Storm Sandy
Michael Ash said that while Garden State Alarm is helping its customers get back on their feet, the recovery period is just beginning. “This will be going on for years because the damage is unreal.”

The effects of Hurricane Sandy, later evolving into Superstorm Sandy, were severe for the security industry as they were for everyone. The combination of blackouts that left alarm systems to rely on backup batteries, the interminable lines at gas stations in New York and New Jersey that put service vehicles out of commission and the strain on cell towers and other communications conspired to make being a security dealer on the East Coast tougher than usual.

As SDM spoke with East Coast dealers affected by the storm, they all seemed to agree that this may have been the worst storm they’ve seen but it won’t be the last. And that learning from their own experiences as well as their peers’ could make all the difference in the future.

Because the severity of the storm was well-publicized and because central stations continually monitor the weather, security companies on the East Coast were able to take measures to prepare for the elevated alarm volumes that were to come in. Companies such as American Alarm, Arlington, Mass., Electronix Systems, Huntington Sta., N.Y., Supreme Security Systems, Union, N.J., Vintage Security, Jessup, Md., and Vision Monitoring, Garden City, N.Y. made sure days in advance to adjust staff schedules and take a worst-case scenario approach to staffing.

Dave Young, vice president of Vision Monitoring, commented, “In a normal week our central station would receive 30,000 signals and operators would handle 7,000. After Sandy struck our central station had 130,000 signals and operators handled 32,000… We housed our staff onsite and made sure that the next shift could get into work. We had overlapping of shifts just in case conditions changed to avoid any interruptions. We also had carpooling plans and were assessing where employees lived depending on the more heavily damaged areas.”

In a crisis situation where power is wiped out in large geographic areas during a storm, the vast majority, if not 100 percent, of signals and calls going into a central station or alarm company are due to AC power loss that either causes the system to shut down completely or go into battery backup mode. The how-do-I-get-the-panel-to-stop-beeping calls go on for days and visiting residential customers to replace backup batteries every few days, or hours in some cases, is not a feasible option when there is no accurate expectation of when power will be restored, dealers said.

Jeff Smith, commercial division manager, Vintage Security, shared that, “Power grids in Maryland are up there with the worst ones in the United States.” With 16,000 customers, the phones rang nonstop 24/7 and the company had its technicians on the phone helping customers silence their alarms. The company made use of its social media platform by posting links and instructions on how to silence alarms on Facebook and Twitter.

Especially in the case of commercial accounts such as jewelry stores, an extended period without power and without a security system can result in major loss. Electronix Security worked with commercial customers by providing patrol and guard tours at regular intervals. “We picked up an attempted break-in at a jewelry store,” said Fred Leonardo, president.

Robert Bitton, chief executive officer of Supreme Security Systems, said some commercial customers requested extra batteries they could replace themselves.  “The lesson is that on certain high-risk, key accounts, we may want to offer battery backup of greater power.”

Michael Flink, president of ADI, Melville, N.Y., said the company sold every battery it had on the East Coast, though it quickly replenished inventory coming from its Texas warehouse. Some of the larger ADI customers were placing orders for upwards of 10,000 batteries. Flink reflected that the East Coast has a comparatively higher security system penetration rate than the rest of the country, and the number of affected systems was astronomical.

Michael Ash, president at Garden State Fire & Security Alarm Co., Matawan, N.J. was faced with a blackout at his facility that lasted a week. During that time, the company ran on generators and relied on cell phones for communication and for providing Internet through hot spots. The company’s alarm monitoring is done through third-party central station, SentryNet, located in Pensacola, Fla., and that allowed the company to continue servicing its customers. Because phones and networks were down at the company headquarters, the lines were forwarded to SentryNet. Garden State would then call the central station on cell phones and pick up 10 or 15 service calls at a time.

Fuel shortages and lines 100 cars long were a big issue for alarm dealers who needed to provide fuel for their service vehicles. Bitton related that his technicians could not afford to sit the three- to five-hour lines at the gas stations nearby. “We went to Home Depot and bought all of their little red gas cans. And then we sent a truck 40 miles west and filled up all those cans to pour them into our trucks.”

Electronix Security, said Leonardo, had an inside track on when and where gas deliveries were made to the stations to avoid even longer waits or fruitless trips. The other issue, Leonardo added, is that “you needed cash [to get fuel] because the internet service at the local gas stations were down and they couldn’t process credit cards.” 

At the time of writing in late November, these companies and hundreds of others were hard at work helping their customers recover full use of their security systems, assessing varying degrees of damage on properties and working with insurance companies to estimate losses.