Tech Talk: Holdup Alarm Incident Highlights What We Can Do Better

It’s unlikely that perfection will ever be achieved to the point where security/life-safety systems prevent humans from ever experiencing any harm. However, sensible standards and practices can substantially reduce the likelihood of that harm.

People have often asked me, “What first prompted you to get into the alarm business?” As are many young people, I was excited by electronic technology. Learning how to take this unseen force called electricity and make it perform valuable tasks was fascinating. However, it was the real-world application of using electronics to save and protect human lives that lured me into this lifelong endeavor and love of alarm technology. After all, what is more meaningful than saving someone’s life or, at the very least, making their life more secure and safe?

A true and successful alarm event, with lifesaving results is something that does not happen by accident. In relatively recent times, the public has been made aware of the challenges of protecting people from terrorist attacks. The rub is terrorist attempts can fail many times but U.S. security forces need only fail once to face catastrophe. This takes a special level of diligence, and the same holds true for alarm system performance.

An alarm system can sit idle and ready for years or even decades with only one simple and important task — notification and urgent action of a real alarm condition. This month we turn to a real-life event as a source of inspiration to all do a better job.

Gaining Inspiration From Incident

A news article that recently crossed my desk sadly reminded me of a failure of the true mission of alarm technology and services. The event resulted in the death of Jay Luther, co-owner of Germantown (Tenn.) East Cafe in Germantown. According to the report, with the restaurant’s cooler out of commission due to a power outage, Luther went out one night to check on the frozen goods that were temporarily being kept cold with dry ice. What followed was a calamity of errors.

The dissolving dry ice had created a cooler full of deadly carbon dioxide gas, the door exit device was broken and Luther did not have his cellphone. Locked inside the cooler and being overcome with the gas, he reached for his one lifeline: a holdup alarm (HUA) switch. The monitoring station received the signal, and authorities were immediately notified and arrived within five minutes. They found the business locked, lights out and a sign stating the business was closed due to the power outage. The police officer and a guard then decided not to go further as it must have been a false alarm, as it is not uncommon for alarm systems to have false alarms when the power is out.

After reviewing numerous news articles on this tragic event and discussing the situation with other security industry professionals, I have reached one personal key observation and conclusion: holdup alarms should always be treated as a life-safety event, and reported and responded to in an urgent and timely manner. Minutes may have saved Luther’s life. I attempted to contact the alarm company involved in this incident, but due to the ongoing police investigation they declined to comment.

Rather than blaming any organization or individual, this article is aimed at illuminating what we as security professionals can do to prevent similar incidents. I hope it provides you with some ideas to improve your operation, and that you share them with employees, associates and colleagues.

4 Areas to Target for Better Results

What can alarm companies, monitoring centers, customers and authorities learn from such an incident? What can alarm dealers do to improve future outcomes? I suggest the following:

Educate first responders — From the news reports, it would appear the weak link may have been the assumption by the responders that the alarm was false. We know from industry experience it is not that uncommon for robbery victims to be left tied up in a locked cooler. This is why a HUA device was installed in the cooler in the first place.

Additionally, the odds of a manual holdup alarm circuit creating a false alarm when no one is in the facility are very low. Overall and statistically, this event had all the earmarks of be an actual alarm. It is the responsibility of the trade to help educate responders on this information and what the industry is doing (CP-01 standard) to minimize false alarms.

Alarm monitoring communications — What else could the monitoring center have done? Was there a disarm/open signal sent that would help identify that someone may still be in the building? What about extra dispatch protocol instructions to notify other owners or allow forced access to the facility? Or additional information to responders that the system has CP-01 false alarm functions? 

Owner participation — Have the owner agree in writing that forced entry is allowed if such an alarm is reported.

Alarm company — Participate in programs to further educate municipalities on “Best Practices” of alarm system performance. Further community false alarm education with programs from organizations such as the False Alarm Reduction Association (FARA). Establish a reliable equipment reputation with the community by installing only CP-01 control panels and update older panels with low battery cutoff devices (see Tool Tip). 

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About the Author


Bob is currently a Security Sales & Integration "Tech Talk" columnist and a contributing technical writer. Bob installed his first DIY home intercom system at the age of 13, and formally started his technology career as a Navy communication electronics technician during the Vietnam War. He then attended the Milwaukee School of Engineering and went on to complete a Security Management program at Milwaukee Area Technical College. Since 1976, Bob has served in a variety of technical, training and project management positions with organizations such ADT, Rollins, National Guardian, Lockheed Martin, American Alarm Supply, Sonitrol and Ingersoll Rand. Early in his career, Bob started and operated his own alarm dealership. He has also served as treasurer of the Wisconsin Burglar and Fire Alarm Association and on Security Industry Association (SIA) standards committees. Bob also provides media and training consulting to the security industry.

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