Industry Pulse In Depth:Alarm Companies Stand Up to Hurricane Onslaught

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — It had been more than a week since the coastal city of Port Charlotte took the brunt of Hurricane Charley, but the town still looked like a disaster area.

On his way to work at Port Charlotte alarm company Security Alarm Corp. (SAC), Vice President Lester Frank was still seeing tree limbs stacked eight feet high along the side of the road. “It’s like driving through a tunnel,” Frank says.

The strongest hurricane to hit Florida since 1992 and the additional punch of Hurricane Frances soon thereafter provided another test for alarm companies to continue to be there for their customers even in the face of a major disaster.

As the only local 24-hour alarm monitoring facility in Port Charlotte, SAC faced the storm and aftermath of Charley, which directly hit the west coast city Aug. 13 and led a path of destruction that went through Orlando and Central Florida before hitting the Carolinas. Charley’s toll was 25 dead; 31,114 homes destroyed or uninhabitable; and more than $6.8 billion in damage — second only to Andrew for most costly hurricane ever.

A little less than half of Charlotte County was still without power a week after the hurricane hit. That meant a trickle of disheartening calls each day to SAC from customers who had nothing left to protect.

“We’re getting six to seven calls a day from customers wanting to disconnect monitoring because their house is gone,” Frank said Aug. 24. “That is going to hurt the company, but they’ll be back. The monitoring accounts I’m losing, I’ll live with it. They lost their homes.” Frank was not among those who lost their homes. In fact, all of the employees at SAC were accounted for without injury and with their homes.

About 40 miles north of Port Charlotte, All American Monitoring’s central station in Sarasota didn’t face the full strength of the storm. That didn’t mean they weren’t prepared for it. Earlier forecasts had the eye of the hurricane aiming right at Sarasota before it changed direction.

“When it was looking like it was coming toward our office, we called in for extra help,” says Marilyn Blanton, All American’s general manager. “We went out and bought the food and water, filled the generator, tied everything down and we had out backups in case we had to go to another building. Then we said our prayers.”

With just about all of its employees on hand, the operators were glued to their monitors and to the televisions above showing minute-by-minute radar images of Charley’s position and breathed sighs of relief when it became apparent the hurricane wouldn’t hit them directly. Even if it had, All American prepared for the worst beforehand by building their headquarters with steel doors and trusses, and the few windows they had were boarded up by plywood in the days preceding the storm.

“Employees who left and went home should have probably stayed here,” Blanton says. Case in point was one of All American’s data entry employees whose boyfriend picked her up and took them back to her home in nearby Arcadia. The hurricane’s winds blew a tree down and it smashed right down the middle of her home while they were sleeping. They were uninjured, but once the tree was removed, the house caved in.

Over at SAC, the company’s building didn’t suffer any noticeable damage despite several downed trees surrounding the property. The results of disaster preparedness meant SAC’s central station never went down and back-up generators kept everything running until power was restored Aug. 18. However, SAC had no power over phone lines that were up during the hurricane but went down eight hours after the city’s power grid went dark.

“Phone calls didn’t increase like I thought they would. They never stopped like I thought they would,” says Frank. Even with phone service out, SAC’s office remained continuously manned and operating to be ready for when service came back. The station was teased when the phones were restored for 42 minutes two days after the storm hit. “We had four people taking calls and they could not keep up with them. I took calls myself.”

SAC, which started business in 1979 with Frank as its first employee, first put together its disaster manual 15 years ago and has reviewed and revised it twice a year since. While the preparedness kept SAC operating despite the storm, there were still enough hiccups to leave Frank ready for another revision. “You never know until you physically go through it,” he says.

In the meantime, Port Charlotte has come together in the wake of disaster that left debris strewn around like autumn leaves. When phone lines were out, neighbors and customers of SAC came by and knocked on the doors to make sure the employees were OK. “I still get choked up when I see the response in this town,” Frank says.

For more on how central stations can remain operating in the face of a disaster, see “Blacked Out … But Not Powerless” on page 30 of the November 2003 issue of SSI.

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