Hot Seat: Achieving Alarm Signal Automation

Automated Secure Alarm Protocol (ASAP) is seen as a cost-effective means of sending alarm signals directly to police and fi re dispatchers without the need for a telephone call from an alarm monitoring station.

Developed by the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials Int’l (APCO), the protocol is in use in Houston, and York County and Richmond, Va., and will be available in Illinois by the end of the year.

Ed Bonifas, vice president of Aurora, Ill.-based Alarm Detection Systems, helped spearhead the creation of ASAP as president of CSAA. He joins the Hot Seat to discuss the protocol.

Why is ASAP needed?

If you dial 911 from your home, the PSAP [Public Safety Answering Point] populates its dispatch screen with your name and address. All they need to do is figure out what kind of emergency you’re having so they can send a police car, fire truck or ambulance. When a central station calls on a 10-digit number, the PSAP has to start with a blank screen and fill out all the information, including how to get back to us. Transposing any numeral could result in sending first responders to the wrong residence or building.

So it’s been a longstanding dream of the industry to automate the connection to public safety. It also eliminates a lot of time and work in the PSAP where they have public employees trying to handle lots of emergencies, being tied up answering the phone with us. If we can automate this process, they would have our information and do a quick dispatch.

Is this the industry’s first attempt at this?

No. There was a program some years ago where we had created a form of communication that used an IBM PC in the PSAP and dial-up telephone lines into it. It was a little slow, cumbersome and it had a lot of hardware deployed in the field. What really happened is technology finally caught up with us. IP communications is so much different from dial-up communications because it can be fast and accurate and error-checked.

It’s been in the past year-and-a-half that we removed a lot of the big hurdles from the ASAP program. We found a secure transport that’s trusted by the PSAPs to get the signals into them in a secure way. We now have a strategic partnership with our transport carrier, a group called Nlets [National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System] that allows the entire UL-Listed central station industry to make connection this way.

How fast will ASAP roll out across the nation?

I spoke to the general membership of the 50 states’ switch-holders at the Nlets conference six weeks ago. Since then, we’ve gotten approval for the software modification necessary in 19 states. So, we have 31 more states to go and we have people working with the state switch-holders, and that just says the messages can get into the state. It still takes an update to the automation vendor of the PSAP to be able to receive this stuff and display it to their people and handle the signals properly.

We currently have a list of 100 PSAPs that are interested and have been talking to us. It’s just a matter of which one gets to the dance first and which one ends up with the budget to replace their software or to buy the upgrade necessary to do this.

Are their challenges preventing a fast rollout?

The biggest problem for the alarm industry is that our connection to Nlets has required somebody, which in this case is CSAA, to put a secure server in their facility to scrub our data. This is a criminal justice data network and we’re using it to move private alarm signals, so they had to make sure that we were safe residing on their network. The solution to that was a server that’s going to certify, verify and scrub all of our data coming in to make sure it is the right data.

That server is a big investment for CSAA to put together. It is currently being built and will eventually be able to connect all of the UL-Listed central stations to the network. So right now we’re operating under what was originally a beta agreement and now it’s a strategic partnership with Nlets. It allowed us three connections; right now that’s Vector Security, UCC [United Central Station] and Monitronics. But before we could go to four alarm companies on it, we needed to figure out the rest of the partnership and now get our server built. That’s what we’re in the process of doing right now.

Is funding the server a difficult proposition?

We’ve had to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from the industry. CSAA has a program going right now called Charter Membership. It is operating on the premise that we either need a lot of money from a couple of companies or we need a little bit of money from everybody. The message we chose to do is a little bit from everybody. We’re out asking our membership for pledges; a three-year pledge of either $1,000 a year for a very small company to $5,000 a year for a national company.

That’s what we’re going to use to fund the server, and what we think is going to be two or three years of operating losses on the network itself. If you’re a CSAA member and you’re interested in getting involved, get a hold of me. I’d love to talk to anybody who wants to talk. The program is not just for CSAA members. We’re just starting there, but we’re planning on rolling this out to the entire UL-Listed central station industry, whether they’re a member or not. It’ll probably be at little bit of a different rate. We will be doing something probably near the end of the year for the equivalent of the Charter Membership program for non-CSAA members where they can pay a fee of some sort to help us front fund it.

The difference is if you choose not to pay a little bit up front, you’re going to have to pay whatever connection fees come up later. But worse, you’re going to have to wait until after all of the charter members have been taken care of before you’re going to be given access to it because our technical resources probably are not infinite. We’re just going to have to put our time in getting the people up to speed that have helped fund putting this together. It will be more costly if you wait to get involved until you’re ready to use it.

It’s been argued that ASAP can help fend off municipalities from entering the monitoring business. How so?

Some of the Illinois municipalities have been trying to take over the monitoring business. Certainly speeding up the communication path between the central station industry and the PSAP industry will save time in the PSAP and make it more efficient. This will re
move the argument that somehow [the municipalities] need to be in the monitoring business because it’s faster. When you do automated communication, it’s instantaneous, it’s seconds. It certainly helps that argument, but frankly, I think being better partners of our public safety people is important. If they are trying, as is the case in Illinois here, to get in the business, it’s just better use of our public resource.



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