Next time you find yourself trying to defend the amount of false alarms in the industry (yeah, yeah we all know somebody said 97 to 99 percent of all alarms are false), cite this case to prove that SOMETIMES, false alarms can be a good thing. After all, they do get the police out there and in cases like this, cause them to hit the jackpot:PHOENIX Ã¢â‚¬â€ Officers seized 900 pounds of marijuana, thousands of dollars in cash and three firearms at a Phoenix home after responding to what turned out to be a false alarm. Sgt. Andy Hill said Sunday that patrol officers responded to a west Phoenix home after a burglar alarm went off at about 2 p.m. Saturday. While investigating, Hill says officers spotted a man jump a wall by the house. Not knowing if there had been a burglary, the officers chased the man into the backyard of a nearby home. While arresting him, officers saw a storage room door open with numerous bales of marijuana inside. They found a rifle, a shotgun, a handgun and about $10,000 in cash inside the house. All I have to say is 900 POUNDS of marijuana?! In bales? Really? I sure hope the police waived the fine for that guy's alarm.
So this morning I found an interesting video monitoring application being used in meat processing plants. I realize it's not exactly the market for the average security installer or integrator, but I thought it was a good example of how security technology is moving beyond traditional applications and is actually being used to improve business operations (and, in this case, the health of consumers). Arrowsight is a company that provides remote video auditing (RVA) technology (a new acronym for me), and installs these systems in meat processing and animal handling factories so managers can constantly monitor "the line" to ensure that employees are following food safety standards. In the wake of this massive meat recall with video surfacing showing unimaginable violations of meat handling compliance, knowing that somebody is keeping an eye on how the nation's meat is being handled is slightly comforting (although the company's who are progressive enough to install video monitoring systems probably aren't the ones using fork lifts to move sick cattle into the slaughter house). For the security integrators out there, this is just another example of how security systems are moving beyond traditional applications and truly becoming a tool to improve business.
I had a chance to tour National Monitoring Center's new central station in Irving, Texas on my way to the airport from the TechSec conference last week. It's housed in a brand-spanking new plaza that, when I pulled up, only had one car in the parking lot (which happened to my host, Stefan Rayner, the central station manager's vehicle, still sporting California plates). Stefan gave me a tour of the new facility, which is nearly complete (minus a few pieces of furniture here and there), but won't be completely up and running until early this summer. Stefan explained all the renovations and additions they had made to the building and I even peeked in a currently unoccupied building next door to see how much work they had put into the space. I must say, I was very impressed with the design: from the sleek glass doors that made the space very open and breathable, to interesting features like the electrostatic glass viewing window that can be illuminated to see operators at work (see picture above). Stefan explained this feature was a way to show clients the central station space without distracting operators with continual walk-throughs. Certainly a good idea. Now, I must admit I've only seen a handful of central stations, but this one is above and beyond what is actually required for a central station in terms of design. It currently has 20 operator stations, (with room for at least five more), a roomy break area for operators (although it too is surrounded by glass, so any snoozing, for example, isn't a secret), a training/education room, conference room (that's the one with the electrostatic glass), a large circular reception area and two offices for management, which, by the way, are also surrounded by glass, so the boss can't sneak in any shut eye either. The only thing I would like to see at every central station is some type of exercise space for operators (and at my office, too, now that I think of it).
Checkers the dog is the scapegoat once again. This Checkers isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t NixonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pooch who took the fall as the only campaign contribution Nixon accepted in 1952, but instead an escape artist pitbull mix from L.A. who is blamed for setting off his owners security system multiple times after escaping from his crate, according to this article in The Los Angeles Times. Police responded to each of Checkers Houdini moves, despite the city's two false alarm limit policy, which should have alerted dispatchers of the multiple alarms and not sent police to respond. But apparently the city's 911 system isn't sophisticated enough to flag these alarms, so dispatchers just kept sending the police and costing the owner, and the city, money. This situation brings to light the administrative reality of implementing false alarm policies: most cities and municipalities are not prepared to track, enforce and collect false alarm fines. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a huge administrative task and, in most cities, requires personnel, or even a separate department, dedicated to the task of managing false alarms. One company, appropriately named Cry Wolf (owned by AOT Public Safety Corp.) has designed its business around false alarm policy management. The company can either completely manage a municipalities false alarm program and take a percentage of the fees collected, or install software programs and train employees to self-manage the false alarm program. Check out this article about about Cry Wolf from our March paper.
I know it seems like September is a long ways away, but this week I'm on a preview trip of ASIS International's 54th Annual Seminar, which will take place Sept. 15-18 in Atlanta, Georgia. So far, I'm very impressed with Atlanta and some of the venue spaces they have here. For example, I'm staying in the Marriott Marquis which boasts one of the largest atriums in the world (47 stories) and is dizzyingly spectacular. The Westin is also pretty cool and is the tallest hotel in the Western hemisphere (74 stories) with a rotating restaurant allowing you to eat dinner with a 360 degree view of the city. Tomorrow we're touring the Georgia World Congress Center where the show will actually be held. We also got an "after hours" tour of the aquarium (i.e. no little kiddies running around), which was amazing. You could tell everyone was very impressed with the scenery. They even built a conference space that can hold 1,200 people with a similar view of the 64 million gallon tank and four rare and impressive whale sharks (left). Smart people. One of the highlights of the aquarium was the beluga whale, and it wasn't just because he was playful and majestic, but I won't go into details and leave that to curious minds and YouTube (and no, I'm not going to link to anything). Let's just say he thought these ladies were impressive, too. And, to top it all off, we had beautiful clear skies to watch the full lunar eclipse. ASIS folks go out of their way to put on a good show.
