Richard Sampson, president of the Central Station Alarm Association and CEO of American Alarm & Communications Inc. (whose central station is pictured above), believes that computer-to-computer communication of alarm data -- from a central station to authorities -- is key to effective alarm management and response.
A central station owner's heart belongs to the monitoring center. It's a long, difficult and arduous process to run a central station, but these entrepreneurs take pride in having a monitoring operation that is "top in its class." It's no wonder false alarms are such a serious issue. Unfortunately, the central station often takes the heat for false dispatches – when in reality who is to say that an intruder didn't pry open a window, hear the alarm, and beat feet? Are 90 percent of alarm calls really false or unfounded? No one really knows the answer.

The fact remains that it is the central station's job to report and initiate a response to alarms while following appropriate procedures.

The central station industry continues to focus on false alarm reduction techniques, and its proactive measures show. The Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA), National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA), Security Industry Association (SIA) and many other groups including law enforcement and central station management and operators have made a difference.

Still, more and more communities across the country are instituting or considering instituting more stringent response policies, including police non-response. Nevada and Utah are perfect examples of where central stations have had to change the way they treat alarm signals.

In Las Vegas, Bud Wulforst, president of A-1 Security Ltd., runs a central station company. Las Vegas law enforcement requires a verified response and has had this ordinance for many years. However, police broadcast all alarm calls in the event an officer is near the protected premises.

"We really don't know if they're responding or not, so we have to respond with our own guards," Wulforst says. If there's a response, the company charges the customer for the call, he adds. Currently, it subcontracts the guard service for its 7,500 subscribers.

"We have to pay, and we don't make money on the guard response. But our customers appreciate the fact that we're providing excellent service and response," he says. A-1 Security central station operators call the subscriber premises to verify an alarm and obtain code information from the person who tripped the alarm.

Wulforst says his company has an excellent relationship with the Las Vegas Police Department and authorities in the other areas in which it does business, including Sparks, Henderson and Reno, Nevada.

Vector Security, Pittsburgh, has developed software that allows its central station operators to pull false dispatch activity on a real-time basis for up-to-date information. Shown at right is a list of Vector Security's top 20 sites (by count of dispatches), among all of the company's branches in the past seven days. Vector Security's internal graph illustrates an 81 percent reduction in alarm dispatches due to the use of second-call verification.
Wulforst, who is a second vice president of the CSAA, says that it's unfortunate that the industry "has been unable to get its arms around the false alarm problem." He adds that some methods that also have been adopted by central stations include multiple-zone alarms; cross zoning; and multiple detectors.

"These remedies are for alarms caused by the environment," Wulforst adds. "An unauthorized person, or even an authorized person, might trip the alarm. And even video verification still can't verify that the right person is in the premises."

Salt Lake City, too, has a verified response posture, which means that law enforcement in the area will not respond to a residential or commercial burglar alarm without prior verification. And this strategy is also being considered in many other jurisdictions, as well.

Mac Hammond, president of Security Systems by Hammond Inc., Poughkeepsie, N.Y., takes the whole issue in stride, but believes that, plain and simple, alarm companies can solve the false alarm problem.

"When we get an alarm, we allow every customer to turn off the audible and send a reset signal. We immediately call to find out what's happening and get a verification number or code. If a signal is unexplained, we investigate," he says.

In Las Vegas, a city that requires a verified response to alarm signals, A-1 Security's central station subcontracts a guard service for its 7,500 subscriber accounts.

An Evolution for All

The administrative part of dealing with new procedures seems be where the biggest burden lies for central stations. Vector Security Inc., Pittsburgh, SDM's 2003 Dealer of the Year, says its central station monitoring operations have changed in light of the increased emphasis on false alarm reduction, according to Pam Petrow, senior vice president, Central Stations/Information Systems. Petrow is also a member of the CSAA Board of Directors.

Some of those changes include a second call (enhanced) verification number on their call list. "This is someone who has the ability and authority to make dispatch decisions. We have found that neighbors and employees who are not managers are not willing to make a decision that will result in a 'no dispatch'. They won't take responsibility for fear that the event may be an actual alarm – this almost always means a dispatch," Petrow says. State-of-the-art software has been added to the mix as well: Vector has worked with a development company on computer software that pulls all false dispatch activity on a real-time basis, which allows access to a variety of crucial data.

Central stations also are beginning to look at transmitting alarm information to the authorities in an electronic format rather than the telephone, which may cut the potential for error.

"There's so much data we could provide authorities if we were able to talk computer-to-computer," says Richard Sampson, chairman of the board, American Alarm & Communications Inc., Arlington, Mass. Sampson says his central station company, ranked among the top 50 firms in the industry according to SDM, continues to adapt its operations to meet the ever-changing variables of police response. "The industry is using a 100-year-old technique to communicate (via telephones) with response authorities. We need to be able to give them the data in a more succinct, quick manner." Sampson was recently elected president of CSAA.

False alarm reduction has been a long-term, ongoing goal for the company, which runs regular reports of dispatches and follows up with any customer having a problem. When they are asked to monitor a business, they inspect the system that was installed prior to the monitoring request. They use the second-call verification technique, or may dispatch after two or more detectors trip, depending on the customer and the business. If they receive an alarm and a cancel signal, with an appropriate code, they will accept the cancellation and still call the premises. They store in the central station database employers and identification numbers and appropriate parties to cancel alarms – and that's no minor undertaking.

Central station response procedures continue to evolve to take advantage of new computer innovations and equipment that makes it easier to be as specific as possible about the protected premises, says Paul Lucking, chief operating officer of Security Associates International Inc., Arlington Heights, Ill.

Intelligent signals are a plus in the central station and for responding authorities, says Lucking. "The central station has to provide verified, complete and accurate data on the alarm and transfer that to the authorities. For example, if we know there's been an intrusion at an exterior back upstairs window and can pass all that information along to authorities, they're smarter when they get there and can make their own judgment. You can try to verify with video and guards, but that doesn't change the fact that we received an alarm and we have to dispatch because we don't know if the correct person was there, if someone was there, or if they tripped the alarm and left," Lucking comments.

Cancellation Features

In Lynn, Mass., Wayne Alarm Systems Inc. says it has not felt a burden from non-response or alarm verification provisions, but is prepared and finds many of its accounts taking advantage of its alarm cancel feature, says Carol Swiniarski, manager of the Communications Central Station.

"More police departments are willing to cancel a dispatch if we call back after notification, whereas a year ago we would have had very few that would stop once they were sent.

"False alarms are a major issue for everyone – the monitoring station, authorities and our subscribers. Extra manpower at the central station to deal with alarm traffic, extra manpower for the authorities to be able to respond adequately and hefty fines for the subscriber who has the false alarm problem are just a few of the examples of expenses that all add up. The false alarm battle needs to be dealt with aggressively, keeping in mind that our main concern is for the safety and well-being of our customers' property and lives," she says.

Sidebar: Methods for Verifying Alarm Signals

Some of the emerging or practiced methods that central stations have undertaken to verify alarms before dispatching include:

  • Multiple call verification (two or more calls prior to request for

    dispatch). This was advocated by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and passed into resolution in late 2002.

  • Alarm cancellation procedures for subscribers and acceptance by authorities of dispatch cancellations.

  • Specific cancellation telephone numbers for central station operators to call, call-backs of authorized parties and identification numbers and appropriate codes for responsible parties.

  • Private or contracted guard response.

  • On the installing side – multiple detectors, single-zoned detectors, cross zoning, and video verification.

  • Computer-to-computer communications and other technological innovations to automate and speed detailed data to authorities.