Keeping Your Guards Up

Los Angeles, Seattle, Arlington, Texas, Omaha, Neb., the state of Delaware, as well as many other local governments around the country are debating the possible implementation of verified response. This policy dictates that police officers do not respond to an alarm until someone else—a security guard, resident or neighbor—first verifies that it is valid.

Despite the security industry’s best efforts at reversing this trend, police departments and city officials more than ever appear to be embracing this approach. Like it or not, mandatory verified (guard) response may be coming to a town you serve. As a result, if your company doesn’t already use guards, it should consider doing so now.

For an alarm company to be successful (or even break even) with security officer response, it must have good employees; guard training; background checks of all employees; excellent management skills; minimal employee turnover; a limited geographical radius; and a dense number of alarm locations within a geographical area. If using a third-party guard company, a dealer should have a contract that specifies the duties and obligations of the alarm company, guard firm and customer. Adequate insurance to cover any additional liability exposure should also be purchased. A little luck also helps.

Minimal Profitability Is Not Attractive to Dealers

The reactions to verified response policies from the dealers/integrators interviewed for this article range anywhere from lukewarm to hostile. The reason why those interviewed are not big proponents of this policy is that most of them are not making a profit with their guard services.

Edward Bruerton, owner of Anchor Alarm in Salt Lake City, is vehemently opposed to his city’s verified response policy, which was enacted Dec. 1, 2000. Despite the fact that his company makes a profit from guard services, he says, “I suspect all the [guard] companies will have to raise their rates because they aren’t making any money.”

Even First Response Inc. of Portland, Ore., a company that specializes in guard and patrol service, concedes that this type of business does not generate huge profits. The company’s president, David Foglio, says that, “On the guard services side, you’ve got a 5-, 10-, maybe 15-percent profit margin.”

Some Are Already Acquainted With Guard Service

To conform with Las Vegas’ verified response policy, which was implemented in 1992, Las Vegas-based A-1 Security originally used its own personnel, but discovered it did not have the density of alarm locations to support an alarm response unit. Since 1994 it has been using contract guards and has gone through six companies. According to Bud Wulforst, A-1 president, “We’ve had poor results at various times. Sometimes they start off great and deteriorate. Other times they start off poor and you immediately know you’ve got the wrong guard company. “Even before the implementation of verified response in his town, Jerry D. Howe, president and CEO of Peak Alarm and Peak Alarm Guard and Patrol Service in Salt Lake City, saw what was happening in Las Vegas. He anticipated (correctly) that Salt Lake would follow suit. Peak Alarm began providing guard response to its customers in 1996.

Anchor Alarm, with its 500 customers, does not have a large enough number of accounts to support in-house patrol guards. Thus, the small business subcontracts its guard work. Anchor Alarm is not happy with its current guard service because of poor service and increased rates.

Even if their cities don’t have verified response, many dealers already use guards because UL regulations mandate that certain types of installations have some form of guard verification.

First Response has been in business since 1989 and started as an armed alarm response and patrol company. It currently serves the cities and surrounding areas of Portland, Ore., and Seattle. Only in 1996 did it begin installing, servicing and monitoring alarm systems (primarily commercial).

Currently, First Response does not have any alarm response or patrol business in cities requiring verified response, so it still has the luxury of choosing where it conducts its business.

Finding and Keeping Good Employees: a Constant Challenge

Guard response isn’t exactly a sexy profession. “This is an entry-level job. It’s the bottom of the barrel,” says Robert A. Bonifas of Alarm Detection Systems. Security officers’ “rent-a-cop” reputation can make attracting quality employees extremely difficult. In areas where unemployment rates are low and the cost of living is high, the task is even more challenging.

One way Bonifas’ company attracts runners is by paying them more than minimum wage. Additionally, if there is a possibility for career advancement, attracting good guards, as well as keeping them, is easier.

First Response also pays its officers more than average—usually between $10 and $11 per hour. According to Foglio, “We provide full health benefits and a 401K plan. We have paid quarterly officer training meetings, so they have the opportunity to hone their skills and learn about our business.” Because First Response’s patrol guards are armed, it prefers to recruit from local reserve academies, police departments or colleges. First Response employee retention rate is 2.2 years.

Howe says Peak Alarm prefers using in-house guards so management has better control of personnel. “You can have better standards and do the training the way you want them to respond,” he says. Howe likes to know who is responding to his company’s alarms. He also stresses the importance of attractive patrol vehicles.

3rd-Party Guards Better Equipped to Handle Large Territories

A dealer may decide to use a third-party guard firm because the alarm company doesn’t have enough alarm locations to support its own patrol fleet. This is particularly true in areas with verified response.“The problem is density,” says Wulforst. “In order to provide good response, you have to have multiple cars on the road in various areas throughout the city.” When Las Vegas first implemented verified response, his company responded directly to alarms, and only had one guard on staff at any given time. The company’s total number of accounts and alarms did not support a second vehicle. According to Wulforst, “If you had one [alarm] and then followed up with another in a [remote] section, the response time was tremendously long.”

It was because of this that A-1 got out of the guard business and began its search for a qualified subcontractor. After going through five guard companies in seven years, it hired Pinkerton. Currently, the average response time is 22 minutes.

If your company decides to use a third-party guard company, Jose Hernandez, Pinkerton’s Las Vegas branch manager, has several suggestions on finding a good provider. “Call around and talk to other people. Ask how reliable is the guard company’s service. “Hernandez adds, “If you drive around an area and see a patrol, look at the vehicle. Is it clean and safe? Does the officer look presentable? Does he look like he knows what is going on? Stop and talk to him.”

Training and Background Checks Limit Liability

Like any other business, referrals are often the best source of potential employees and subcontractors. As long as the person making the referral has good judgment and is trustworthy, an employer has a better chance of not hiring an unsavory individual or a fly-by-night guard service. That said, even if candidates have spectacular recommendations from trusted friends or acquaintances, thorough background checks must be completed on guards and installation service personnel. Any third-party guard response company, as a standard procedure, should also carefully screen its officers (armed and unarmed).

For many states, before an armed or unarmed guard can begin working, he or she must be<

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