Charlotte, North Carolina, has demonstrated that the programs are sustainable with a continued reduction in dispatches compared to seven years ago, even though there are three times as many permitted alarm sites.

SIAC provides the resources and assistance to make the programs like these successful in communities throughout North America. Each community has different concerns and issues, but some common considerations include:

  • Equipment.
    Companies need to specify that control panels be built to the ANSI SIA CP-01 standard in all new installations and for upgrades of outdated equipment.
  • Training.
    Companies need to implement proven training to ensure that everyone who has an access code knows how to operate the alarm system and can cancel law enforcement dispatch.
  • Change.
    Companies need to constantly reevaluate their policies and be willing to accept suggested changes in equipment or monitoring procedures from their alarm company if it will reduce alarm dispatches, such as is the case with the new EVC procedure.
  • Awareness.
    Companies must maintain contact with law enforcement and elected officials and participate in public policy discussions that affect alarm response, getting involved when adverse alarm ordinances are proposed.

Though the solutions will be as varied as the citizens, there is a common goal: Reduce the number of invalid dispatches while maintaining the crime deterrent effect of alarm systems.

Stan Martin is executive director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC), a not-for-profit organization formed to represent one voice for the alarm industry on alarm management issues. @ For more information on reducing alarm dispatches visit the SIAC Web site via SM Online. Just Click on "Beyond Print" and scroll to this item.



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