False Alarms: A Modern Day Cry Wolf
Here are tips on how to avert one of the biggest problems
with burglar alarms
Ever had a false alarm? You forgot your code or keyed in the
wrong number and, suddenly, the police were at your door. This
isn't an unusual situation. In fact, 94% 98% of all alarms
called into police departments are false alarms. This is a critical
and expensive problem for anyone with a burglar alarm system.
False alarms have created a "cry wolf" situation
and can affect how quickly police departments respond when there's
a real emergency.
How Big Is This Problem?
The Central Station Alarm Association estimates there are 2.3
false alarms per alarm system every year. With more than 25 million
alarms systems in the United States, it's no wonder some cities
have implemented aggressive false alarm reduction programs.
In addition to using police resources that could be better
spent responding to valid crimes, false alarms reduce the police
department's perception of urgency when dispatched for a business
or home alarm.
Causes of False Alarms
Let's consider three main causes of false alarms.
- Technological errors occur when a sensor trips an alarm even
when there's nothing to sense. Design changes in alarm equipment
have resulted in an apparent decrease in false alarms caused
by technological errors.
- Installation errors happen when the alarm company installs
sensors inappropriate for the premises. Installation errors continue
to be a problem because some installers lack the necessary training
to match the premises with the appropriate type of sensors. For
example, it would be inappropriate to install an ultrasonic motion
detector in an area subject to drafts and air movement.
- User errors, which are blamed for the majority of false alarms,
involve improper or inadequate training on the alarm system and
human error. A number of recent surveys have attributed 40% 60%
of false alarms to error by users.
One proposed approach to reduce false alarms is alarm verification.
Alarm verification gives the central station the authority, in
limited circumstances, to verify an alarm signal before notifying
the police or dispatching an investigator.
Underwriters Laboratories has established specific procedures
for alarm verification. For burglar alarm systems without line
security, the UL central station staff would not be required
to notify police or dispatch an investigator if the telephone
is answered at the protected premises within six rings and whoever
answers gives the correct password.
If the burglar alarm system has line security, the user also
must provide the alarm cancel code. One of the codes must be
provided in electronic format, such as keyed in on the alarm
system's numeric pad.
With line security accounts, only the signals that are likely
to result from an authorized user entering the protected premises
are eligible for verification. For example, the jeweler enters
the store early in the morning and forgets to turn off the alarm
system. All other signals such as a safe alarm, motion
detector alarm or holdup alarm require the UL central station
staff to notify the police or dispatch an investigator.
Some contend that alarm verification is unnecessary because any
user who accidentally trips the alarm signal may call the UL
central station and cancel it. In response, alarm companies point
out users may not realize they caused an alarm signal or may
not respond fast enough. Another objection is that verification
may delay the police or investigator in a real crisis, increasing
the danger. The delay for alarm verification typically is less
than one minute.
The advent of audio/video surveillance equipment being monitored
by the UL central station provides another mechanism for alarm
verification. Employees at the central station can actually see,
hear and verify what's happening in your store thanks to the
What Can You Do?
Preventing false alarms is cost effective in the short term
by avoiding police fines and in the long term by reducing
the burden of false alarms on police resources. Here are several
suggestions to reduce the incidence of false alarms at your business
- Arrange for maintenance and service contracts for all alarm
systems, at home and your business. Assure that you receive the
services specified in the contracts.
- Train all employees of your store and all family members
in the proper use of the alarm system and what action to take
in the event of a false alarm. Review the training periodically,
especially for the people who don't use the system on a routine
- With the assistance of your alarm company, conduct routine
tests of all components of your alarm system. Notify your alarm
company immediately when you suspect your system may not be working
- Verify that your alarm company will contact you each time
an alarm is triggered. Ask your alarm company to send written
confirmation of all alarms, including false alarms, within 24
- At the end of each day, remove all movable items such as
balloons, paper streamers or banners that could catch air currents
and trigger an alarm. Make sure ceiling fans are turned off.
Before activating your alarm system, be certain all protected
openings (i.e., doors and windows) are closed and locked.
- If you plan to enter your business outside of normal operating
hours, contact your alarm company in advance as a precaution.
If possible, visit the central station in person so the alarm
company staff can verify your identity.
- Contact your local police department and ask whether it provides
false alarm prevention instruction.
by David Sexton, CPCU Jewelers Mutual Insurance
David Sexton leads the large accounts underwriting department
at Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co., Neenah, WI. He also is a corporate
member of the Underwriters Laboratories Burglary Protection Council
and of the Central States Alarm Association.
Copyright © 1999 by Bond Communications.