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It's Plain to See: Video Verification Increases Security System Effectiveness

If someone told you that a particular system or product fails to work properly 98% of the time, chances are you would call that system or product an abject failure.

If someone told you that a particular system or product – regardless of the industry – fails to work properly 98% of the time, chances are you would call that system or product an abject failure.

Now consider: On average, out of all the burglar alarm calls that your local police department receives, 98% of them are false, i.e., there was no real emergency or crime in progress. This results in a huge waste of taxpayer dollars, as well as tying up valuable law-enforcement resources. And that doesn’t even address the problems for the security system owner, who can be assessed with fines ranging from $25 to several hundred – and more.

The time and money are particularly critical at a time when many police departments are reducing the number of officer due to budget cuts. To that can be added the issue of public safety: an officer responding to a false alarm is one less officer who might be responding to a real call, should it arise at the same time.

In case you’re thinking that this is a recent problem, think again. An article in the Los Angeles Times from February 1998 addressed the scope of the issue even back then:

“These things [burglar alarms] cry wolf all the time,” said Lt. Charles Beck, who is studying the issue for the civilian Police Commission and the chief. “We're dealing with such a low percentage of calls that are actually real problems. Something needs to be done.”

Lt. Beck went on to explain that the annual response to alarms consumes the equivalent of 41 officers’ entire work year. Put another way, burglar alarm calls accounted for more than 17% of all calls for service to the LAPD in 1997.

There are myriad reasons for the occurrence of these “nuisance” alarms. According to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, they break down into three distinct categories:

  • User errors, such as using incorrect keypad codes, leaving a door or window open when activating the alarm, roaming pets or helium balloons, and errors arising from inadequate employee training, such as entering and exiting alarmed premises incorrectly
  •  Faulty or inappropriately selected equipment
  • Poor installation, including failing to install motion detectors in sensible areas or at appropriate heights.

So now let us pose this seemingly rhetorical question: doesn’t this system seem like an abject failure?

Over the years, a variety of solutions have been proposed to address and ultimately solve the problem. These solutions have ranged from educational (user and installer training) to legal (changes in local ordinances) to the punitive (fines, non-response by police). Technological solutions have been lagging; nebulous suggestions such as “better equipment” have not moved the needle very much.

There are some solutions which have shown promise and have proven effective in lowering the false alarm rate. This includes sound verification, which provides audio recordings of the monitored area that showed the unauthorized entry; and eyewitness verification, which would entail a corroborating account of the unauthorized access by a neighbor or other observer, who would call into the police station at the same time the alarm comes in.

While both approaches can potentially play an integral part in reducing false alarms, they do have drawbacks. Audio detectors serve as “ears” to hear what is happening in the area of the event; sounds like glass breaking and voices talking can be signs that an actual break-in is in progress. But as one would expect, audio can be misinterpreted. And though eyewitness verification can be extremely effective, there simply isn’t always an eyewitness present.

Fortunately, there is a third option, one that is becoming increasingly popular within the law-enforcement community: video verification. Using this method, when an alarm occurs within a home or business, a video camera is instantly activated to record the event. The video can then be sent to police or other appropriate law-enforcement agency as a way to positively confirm the break-in, which increases the chances of catching the perpetrator red-handed. Even if the burglar isn’t caught in process, the video images are extremely helpful in apprehending the criminal after the fact.

Video verification of crimes is critical, for another important reason: traditional alarms typically receive a “Priority 3” response from law-enforcement agencies; that is, a low priority response (which could mean no response at all). Conversely, an alarm accompanied by video verification will receive a “Priority 1” response, meaning that officers will respond much more quickly. Needless to say, the faster response time leads to a far greater chance of arrest.

With a professionally monitored system, the video verification is transmitted to the trained operator at the Central Monitoring Station (CMS), who can then determine the presence of humans in a home or business and that there is a high probability that a criminal offense is in progress. The operator at the central station would then be able to confirm to law enforcement that verification has been received.

Now, that’s fine for alarm systems that are professionally monitored by CMS, such as those offered by companies like ADT. However, in tandem with video verification, we are seeing another trend occurring in the security industry: the adoption of self-monitored, video-verified alarm systems. With self-monitoring systems, the user pays a minimal monthly fee because there isn’t a CMS watching your home 24/7; instead, the user performs the video verification monitoring of their own security system. This usually means that the user’s smartphone is connected to their security system, allowing them to receive notifications when a motion detector or any other life safety sensor (e.g., fire) is triggered or a door/window is breached.

The beauty of these systems is the monthly fee that you save through self-monitoring – a fee that can range from $30 to $80 or more. Yet they are highly effective: When a user confirms based on the live video stream that there is a “crime in progress,” the user contacts police within the application and communicates the verified event for police to prioritize the “crime-in-progress” response.

(Some of the more advanced security offerings are now being constructed on a collaborative monitoring model. This is similar to the self-monitoring version, but has a major advantage: in the event of an actual break-in or other crime, all parties involved – law enforcement, caregivers, neighbors, family members – can be notified of the event virtually simultaneously. And depending upon how the user sets up the system, any of the recipients of the alarm can transmit the video verification, further decreasing response time.)

The move by law enforcement agencies to accept video direct from residents with self-monitored or collaborative systems is nascent but is beginning to pick up steam. There is no doubt that with the growing popularity of self-monitored alarm systems, there will be a corresponding increase in the number of agencies that are prepared, technologically and otherwise, to accept video verification of real-time events, just as they are with the professionally monitored variety.

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