October’s Alarm Response Issue of SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION features my roundtable-styleinterview of four False Alarm Reduction Association (FARA) board members. They are: Debbie Hansen, false alarm reduction coordinator, Naperville (Ill.) Police Department; Amy Lowe, alarm coordinator - emergency communications center, Lynchburg, Va.; Gerry Miller, supervisor – alarm program communications center, Peel Regional Police, Brampton, Ontario, Canada; and Kerri McDonald, alarm enforcement unit, Riverside (Calif.) Police Department.
This post features bonus material in which they address topics such as the value of alarm systems, false alarm fines, the challenges of being an alarm coordinator and the impact of changing technology. I enjoyed my time with each of these women and admire them for their commitment to advancing public safety.
What’s your own opinion of alarm and burglar security systems? Do they have a lot of value as a deterrent, as an apprehension element? What do you think?
Kerri McDonald: I think they can be a great tool if used correctly. It is a good deterrent just as much as locking your doors and windows can be, having a big dog in the yard. There are several types of things that can be utilized to keep your home or your business safe. I think that is one of them, and I do think it’s a very important one.
What is the best way for an alarm company owner to reach out to law enforcement and build a relationship? Is it making a phone call? Is it just showing up in person? Is it E-mailing? What venue or forum do you think is the best approach?
McDonald: There are several different ways. I have formed great working relationships through attending the FARA Symposium; being involved with FARA. I have made countless contacts and been able to build relationships that I wouldn’t have an opportunity to if I didn’t attend. Then there have been times where it’s like OK, who was the person on your paperwork or your contract? Can you fax me a copy of your contract or business card? Can you read that off and get that information from a customer? We’ll go ahead and get that information from the customer and I’ll call them up, whoever had done the installation or anything like that, and we’ll have that information and develop the working relationship that way. I’ve pretty much experienced every different way and every way works.
What’s the most rewarding or fulfilling part of your job?
Amy Lowe: Being able to aid in the public safety perspective of it, just being able to cut down on the false alarms, especially with officer complacency, and building relationships with the people I work with. I actually work at the 911 center and, of course, they’re not always recognized as the first line of defense sometimes. But that’s what they are, and I work daily with those people. They actually aid me in my job because if they don’t do the things that are provided on the SOPs [standard operating procedures], and the directives for the alarms, then I wouldn’t be able to run an efficient program that helps the police officers and the firemen.
Conversely, what might be the most frustrating aspect?
Lowe: Well there are a couple, but I guess the most frustrating is being told that they don’t know about the program; that’s huge in my jurisdiction. We do the very best we can. I do something called Safety Zone with the TV station. We do it about once every six months. I put it out in the newspaper and we put out news releases to the media. It’s always frustrating to find that people have had alarm companies that for years, not even ones that are just coming to town, and they don’t have any idea that there’s an ordinance there because nobody took the time to find out. I wish it felt like it worked more two-way.
Regarding your jurisdiction’s model alarm ordinance, are your fees and fines profitable? Do they cover costs? How does that work out?
Lowe: They do not, and I don’t have my exact statistics in my head. It starts out where the first and second false alarms are free for residential and commercial. My residential and commercial burg and fire are all the same schedule fees by the way. We start out first and second free, and then we go to $50. Then there’s a $25 increment for each alarm until $200 and then any alarm after No. 11 is $200. There is no way $50 or $200 is going to recoup the cost of us sending two police cars to a burg call. They each have two officers in them. You’re talking about the man-hour time, the vehicle maintenance, all that. And then when you get into fire, I mean that’s even more. We only may send one engine, but again you’re sending an engine that has more than one or two people on it. It’s a structure really designed to deter them.
For the bigger businesses and companies that have budgeted for fines and are repeat offenders, I actually make personal contact with them and talk to them about how we are not looking to bring in the money but rather want the false alarms to stop. Then if I work with them one-on-one, I can say on almost every instance they have joined in and we’ve teamed up and worked on it, and we’ve gotten the problem solved. Some of the biggest top offenders commercially, when I came into my position, are now not even on my list. They may have one or two. They may still have four or five, but they’re not on my top offender list. So each year I look at that. I look at that to see who they are, and from there I try to make contact. It takes extra time, and I know people say they don’t have it, but I think you really have to make the time when you’re talking about not just trying to recoup money but actually reducing false alarms.
What would you say would be the most fulfilling or rewarding part of your job and also maybe the most frustrating?
Debbie Hansen: The most fulfilling I think is keeping our officers safe by reducing false alarms. The most frustrating is probably having to take those calls from those homeowners and businesses that feel that responding to an alarm is part of the government’s job, that they pay taxes and that this is just something that we should do, and they shouldn’t be fined. I tend to get some pretty angry people on the phone, and that’s probably the most frustrating. You have good days and bad days. Some days you just don’t want to have to handle those calls, but they’re there.
Do you find among your peers that there’s a common challenge of needing to impart on supervisors or the higher levels of the agencies the importance of the role of the alarm coordinator or alarm reduction unit, and supporting that and dedicating some resources?
Hansen: Yes, I’m very fortunate in that my direct supervisor, my sergeant, is very supportive of false alarm reduction and my position. But beyond him it gets a little more difficult. And part of that too is that the economy has changed drastically and I think it’s going to be tougher and tougher for public safety to be able to be trained out of state and things like that, because they’re not putting it in the budget anymore. They don’t have it.
Is there any way that folks in your type of position can prove the value that this has and how important it is?
Hansen: Yes, in Naperville [Ill.] the police department’s annual report, I am asked for numbers: how much was charged in fees, what percent we reduced our false alarms from the previous year. The only thing I can’t give them is that dispatch rate because I don’t know how many total alarms are out there compared to how many we dispatch. But I can still show a reduction in a total number and I can show them the fees that were charged. Yes, it’s revenue, so they like the revenue but we try not to concentrate too much on that because that’s not really what we’re looking for. We’re not looking to charge people. We really are looking to get those false alarms reduced, and again it all has to do with that officer’s safety. We’ve been very fortunate in Naperville. We’ve never lost an officer in responding to a false alarm call.
I imagine in Canada as in the U.S. there’s a big trend away from landlines, and going to mobile devices as the principal phone numbers. Are you seeing that migration away from landlines? Is that creating a bit of a challenge in reaching people?
Gerry Miller: It’s starting to happen. Over the past five years, we’re seeing residences or owners are actually calling us advising that they’re monitoring their own system. They’re telling us what they see at their premise and we are responding to them. It’s still considered an alarm call to us because they’re just monitoring it themselves. We’re also seeing the callback numbers for the residences and businesses are cellphones now more so than landlines. It’s getting huge.
Could that exponentially increase the amount of calls if the vast majority of people have mobile devices they’re using to actually look in and call on themselves if there’s an incident?
Miller: Not necessarily because they can actually see what’s happening at the premise so they know if there’s somebody there that shouldn’t be in there. I see that as maybe reducing false alarms, and it also allows the call to be upgraded into a priority. Now we wouldn’t upgrade to priority because it’s a certain type of system. We’d upgrade the priority based on the information provided. If there’s video or audio, companies that have that, we wouldn’t just automatically upgrade the priority. We have to have the information required to upgrade a priority to a location.