Even when an organization is large enough to have its own security staff, that staff often relies extensively on burglar and fire alarm systems to help protect the premises – and on an alarm dealer or systems integrator to install and maintain those systems. To learn more about what security managers look for in those systems and what they expect from their dealers, SDM Magazine recently conducted an informal, online survey of security managers. The results offer insight into which burglary and fire capabilities are becoming essential, which are in the early-adopter phase, and which are niche applications.

Equipment Choices

According to the corporate and commercial security managers who answered SDM’s survey, the majority of systems (64 percent of fire alarm systems and 91 percent of burglar alarm systems) are monitored 24 hours a day – sometimes internally or sometimes by a commercial central station. For alarm systems, multiple zones or partitioning seems to be a must-have capability for many security managers. For fire systems, local regulations about sprinkler supervision and waterflow monitoring seem to have driven a high adoption rate.

Burglary and fire alarm system features that once may have been seen as frills have become commonplace, the survey found. More than 60 percent of respondents said their alarm systems have high-end keypads – and more than 60 percent of fire alarm systems have addressable zones.

As president of K&S Property Management of Concord, Mass., Scott Viscariello is often called on to recommend fire and burglary systems for client businesses. He encourages clients to choose fire systems with addressable zones that can signal when a smoke detector on a particular zone gets dirty – a capability that surely enhances his role as property manager.

“If they ignore the warning and clear it, the system will send the message two or three more times. Then it says, ‘If you’re not going to take care of me, I’m sending a signal to the fire department,’” Viscariello says.

Addressable zones can be especially powerful when combined with early warning systems for computer rooms, Viscariello adds. “There are some that do air sampling in the data center and can sense changes in the air long before you would see smoke. If there are burned circuits, there are trace amounts in the air. When the system is addressable, you can look among the server banks to see which one is having a problem.”

Some recent technology advances still seem to be in the early adopter phase, the survey found. For example, less than 10 percent of survey respondents said they have Internet monitoring incorporated into their burglar or fire alarm systems; less than 20 percent of respondents’ alarms use alarm messaging to remote devices; and less than 20 percent of respondents to the fire alarm portion of the survey said their systems are integrated with the building controls. But those who have some of these advanced features find them beneficial.

“Web-based systems are wonderful,” Viscariello says. “I can call up a facility and scan the burglar, fire and HVAC systems. The graphics are tremendous for a non-technical person. I use it once or twice a day to do a quick checkup.”

One early adopter of alarm messaging to remote devices is East Penn School District in Emmaus, Pa. That organization recently added the ability to send trouble signals to cell phones via text messaging after the hot water coil froze in a classroom, then thawed and shot water all over, causing damage. Although the school district watches money tightly, assistant maintenance supervisor Vince Spade said it was not difficult to justify the additional expense after that incident occurred. “Considering the loss that we suffered in books, computers and classroom time, we realized it would be more cost effective to do this – and we’ll add this capability to other elements as needed.”

One security manager whose fire alarm system features built-in voice evacuation finds it to be useful for purposes other than just evacuation.

“We’ve found it very helpful,” says Chris Somers, manager of security and emergency services for ATK Thikol Inc., an aerospace company in Salt Lake City. “Not all emergencies are fire, and you don’t always want people to leave the building. The ability to tell people what to do in real time is very valuable.”

Organizations are more likely to have integrated their burglar alarm system with other systems than to have integrated their fire system, the survey found. Security managers that have not integrated their systems often use multiple systems in parallel to complement one another, however. For example, when Viscariello gets a call from the police wanting to verify an alarm that has occurred at one of the properties his company manages, he often checks the card access system to see who may have entered the property recently. Sometimes authorized individuals simply fail to disarm a portion of the premises, thereby causing an alarm when they walk into that area.

Relationships Are Priceless

When it comes to selecting a system and a vendor, security managers look for reliability above all, with 64 percent of respondents naming that as the most important factor in selecting a burglar or a fire alarm system. Security manager see a big difference in the quality of work that they get from different dealers or integrators.

“There are some that are just parts changers, and I can change parts myself,” Viscariello says. Instead, he prefers to work with people that he considers “true technicians.” He adds that he prefers to work with smaller companies, wherever possible, because he feels he is more important to them.

Mark Wurgess, corporate security supervisor for Consolidated Biscuit Company in McComb, Ohio, cautions security managers against relying too heavily on a dealer or integrator’s knowledge in making equipment selections. He is dissatisfied with the alarm and card access system that he purchased a few years ago because he cannot search for an employee by badge number but only by last name. With 3,500 employees, he says, such searches can be complicated. “I have 35 people named Hernandez,” Wurgess comments.

When an alarm company or systems integrator demonstrates technical capability, that company often can command a premium price. “I’m a firm believer in developing long-term relationships with vendors and not always taking the low bid,” Viscariello says.


Our Burglar Alarm Has ...

24-hour monitoring 91%

Zones/partitioning 82%

High-end keypads 64%

Systems integration 55%

Wireless monitoring backup 28%

Wireless sensors/keypads 18%

Alarm messaging to remote devices 18%

Internet monitoring 9%

Our Fire Alarm Has…

Addressable zones 64%

24-hour monitoring 64%

Sprinkler supervision/waterflow monitoring 64%

Security, video or access integration 46%

Built-in voice evacuation 27%

Wireless monitoring backup 27%

Building system integration 18%

Alarm messaging to remote devices 18%

Internet monitoring 9%

Total exceeds 100 percent due to multiple choices allowed

Source: SDM Magazine, online end-users poll, June 2004