How Central Stations Are Contending With COVID
Monitoring center executives detail how their organizations have maintained business continuity during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kevin Lehan, national sales and marketing manager for Emergency24, is succinct in describing the abrupt consequence to the central station’s business wrought by the COVID-19 outbreak.
“The year started out gangbusters and then halted,” he says.
After an initial lull, Emergency24 has started picking up accounts in bulk with dealers consolidating to one central station, and in some cases the company is buying accounts from distressed businesses.
“We still are seeing accounts put online and service being performed. Depending where you are located, some alarm contractors are doing their school testing and inspections now, which will free them up for other work this summer,” Lehan says. “Hopefully by then, the world opens for business again.
As Morgan Hertel of Rapid Response writes in his latest “Monitoring Matters” column for SSI, central stations have been forced to make difficult and expensive decisions on multiple fronts. Not the least of which includes converting to work-from-home staffing and remote connectivity technologies, among various other technological challenges not seen before at such scale.
Sources interviewed for this story express the safety and well-being of their employees has been paramount throughout the crisis, thereby adding additional layers of protocols and procedures. This has included developing safety and risk mitigation plans consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO) and UL recommendations.
The pandemic has served to expose organizational and business model vulnerabilities across a wide swath of the wholesale monitoring industry. One absolute has solidified: technical infrastructure and acumen will be requisite moving forward to service dealers, integrators and end users by supporting as-a-service portfolios.
At National Monitoring Center (NMC), President Woodie Andrawos explains the company is leveraging technology to help safeguard their dealers’ flow of revenue and business continuity.
“Our goal is to provide guidance and support and ensure they continue to scale their business while identifying new, high-value RMR opportunities,” he says. “To do this, we have realigned the focus of our training and support webinar series on amplifying the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of our Netwatch Proactive Video Monitoring [PVM] services.”
In the time since COVID-19 was elevated to pandemic status on March 11, NMC has found that demand for intelligent security systems has surged amid a steady rise in commercial property crime. In the past two months, Andrawos says the company has acquired a record number of subscribers to its PVM services, with similar growth projected for at least the near term.
“Businesses are in need of enhanced security and surveillance measures now more than ever before. With many businesses in the service and manufacturing industries closed, there is a greater need to protect and secure their property and assets,” he adds. “We believe this demand can be attributed to a combination of cost reduction and optimization valued by business operators.”
With two locations 300 miles apart in Texas, United Central Control (UCC) also continues to provide a high level of quality monitoring services for its dealers and their clientele, even with having deployed work-from-home solutions. Since travel for face-to-face meetings has been suspended temporarily, the company’s sales and marketing process has changed significantly, explains UCC President Teresa Gonzalez.
“UCC account executives have successfully incorporated virtual video meetings in order to continue the sales process with prospects,” she says. “We have also increased our use of webinars, and a strategy for providing our dealers, customers and prospects the value added information needed in the light of COVID-19.”
With employees working remotely, communication between management and internal staff is crucial to ensure services and support is not impacted negatively, Gonzalez adds. “Managers are required to have video communication with work-from-home staff regularly to ensure face-to-face interaction is ongoing with staff members, maintaining continuity of communication and employee support.”
Assessing the New Normal
In mid-March, UL released an initial set of virtual workplace guidelines for central stations considering at-home operators as part of their contingency planning. Permanently staffing at least some monitoring personnel from their homes — to accommodate social distancing at facilities — is thought by some stakeholders to be one of the more significant, lasting impacts the pandemic may have on the industry.
“There has never been a situation that has necessitated UL central stations to work at home. This is the single, most impactful event we have ever encountered,” Lehan says.
Based in Des Plaines, Ill., Emergency24 operates four monitoring centers in multiple states. The company began setting up personnel at their homes as soon as UL gave the green light, while greatly reduced staffing continues to be maintained at each facility at all times. Lehan does not believe permanently home-based monitoring personnel will become the new normal.
“Monitoring will return to the designated spaces to conform with UL when this storm passes. The stringent guidelines are there for a reason,” he says. “How we conduct business will change. There will be less travel and handshake meetings, but customer contact won’t be lessened. It will just happen at a distance now. And that is much more efficient anyway.”
At minimum, formal strategizing for at-home workers will become commonplace, Gonzalez suggests. “I believe that central stations after this experience will have work-from-home solutions for employees at the ready as part of standard operating protocol for disaster response.”
Developing and implementing various effective methods of maintaining proper employee supervision and communication will also be widely implemented, she adds, as will adapting to change and disruption more methodically and technologically.
Procedurally, the central station of the future may resemble the actions and policies NMC instituted at its facilities in Lake Forest, Calif., and Irving, Texas. Similar to other central stations, NMC formed a critical response team to lead efforts in establishing protocols to ensure continuity of business operations, but more importantly, ensure the safety and health of employees.
The company rolled out safety measures such as social distancing, limiting gatherings of people and enacting a strict decontamination policy that involves disinfecting all work surfaces every four hours. Also, new zoning policies managed through NMC’s access control system at its California center have been designed to minimize movement and physical interaction between employees.
For example, personnel from various departments are separated across both floors with each floor having its own entry and exit doors. All access into both the California and Texas facilities by visitors and vendors have been suspended until further notice. Remote workstations have also been made available for select employees, which are accessible with full functionality outside of the NMC facilities.
“These times will continue to be challenging and we, as an industry, need to come together and continue to innovate to create a safer environment and protect vulnerable businesses and assets,” Andrawos says. “If we can do that, we’ll all come out together better and stronger on the other side.”
Bullish on the Future
If big chunks of the security and life-safety industry came to a screeching halt along with the shutdown of the U.S. economy, the slow roll reopening in the coming months could portend a return to busier days. Albeit, amid what could be a vastly altered business landscape.
“When the world opens up for business again, and it will, we expect most of the recently stalled projects to pick up right away. When we can all go back to work again, we are going to be very, very busy,” comments Lehan.
Still, the longer lockdowns continue, Lehan says his company expects more movement of accounts in bulk, especially for fire/life-safety clients. “There will be some companies that fail. You have to have commercial fire monitoring. Without it, there is no occupancy,” he adds. “That’s a segment of business that will never go away. Fortunately, that’s our focus.”
At NMC, the pandemic has forced Andrawos and his leadership team to think of business continuity in a far broader perspective. The current crisis has, for the better, enhanced their ability to respond and plan for unanticipated situations, he explains.
“We’re certain this will have a lasting impact on the way we conduct business in the future. From a monitoring business perspective, it is very likely we will have to continue some form of practicing social distancing for some time and possibly indefinitely,” he says, “especially between our customer service representatives and other staff members.”
Installing protective screens and partitions as added personal protection equipment (PPE) measures to further mitigate risk will be paramount, Andrawos adds. Of course, the potential to be hit by another lethal strain of coronavirus or a different pandemic is all too real. “These are things we have to think about and this has forced us to think differently. In whichever case, we will be ready,” Andrawos adds.
That trial-by-fire readiness is a theme echoed by Gonzalez.
“As this event continues, the economic impacts are unknown but will be felt for some time long after this event is over. Some business in and out of the security industry will make it through, while others will not,” she expresses. “As a country the United States has had strong resolve and ability to adopt and we will recover. It will just take time.”
Security Is Our Business, Too
For professionals who recommend, buy and install all types of electronic security equipment, a free subscription to Security Sales & Integration is like having a consultant on call. You’ll find an ideal balance of technology and business coverage, with installation tips and techniques for products and updates on how to add sales to your bottom line.
A free subscription to the #1 resource for the residential and commercial security industry will prove to be invaluable. Subscribe today!