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Monitored Alarm Systems - First Link in the Chain of Response

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   Installed correctly, monitored security and fire alarm systems can provide accurate incident information to responding units. The type and level of an incident, as well as the location within a structure, can assist departments in planning the appropriate response en route. Monitored systems provide information to a 911 dispatcher in near real time to the incident, often before citizens recognize the incident, potentially saving the several minutes it would take for a bystander to notice and call. To repeat, though, these systems must be set up properly and monitored responsibly.

   To learn about these systems, At the Ready Magazine spoke with Zach from a local company that installs and monitors systems for all public safety, fire, police, and EMS. From the outset, we learned that even the regulations and installation procedures differ widely by system. Fire system installation and inspection are under the purview of the Fire Marshall, who approves the plans and ensures all systems meet the fire code. On the Security side, the industry does not have such strict oversight.

   For about 75% of its fire system installation business, Zach’s company retrofits older commercial buildings that do not have sprinklers or systems installed. "Even though the laws change, many buildings are grandfathered in,” Zach told us, meaning it is often up to the building owner to upgrade or include systems in older buildings. His company obtains the blueprints and contacts the Fire Marshall to review and approve the proposed system; once the installation is complete, the Fire Marshall will inspect to ensure it is in compliance. For the planning phase, the company employs a fire systems planner who is certified and licensed as Level III Fire Inspector. Monitoring is ongoing through the company monitoring station, which can provide a 911 dispatcher with information about how big a fire is and whether the sprinklers or other suppression system deployed, while pinpointing a zone where the fire started.

   In most residential homes, smoke detectors are required by law, but monitoring is not. Without system monitoring, an alarm may only be a noise; the detector does not communicate with anyone. A resident must call the fire department. If no one is home, the fire blazes until a bystander calls. In contrast, fire sensors are monitored. In addition, fire sensors also are triggered by temperatures within the home that are much higher than an ambient air temperature. It is not uncommon for a temperature to reach 160 - 170 degrees before the sensors trigger an alarm. This is more reliable than the smoke detector that sounds when someone burns dinner.

   On the security side, there is no police department equivalent to a Fire Marshall regulating and approving plans for installation of systems. Consumers can choose from a range of security alarm companies, including local, whose commercials run throughout the day in many markets. All these systems are monitored, often as part of a security package including planning, and installation of sensors. Door and window sensors, as well as motion detectors, are popular in the residential market. Monitored sensors are a great ally of law enforcement, reducing false alarms, and thus dispatches of resources to a non-incident. This also benefits residents in jurisdictions that charge for a response to a false alarm. Of course, if no one within the home answers the monitoring company, to confirm that the alarm was accidently tripped, the 911 dispatcher is automatically contacted.

   Within the last year or two, Zach tells us the purchase of video cameras by homeowners is on the rise. "Cameras are not monitored, but we are installing more DVR systems for homeowners to record video to provide to police.” The benefit is that the evidence is on tape. This is another tool available to law enforcement to augment fingerprints and other traditional methods of investigation. (Editor’s note: please see the article in this issue on which can be found here) These cameras have captured not only thefts, but vandalism and violations of protection orders.

   Zach stressed repeatedly that the systems must be set up properly for maximum effectiveness. Dividing the sensors and alarms into proper zones, for instance, will ensure the 911 dispatcher gets an accurate location. “Putting all the windows on ‘zone 6’ doesn’t help the responders know anything other than somewhere in the building a window sensor was tripped,” Zach explained.

   The trend toward monitored systems also can help First Responders locate emergency situations more quickly. Many communities have a list of buildings with such systems and some require a permit for alarms, which can be linked to addresses. When every second counts, this can be crucial in limiting property loss or personal injury, and even saving lives.

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