Alarm, Monitoring Executives Explain How They Coped as SoCal Fires Raged


As the October firestorms torched the Southern California landscape, forcing the temporary evacuation of nearly 1 million people, alarm companies and monitoring stations worked feverishly responding to unprecedented volumes of emergency calls and signals.

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.

Security Sales & Integration spoke with several industry executives to discuss the impact on their alarm and monitoring operations and how they were able to cope with the unfolding crisis.

As the number of fires continued to mount over several days and devastation spread relentlessly, monitoring stations were barraged by continuous waves of alarms.

“It all just hits at once,” said 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 said 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 said.

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 might see 1,000 signals sitting in the buffer and you are working on them 10 at a time with the available staff until you get to the bottom,” Hertel said. “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 and other central station managers SSI spoke with reported throngs of evacuated homeowners also phoned around the clock asking if their systems were still functioning, and if not, when the last time a signal was received.

“This catastrophe was unique in that we’ve never had subscribers calling in wanting to know if their alarm systems were still online,” Hertel said. “They were trying to understand what was going on with their property and homes. There was a lot of panic going on, a lot of emotions.”

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 said. “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 said she was in contact with her monitoring station, Aliso Viejo, Calif.-based National Monitoring Center.

When the evacuation was lifted, Baldwin said there was no mystery for customers finding out if their home was still intact since constant communication was available.

“I was able to check the alarm status of our customers, and we were getting mostly low batteries and power failures,” she said. “We were able to get our customers 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,” said 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 said. “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.”

Just as other monitoring stations were spurred into action, Central Monitoring Corp. implemented emergency polices and procedures when the fire danger became imminent.

“We have the ability to toggle certain signals on and off,” Thompson said. “If we are inundated with AC power loss signals I’ll turn them off for a few hours or in this case a day or so.”

The imperative, Thompson said, is to work on handling high priority alarms only.

“We stop notifying on trouble calls,” he said. “We are responding strictly to fire, burglary, hold ups and medicals. You go into damage control mode.”

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