TECHNICAL MANAGEMENT – EXCLUSIVE! False Sense of Security Results in Murder
She believed she was safe.
The various religious paraphernalia scattered around her home revealed the mother of two daughters as a woman of faith. That may be why the password for her alarm account was “God bless this house.”
Along with her God, the woman placed faith in her alarm system — enough that one night, she left her master bathroom window open. As designed, the perimeter machine-wired alarm screen inside the window should have warned her of an intruder.
That sense of security proved to be fatally false. During a service call months before, an alarm technician removed an unrelated screen from the system and bypassed it so the alarm user could still operate her system. This left all zones of her system unsupervised. An intruder entered the home through a bypassed, inert screen and strangled the woman to death.
Alarm expert Jeffrey Zwirn, president of IDS Research & Development Inc., served as an expert witness in the case for the victim’s family against the alarm company that installed and serviced the system. His on-site inspection and analysis helped win the family and the victim’s estate a favorable settlement. While nothing will make up for the loss of a mother of two, the legacy of the case could serve as a warning of what shoddy work by an alarm contractor can mean for their customers.
“There was absolutely no excuse. The system was designed to meet this threat but failed due to the gross incompetence and gross negligence of the alarm company,” says Zwirn, who has been examining alarm system work for more than 35 years and was featured in SSI’s August 2003 “Bad Installations Are No Laughing Matter” feature. “They never disclosed to her the serious defects and irregularities that were present on her alarm system, of which they created.”
The name of the victim and the alarm company involved will remain anonymous throughout the rest of this story, and the victim will be referred to by the fictitious name of “Jane.” Her death can serve as a warning to alarm companies of the consequences of a careless installation, while providing a lesson on the best way to keep safe those they are paid to protect.
Intruder Bursts Bubble of Protection to Strangle Victim to Death
Jane lived in a gated Florida community with her two daughters.
One morning in 2002, the daughters were away but the Jane’s mother was staying with her. The mother went to Jane’s bedroom to find her daughter motionless on the floor. Fearing her daughter had suffered a heart attack, she called 911.
When emergency help arrived, what was thought to be a heart attack turned into a murder investigation: Jane had been strangled to death.
Police determined that an intruder had entered the home through a window of the master bathroom that connected with Jane’s bedroom. It was through this point of entry that the intruder was able to gain access into the home undetected and strangle the victim to death.
Perplexing to investigators were the extensive measures Jane took to create a bubble of protection around herself. She lived in a gated community, where a front gate was manned by a nonpatrolling guard that controlled access. She had paid thousands of dollars to an alarm company to install a perimeter monitored burglar and fire alarm system that included alarm contacts, shock sensors, audio glass-break detectors and machine-wired alarm screens.
That bubble of protection failed to save Jane’s life. The perpetrator got past the guard shack, then managed to go through an alarm screen that was supposed to activate an audible alarm and alert the central station of the intrusion. If the audible alarm had not scared off the intruder, the guard a few blocks away would have been alerted to the alarm and been there within minutes, in tandem with authorities dispatched by the central station.
Instead, the screen didn’t function and Jane died in silence. According to authorities, the intruder was able to sneak up and strangle Jane to death. She had little time to wonder why her alarm system had failed to protect her.
There was no disruption to her mother’s sleep in another room and there was no sound of an alarm. As far as the guard and central station were concerned, there was nothing amiss at the house where the intruder was ending the life of their victim.
“Within a reasonable degree of professional, technical and scientific certainty, had that alarm system functioned as intended, this could not and would not have have happened,” Zwirn says. There was an inside siren near the side of the house where the bathroom window was and an outside siren right next to the window itself.
“It would have been a very effective deterrent vs. the element of surprise where this intruder was able to sneak up on the woman and kill her,” he adds.
Detective Work Finds Missing Screen Led to Unprotected Entry
While detectives scoured the crime scene to piece together evidence of how the murder happened, Zwirn was hired by the victim’s family to do his own forensic analysis and examination to determine why the alarm system had failed to activate.
Initially, Zwirn determined that the alarm system itself looked to be functioning properly. The control panel was armed on the night of the murder and there was no problem with its connection to the central station. Yet the master bathroom alarm screen — the only protection on that window — failed to alarm when it was breached.
The biggest clue as to why the alarm failed wasn’t found at the bathroom window the assailant entered, but on the window of the adjoining master bedroom, where the victim was killed.
While looking at the master bedroom window, Zwirn noticed shorted- out conductor circuit wiring in the upper corners of the window (see photo on page 62 of March issue). It turned out that a few months before the murder, the alarm company that installed the system performed a service call. During that call, the installer removed one of the master bedroom window’s alarm screen for repair.
