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October 1999

Managing: Security

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.

Alarm Verification
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.

Other Issues
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 surveillance equipment.

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 or home:

  • 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 basis.
  • 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 properly.
  • 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 hours.
  • 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 falsealarm prevention instruction.

by David Sexton, CPCU Jewelers Mutual Insurance Co.

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.


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