California Fires Test the Mettle of Alarm, Monitoring Industry

TORRANCE, Calif. — In the aftermath of October firestorms that torched the Southern California landscape, SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION spoke with several industry executives to discuss the impact on their alarm and monitoring operations.

Pushed by winds clocked at more than 80 mph in some areas, 23 wildfires scorched more than 515,000 acres across seven counties. Almost 2,800 structures were destroyed, including 2,000 homes, while nearly 1 million people were forced to temporarily evacuate.

As the number of fires continued to mount during several days and devastation spread relentlessly, monitoring stations were barraged by continuous waves of alarms.  “It all just hits at once,” says Morgan Hertel, vice president of the Command Center Inc., a contract central station in Corona, located about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles. “Since we were dealing with such a huge area, it wasn’t like it happened for a couple hours and stopped. It was sustained for a period of four days.”  Hertel says his normal daily volume of alarm signals and calls skyrocketed from roughly 1,800 to more than 7,000.

Along with fire alarms, central stations were bombarded with multiple types of signals, including AC power failure, low battery and other system trouble conditions.  Managing the massive volume of signals presented the biggest challenge for a majority of central stations affected by the fires. To cope with the flood of signals, station managers relied on added staffing and the latest monitoring technology.  For example, the Command Center’s automated system, which relies on software used by many other monitoring stations, prioritizes inbound signals.

“We were dealing with the fire and medical alarms ahead of the AC fails and the low batteries,” Hertel says.  While operators responded first to the highest priority alarms, automation systems soaked up low priority signals and placed them in a buffer where they sat until operators could work their way down the queue.

“You’ll get caught up and then all of a sudden another area will have a power failure or a fire going through and before you know it, you’re buried again” Hertel says. In Lake Arrowhead, a mountain community located about 80 miles east of Los Angeles, Karen Baldwin, co-owner of Lake Arrowhead Patrol Inc., was on the phone nonstop with hundreds of evacuated customers as flames whipped near her own residence.

“Notifying customers was the hardest part for us,” Baldwin says. “Thousands of homes really weren’t compromised [by the fires], but people didn’t know it.”  During the mandatory evacuation in Lake Arrowhead from Oct. 22 to Oct. 28, Baldwin says she was in contact with her monitoring station, Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based National Monitoring Center.

When the evacuation was lifted, Baldwin says there was no mystery for customers finding out if their home was still intact.

“I was able to check the alarm status of our customers,” she says. “We were able to [give them] accurate information and take that fear away.”  For central stations situated in close proximity to fire danger, such as Central Monitoring Corp. in Poway, located about 20 miles north of San Diego, the ability to call all hands on deck was not a luxury available to them.

“My biggest challenge was keeping my employees here,” says Central Monitoring Corp. General Manager John Thompson.

As firestorms raged through nearby open land and public spaces, major highways were closed. Some employees simply couldn’t make it into work, while others were in the midst of evacuating their homes.

“In certain situations like lightening and thunderstorms and strong winds, we flood the place [with extra staff],” Thompson says. “This situation was very different. You had fires raging everywhere. A lot of people’s houses were being threatened and so their main concern was their family.”

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