Deterrence or Arrests
Checking the value of consumer alarms
- By Keith Jentoft
- Sep 01, 2010
Every month, more products pour into security magazines and catalogs.
We see a torrent of innovation and evolution continually adding features
and reducing costs along the way.
We need to step back from the tsunami of progress and ask, “So
what?” What is the purpose of all this effort? Is there some technical nirvana
we can bask in when we finally reach 100 megapixels, or ultimate peace when
mesh networks consume our geography? Or is it all simply a pointless game of live
fast and die? It is time to step back and consider the true goal.
I am talking specifically about intrusion alarm systems. Amid this continuing
flood of technology now delivering wireless sensors, cell communications, radio
backups and integrated video, we need to take a breath and ask ourselves, “What
is an intrusion alarm for, and where is the value to the consumer?”
We must understand both the function and goal of an intrusion alarm before
we can evaluate the value of new technology for our customers. The function of
an intrusion alarm is to detect intruders and notify authorities, but the value of the
alarm to the consumer depends upon the response of police. Ultimately, is the goal of intrusion alarms simply deterrence,
or is it actual arrests?
Catching the Bad Guys
While the basic detect/notify function
remains unchanged, the goal of
intrusion alarms has evolved over
time with changes in technology. Initially,
intrusion alarms were designed
to catch criminals. The early systems
used hardwired McCullough circuits
with a maximum range of 30 miles.
All monitoring was local, and alarm
companies worked closely with their
local police force. These expensive systems
were only installed in places of
greatest risk, such as banks and telegraph
offices. Detection consisted of
breaking a simple circuit, usually with
a switch at a door or window. These
silent systems had no siren to scare off
the intruders because the goal was a
The consumer electronics revolution
began with the invention of the transistor,
which gave rise to a new generation
of affordable detectors. These new
sensors detected motion and even the
sound of glass breaking. But at the same
time, communications evolved and automated
switches replaced humans as
telephones became standard equipment
in homes and offices. Intrusion alarms
also embraced new lower-cost communications --
first using a tape dialer and
then, as phone networks evolved, the
digital dialer in 1972.
This quantum leap in communications
meant that the notify component
of intrusion alarms could scale, and it
became affordable to a mass market.
Detection and notification exploded into
mainstream America, pushing millions
of systems into small businesses and the
homes of residential consumers.
The Move to Deterrence
While the basic function of detection/
notification did not change, the goal of
intrusion alarms began to evolve from
arrests to deterrence.
False alarms and imperfect detectors
led to high false alarm rates, which
became a growing issue for police. The
industry tried to improve detection
technology and the accuracy of an alert
by calling property owners before notifying
police of an alarm.
The goal of intrusion alarms went
from delivering arrests to deterrence.
Sirens were added to system designs,
and salespeople began selling deterrence
as the key feature. This made a
security company’s yard sign the most
valuable part of a security system.
Battle for Response
The threat of an arrest is the source of
deterrence. With the proliferation of
systems, law enforcement’s perception
of intrusion alarms began a shift from
partner to adversary as they dedicated
more resources to responding to alarm
dispatches. At first, the industry softpedaled
In the early 1990s, the International
Association of Chiefs of Police proposed
non-response as a nationwide
option to what they believed to be the
growing burden of alarm response.
This transition away from response was
a threat the industry could not ignore,
and it began taking action at several levels, including the Electronic Security
Association, to pursue evolutions
in detection and notification to reduce
alarm dispatches sufficient to maintain
The ESA transitioned this effort to
the coordinated alarm reduction effort
that ultimately culminated in the creation
of Security Industry Alarm Coalition
in 2003 with dedicated full-time
staff to drive evolution in products and
processes and reduce alarm dispatches.
Improvements in detection targeted
both the detectors and the hardware
and operation of security panels, including
creating the CP-01 standard.
SIAC drove improvements in notification
that also were important including
ECV, placing two phone calls before
notifying police, which delivered huge
reductions in alarm dispatches. These
efforts by the industry were overwhelmingly
successful in maintaining police
response, with only a few exceptions.
Deterrence to Arrests
The value of deterrence stagnated as
consumers and law enforcement came
to grips with the reality that law enforcement
resources simply cannot
provide an immediate response to every
alarm. Response times grew to a point
that they were threatening the value of
deterrence. The political discussions
between industry and law enforcement
on alarm response has shifted from an
all or nothing battle of non-response to
creating tiers of response, giving different
alarms different priorities.
Security companies are embracing
this more liberal stance.
Some states, like Colorado, have
implemented policies with a tiered
response. In most of the state, the response
to an alarm is broadcast and file,
which means that the police dispatcher
announces the alarm over the radio and
any police in the area have the option to
respond if they choose to do so.
If, however, the alarm is verified
with video or an actual eyewitness, an
officer is assigned to respond with the
goal of arresting the intruder. Similar
prioritization of alarms is already in
place across the country in dispatch
centers run by police and sheriffs.
The obvious goal, from law enforcement’s
perspective, is a return to arrests.
This approach gives highest priority to
alarms that will most likely result in an
arrest -- because crimes in progress receive
a higher priority response. Now
a new generation of technology offers
These new alarm systems still follow
the pattern of detect/notify but go
a step beyond and deliver a short video
clip confirming what was detected.
This video confirmation moves the responses
to a higher priority, creating
new value for the security industry and
delivering greater life safety to the consumer.
Prioritizing alarm response is a
natural evolution toward more arrests
and greater deterrence -- and you can’t
have one without the other.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Security Today.