Alarm Companies Deal With California Wildfires


Employees at the San Diego office of Greater Alarm didn’t
need the increased alarm box AC failures coming into their
central station and lack of main power to remind them they
were facing a major disaster. They only needed to look out
their window.

The blazing front line of 251,000-acre Cedar Fire, one of
seven major wildfires that have burned away in the hills of
Southern California, was only a mile and a half away from
Greater Alarm’s San Diego branch office on Monday. “We can
see the smoke and the flames,” said 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.”

The fire ended up sparing Greater Alarm’s San Diego office,
which is among several alarm companies that have been in
emergency mode because of the costliest brush fires
California has ever seen. As of Thursday afternoon, the
collection of fires from the Mexican border to the northern
suburbs of Los Angeles have left 20 dead and 2,600 homes
destroyed. More than 660,000 acres have been blackened – an
area the size of Rhode Island.

The worst of the fires have been in San Diego, where Mayor
Dick Murphy had urged employers Monday to tell their
workers to stay home. Schools were 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 was erringly
quiet. Call volume was light, installations were postponed
and they couldn’t get access to major customers like UC San
Diego and the U.S. Navy’s Coronado base, which had been
locked down.

At the same time, the light staff Greater Alarm had was
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 said Monday.
However, while still out of control, the fire has moved on
southeast of Greater Alarm’s offices and no longer
threatens it.

Protection Service Industries’ (PSI) office in San
Bernardino, Calif., didn’t face the same imminent danger,
but PSI’s customers did. 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” directly
affected more than 400 of PSI’s customers. Four customer
homes were 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 have been 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 systems) 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 answered in
a solemn tone Monday and said no one was 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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