Only three days left until the Feb. 18 sunset date and the expiration of analog cellular service in the U.S. (and that's counting a weekend, so really after today, it's over). Most people in the industry predict it will be a largely uneventful day, but I'm not so sure. After all, Monday is a holiday and Tuesday is a full moon. With that combo, who knows what could happen? I spoke with Bud Wulforst, the president of the Central Station Alarm Association, and he said he thinks most of the larger security companies are ready for the transition, but he is concerned that the smaller companies either aren't aware of the situation or aren't taking the appropriate actions to change their customers' systems over (here's an article with our conversation). I can understand that there's a cost and time issue with changing out systems, but I can't believe that anyone, especially anyone in the security business, is unaware that analog is on its way out. Frankly, they must not be very good businesspeople because I just did a quick Google News search for "analog cellular" and more than 10 pages worth of articles came up. For example, here's an article about the ending of analog and its effect on security systems from a paper out of Colorado. However, there's not much anyone can do at this point. Like Wulforst said in reference to companies that aren't ready for Monday's deadline: "If theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re scrambling now, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s too late. They shouldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been scrambling months ago." So, all we can do is wait and see what happens. Get lots of rest over this long weekend - next week could be interesting.
The false alarm issue went mainstream in a big way when this article appeared in The New York Times last Sunday. The article basically outlines the issue and cites different false alarm policies throughout the East, nothing those of you reading this don't already know, but my favorite section was this: "Not all towns see false alarms as a problem. In Westchester County, Lt. Robert W. Mazurak of the Bedford Police Department said his officers respond to about 50 alarms a week in Bedford, Bedford Hills and Katonah. Almost all are false. 'This is an important service we provide,' Lieutenant Mazurak said. 'We get to know where the houses are, and the people get to know our cops.'" I love positive people. I'm sure some of you would love to have this guy in your police department. I was confused by this paragraph: Officials in Suffolk County chose another approach, beginning in May 2005. If a business has more than 16 false alarms within 365 days the company is required to fix the faulty alarm within 30 days or it is put on a do-not-respond list. False alarms are counted only if they are caused by system failure, not employee error, and homeowners are exempt, said Richard Dormer, the county police commissioner. It sounds like if an employee triggers the alarm and police/fire respond it doesn't count as one of the 16 allowed alarms? Hmmm. I wonder how they track that? Speaking of tracking, I'm working on a story about a company that does exactly that: It takes care of all the administrative duties for tracking, enforcing and billing customers for false alarms. Keep your eye out for the March issue. (Was that plug too blatant?)
I can't seem to get away from this false alarm topic lately. Here's a video from a Florida TV station reporting on a non-profit organization that has racked up over $2,000 in false alarm fees in the last year. The non-profit says that a fire sensor installed in the kitchen went off every time the stove was turned on and the situation got so ridiculous they had to set up a makeshift stove outside so they could cook. The most interesting part of the piece, however, was a comment that the fire department must respond to all alarms, even cancelled alarms, from residential centers like this one. That was news to me. I guess I understand the intention of this policy, but it really eliminates the effectiveness of verification as a way to reduce false alarms, huh? I wonder if anybody's keeping track of how many false alarms are the result of policies like this? Sounds like wasted efforts to me.
So after a few days on backorder from my favorite local bookstore, I finally got around to reading Free Lunch by David Cay Johnston. The main argument is this: taxpayers foot the bill for responding to false alarms which equals the profits reported by the security industry. Hence, the free lunch reference. HereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the argument verbatim: Ã¢â‚¬Å“These profits are huge because the alarm industry does not pay its largest single cost, labor to check out alarms. The taxpayers pick up this expense. Each time the police check out an alarm it costs more than $50, the police in Seattle and other cities have determined. The average alarm goes off more than once each year. The police responded to about 38 million alarms in 2000 at a total cost to taxpayers of $1.9 billion. The burglar alarm industry collected $7.9 billion from residential and commercial burglar alarm customers that year. So if the industryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ estimates are reliable, it means that profits were almost $1.9 billion, almost exactly the value of the taxpayer subsidy in having police check out false alarms.Ã¢â‚¬Â Johnston concludes with this: Ã¢â‚¬Å“The burglar alarm industry charges hefty fees for a service that costs it very little. Then the industry dumps onto the taxpayers the real costs of providing the very service it sells. This is economic pollution sold to people under the guise of making them safe. In fact, it makes them less safe.Ã¢â‚¬Â The Ã¢â‚¬Å“safeÃ¢â‚¬Â argument that Johnston tries to work into his argument is fairly weak, in my opinion, and a manipulation of numbers, but I wonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t divert to that right now. Instead, I would say that the alarm industry is certainly aware that false alarms are an issue, but the real question is: How will the industry deal with this negative public image? Any ideas?
Good thing thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no snow in the weekend forecast up here in Maine because it turns out I have some reading to do. I just read an article from The Oregonian about a new book written by Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston titled Ã¢â‚¬Å“Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill)Ã¢â‚¬Â that apparently has a large section dedicated to the public cost for false alarms. Of course, I havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t read it yet, but based solely on this excerpt, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m thinking this isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t a good thing for the security industry: "The burglar alarm industry," Johnston writes, "charges hefty fees for a service that costs it very little. Then the industry dumps onto the taxpayers the real costs of providing the very service it sells. This is economic pollution sold to people under the guise of making them safe. In fact, it makes them less safe." Uh oh. My dad was the first one who directed me to this book after he heard an interview on NPR, so know your customers are reading it and you should, too. But, in case you've already made weekend plans, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ll take some notes and give you a better summation on Monday.