Pounded by Hurricane Ike, Alarm Industry on Road to Recovery

TORRANCE, Calif. — In the time since Hurricane Ike blew onto Texas’ Galveston Island on Sept. 23 engulfing the land with up to 20 feet of Gulf of Mexico water, damages suffered by businesses and residents throughout the storm’s path have reached nearly $12 billion.

The consequence to the alarm industry from the brutal assault can be glimpsed in the sheer destruction caused by Ike’s 110-mph winds and storm surge: Almost 700,000 households in the 29-county disaster zone sought state or federal emergency relief.

In Galveston alone, about 75 percent of the homes suffered damage or were destroyed. Residents who evacuated were kept off the island for 10 days. Although utilities, water and sewer services have been restored to most of the island, at press time roughly 10,000 households were still without electricity. In all, more than 1 million people evacuated the Texas coast.

Possibly as many as 500 alarm companies may have been harshly affected by the hurricane’s wrath, according to Brian McKinney, president of the Houston Gulf Coast Alarm Association (HGCAA). Many of those are mom ‘n’ pop shops struggling to recover from their own personal losses, coupled with critical issues that are hindering them from regaining a business foothold.

“You are looking at small companies that thrived on the island and around the area for years, but haven’t worked in two months. It’s hard for them, especially now without being able to get any loans,” says McKinney, who operates Houston-based Infinity Security Group Inc. “It’s going to be very difficult for some of them to survive.”

As alarm companies begin a course of action to reopen, some are finding it difficult to even bring back technicians who have been forced to find employment elsewhere. “It’s very hard to find technicians even without hurricanes. Imagine you have to tell your five techs you’re forced to shut down for two months. They have to find other work out of the area so they can eat,” McKinney says.

Still, many in the alarm community are showing a great deal of resiliency and have vowed to carry on, such as Alert Alarms Burglar & Fire Protection Inc., located in downtown Galveston. Founded in 1970 by Rip Koehler, the full-service security provider lost virtually everything to the storm, including its central station.

The Koehler family, including Rip’s son Bubba Koehler who grew up in the business and serves as vice president, evacuated before Ike made landfall. All client alarm signals were forwarded to two monitoring facilities in Plano, Texas, and Toronto. The extended time away from their homes and work was unexpected. “We thought we’d be back in operation in four or five days. But that hasn’t happed yet,” Bubba Koehler says.

The Koehlers returned to find their central station submerged in more than 4 feet of water and mud. A warehouse was also inundated, costing the business its six vehicles. “I’m 6½ feet tall and the water line was above my eyes. It’s horrible, really horrible,” he says.

Compounding the lost revenue from customers who have lost homes and businesses is a lengthy, painfully slow-moving recovery. Some construction will be forced to wait at least a year to see if the shoreline regenerates sufficiently to begin building.

“You are looking at years before everything is rebuilt,” McKinney says.

Central stations in Texas and beyond are being lauded by alarm dealers for the extraordinary support given to their industry brethren in a time of great need.

“Many monitoring stations went way above and beyond the call of duty,” says Brad Shipp, an organizer of the Texas Burglar & Fire Alarm Association (TBFAA). TBFAA relocated its annual convention, scheduled Oct. 23-25, from Galveston to Dallas because of storm damage.

United Central Control (UCC), a San Antonio-based central station with clients across the United States, prepared for the coming havoc in advance of the hurricane. With many customers in the Houston area, the central instituted an automated “storm mode” that prioritized emergency signals from low priority types. Storm signals were isolated to a limited group of operators to prevent disruption of services to client in other states.

“We actually are getting back to normal, but we were inundated for a solid two weeks,” says UCC President and General Manager Teresa Gonzalez.

Like other centrals, UCC has been serving as a kind of office manager for its dealer clients, taking service calls for them and putting up automated messages for their customers to reroute calls.

“We did a lot of other things we don’t normally do for dealers during this time to help them because they didn’t have service trucks running yet,” Gonzalez says. “They couldn’t get people in their offices to answer phones. We were a catchall for a lot of them until the third week because they weren’t able to get their teams together.”

The strenuous work of rejuvenating a livelihood aside, much of the everyday alarm work going on in the wake of the storm has consisted of replacing batteries and water-damaged control panels. Alert Alarms has even been installing security systems in portable buildings erected by their bank clients as the family deliberates the prudence of rebuilding inland after almost 40 years in Galveston.

“These past weeks have been a catastrophic, life-changing event for a lot of people,” says Koehler. “There is a lot to consider.”

About the Author

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Although Bosch’s name is quite familiar to those in the security industry, his previous experience has been in daily newspaper journalism. Prior to joining SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION in 2006, he spent 15 years with the Los Angeles Times, where he performed a wide assortment of editorial responsibilities, including feature and metro department assignments as well as content producing for latimes.com. Bosch is a graduate of California State University, Fresno with a degree in Mass Communication & Journalism. In 2007, he successfully completed the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association’s National Training School coursework to become a Certified Level I Alarm Technician.

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