The technician’s removal of the unrelated master bedroom alarm screen bypassed the circuit feeding the master bathroom alarm screen. Upon closer inspection, Zwirn found that the shorted-out wiring in the upper left of the bedroom window fed the circuit from the control panel set to the bedroom screen. The upper right wiring, also shorted-out, fed to the end of the line, which was the bathroom screen. The installer shorted out both of the circuit loops when the bedroom screen was removed (see diagram on page 58 of March issue).
The removal of the screen started a chain of events that broke the bathroom window screen off from the rest of the system without Jane ever knowing it.
“The problem here is that there was a complete electronic disconnection of the screen,” Zwirn says. “Because of the inherent safeguards not being employed to begin with,it was unknown to the user when she armed and disarmed the system and it was also unknown to the central station.
System Lacked Proper Supervision by Improper Placement
While the missing bedroom screen was the main smoking gun for why the system failed to prevent Jane’s murder, Zwirn says the victim’s home security system may have been doomed to fail from the start.
When the system was initially installed, all supervisory end-of-line resistors (EOLRs) were terminated within the control panel set. That deviated from the equipment manufacturer specifications, as well as UL and industry standards, which call for the EOLR to live up to its name and be placed at the end of the protection loop (see diagram on page 60 of March issue).
The purpose of the EOLR on a normally closed bur
glary system loop is to detect a short that could keep the detection devices from functioning. Placed at the end of the circuit line, it would have alerted the panel and the central station that the bathroom alarm screen wasn’t connected to the system. Placed within the control panel set, it was blind to any shorts beyond the panel itself.
It was the equivalent of having a lifeguard with their headphones on and their back turned from the pool. Even if someone were drowning, they would have no way of knowing with the attention focused on protecting the beach chairs. In the same sense, the victim’s system was busy looking at the control panel, while the rest of the system was drowning and a mother of two was being murdered.
“It appears that this alarm company by practice would install the end-ofline resistors in the control panel set,” Zwirn says. “Clearly by doing that, they bypassed the inherent safeguards of the system and allowed it to appear functional when in reality, it was not functioning … including that window where the perpetrator entered.”
If the EOLR was properly installed, the victim would not have been able to arm her system. Instead, the keypads would have shown the victim a “trouble” condition with the bathroom window, as well as alert the central station.
During his on-site investigation, Zwirn brought up the placement of the EOLR with a representative from the alarm company. “He said, ‘You know that’s how they all do it out there in the industry and anyway that’s how I do it,’” Zwirn says. “He then conceded that this was, in fact, the wrong way to do it. He said at his house, the resistors were at the end of the line.”
As far as Zwirn is concerned, the system never had proper supervision. His investigation revealed that during later service calls, other portions of the system were bypassed. Not only that, but the inherent defects and irregularities would have been detected in a system test – meaning the installer either ignored the warnings or didn’t perform a test at all.
“That shows me that this person didn’t have the knowledge, didn’t have the training, didn’t have the supervision or was just doing something that appeared right on the surface but didn’t have the alarm science to back it up,” Zwirn says. “Whether he knew it would cause this woman to be murdered … it doesn’t matter. Now it is too late to fix what occurred here.”
Training, Supervision Keeps Technicians From Fatal Mistakes
Jane’s estate and family filed a multiple- count lawsuit against the alarm company. Using the evidence gathered by Zwirn, they won a substantial settlement from the alarm company for an undisclosed amount in 2004. The company itself is still in business.
Zwirn says the case isn’t a reflection of the alarm industry. He says there are numerous examples across the country of alarm companies doing installations right. At the same time, he says the case can still serve as a wake-up call for companies to review the work of their technicians in the field and make sure the systems they install function correctly.
“I think they can learn, tragically, by the faults of others and they can take that information and turn around maybe some of the improper practices that they may be following,” Zwirn says. “Alarm companies are unilaterally failing to address the safeguards that the alarm industry has worked so hard to incorporate into their design of these systems.”
The flaws in Jane’s alarm system that contributed to her death were preventable with recognized installation techniques and methodologies. There would have been no problem if the installer had followed minimum industry guidelines for servicing alarm screens, proper placement of EOLRs and testing the system.
Zwirn says the solution to the problem starts at providing proper training and supervision to technicians in the field. It can be as easy as simply following the standard practices laid out by the manufacturer, UL and other industry associations. It is important for alarm companies to make sure their customers not only feel safe, but are safe.
“There are people out in the country right now that are relying on systems that aren’t reliable and that needs to be addressed before another loss occurs,” Zwirn says. “We want to work proactively, not reactively in the alarm industry.”
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