Alarm Companies Deal With California Wildfires


Employees at the San Diego office of Greater Alarm don’t
need the increased call volume, alarm box AC failures and
lack of main power to remind them they are facing a major
disaster. They only need to look out their window.

The blazing front line of 100,000-acre Cedar Fire, one of
six major wildfires in the hills of Southern California, is
only a mile-and-a-half away from Greater Alarm’s San Diego
branch office. “We can see the smoke and the flames,” says
Robert Reichert, Greater Alarm’s San Diego operations
manager. “There are only emergency lights on.  The radio
I’m listening to in my office is on battery power.”

Greater Alarm is among several alarm companies in emergency
mode because of the worst brush fires the area has seen in
more than a decade. As of Monday afternoon, the collection
of fires from the Mexican border to the northern suburbs of
Los Angeles have left 13 dead and more than 1,100 homes
destroyed. They still threaten 30,000 homes, as well as the
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley.

The worst of the fires have been in San Diego, where Mayor
Dick Murphy has urged employers to tell their workers to
stay home, schools are closed and Monday night’s NFL game
between the San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins was
moved to Tempe, Ariz. Because of that, Greater Alarm’s
office near the fire zone is erringly quiet. None of
Greater Alarm’s customers have lost their homes and call
volume is light. Installations are postponed and they can’t
get access to major customers like UC San Diego and the
U.S. Navy’s Coronado base, which have each been locked

At the same time, the light staff Greater Alarm has at this
point in San Diego is prepared to evacuate at any time with
the fire closing in. “If we would have to evacuate, our
procedure would be to remove the laptops and critical
operations and move to our Temecula location or Irvine,”
Reichert says.

Protection Service Industries’ (PSI) office in San
Bernardino, Calif., isn’t facing the same imminent danger,
but PSI’s customers have. The merged 40-mile flame front of
the combined Grand Prix and Old fires in the mountains
above what is known as the “Inland Empire” has directly
affected more than 400 of PSI’s customers. Four customer
homes have been lost entirely.

In the end, however, Alan Evanston, PSI’s vice president of
customer communications centers, says their customers have
been left more informed and prepared by neighbors without
alarm monitoring systems. PSI employees have worked through
the weekend and continue working now informing customers of
the latest evacuations and the status of the fires. “In
some cases, we were the ones telling them to get out before
they heard it from the news,” Evanston says. “We’re even
calling customers on their cell phones.”

There may be the smell of smoke in PSI’s central station,
but a recent remodeling and back-up systems have kept it
operation and a rented filtering air system is keeping the
operators comfortable. “The power has been on and off, but
the UPSs [uninterruptible power supplies] have been working
just like they were supposed to,” Evanston says. “We saw it
coming and we were prepared for it. We’ve had no
interruption of service.”

There are other companies not faring as well through the
firestorm of 2003, especially with employees being directly
affected by evacuations or the loss of their homes. An
operator at Enko Systems Inc. in San Bernardino answers in
a solemn tone and says no one is available to
talk. “Everybody’s not in. We’re coping. We’re just hanging
in there,” she says. “We’re praying.”

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