Alarm Myths - Are you getting what you paid for?

October 29, 2014

Many people might only have an alarm installed in their house or office once or twice in a decade. As such, consumers seldom fully-understand what they should be looking for, or how to recognise a good product.

This page will explain some of the issues and help you form assessment criteria which you can use in assessing an alarm installation, detection technology or monitoring service. Even if you never use Calamity's services (though we hope you will), you should still appreciate and understand what you are paying for.

Regrettably, most people who have installed an ineffective security system only find out there is a problem after it is too late. Here are common problems which occur:

  • Failure to detect intruders
  • Frequent false alarms which disturb neighbours and result in subsequent, genuine alarms being ignored ('The Boy who Cried Wolf')
  • Badly designed or installed alarm systems, easily bypassed or defeated by burglars
  • Component failure due to cheap construction or poor installation
  • Power failure (or power cut by burglar) and battery failure
  • Overstretched or poor quality Monitoring Stations taking too long to respond or performing the wrong action in response

These problems do occur and are very real. With largely unregulated growth in the security industry, has come a wave of poor quality technology, dodgy monitoring practices and poor quality installations by untrained or inexperienced operators. Lower component prices does mean that costs have come down and "cheap" doesn't always mean bad, however in our experience, the old saying "you get what you pay for" remains the case. Fundamentally, you are either serious about your security or you are not. If you aren't, there's virtually no point having an alarm any more than locking your door. If you are serious about security however, it's very important to know what you should expect. Too many vendors rely on consumer ignorance as a matter of course.

Do it Yourself and Rapid Installation

A number of 'do it yourself' or 'rapid installation' systems, predominantly wireless, are flooding the market. In general, they involve the home-owner or an unskilled installer, attaching detectors to the wall, with double-sided tape, installing batteries and connecting a master panel to a phone line. Some such systems are monitored back-to-base as well. Salespeople love to promote these systems, as they can finish your job quickly and cheaply before moving onto the next target. Meanwhile, you've received a less than perfect system and may not even be aware of it.

Unfortunately, detector quality, selection and placement is one of the most important elements of alarm design. Ordinarily, people might place them where they believe the devices are most likely to detect intruders. That is, next to a doorway, window or skylight. Unfortunately, in doing so, they are often exposing the passive infra-red detectors to thermal patterns, heat or draughts as well as other common sources of false alarms, such as curtains or electromagnetic interference.

A properly designed and installed alarm should never have 'false alarms'.

We cannot stress that highly enough. False alarms are one of the biggest problems in the electronic security industry. Alarm sirens are all but ignored these days as they have become part of the 'background noise'. Nearly every street has at least one house whose alarm seems to 'go off' every time the weather changes and nobody takes flashing lights and sirens seriously anymore. The Police have made it clear they are not going to respond with any urgency, if at all, to household alarms.

The criminal element know this and take full advantage of it. Regardless of vendor hype, only a properly designed and correctly installed alarm can avoid false alarms and allow an alarm activation to be taken seriously. To achieve this, a competent, trained designer will assess a site, measure the volume of rooms, determine the most appropriate type of detectors - there are many - and locate them in the best position. It is important to recognise that no two properties are completely alike.

Any generic system which is supplied with a collection of identical, standard detectors, cannot possibly suit every different type of architecture, floorplan or building construction.

At best, the system will false alarm, causing you patrol fees and annoying your neighbours. At worst, it won't detect intruders until much too late.

Note also that most DIY alarm systems do not meet AS2201 - the Australian Standard for Intruder Alarm Systems and as such are not recognised by insurers. This will usually only become evident after you attempt to make a claim at which point the insurance company tries to avoid liability.

Most sensible Australians would never dream of installing their own powerpoints or changing their car's brake-pads themselves, because they recognise they do not have the qualifications or training to do the job properly and safely. So why would anyone take the same chance with their personal security to save a few dollars? Please consider something - How much would it cost you to replace your plasma television? Your computer? Your life? Almost certainly a lot more than getting a proper alarm system installed by a competent and reputable company. Don't take the risk, and get a proper quote. Keep reading for more of what to look for when assessing quotes.

Wireless Alarms and Detectors

We love wireless technology. However we only use it when it is appropriate and not as a shortcut, as is often the case with a number of security companies (big and small). It is difficult for consumers to know the difference in quality and capability of the massive range of wireless detection products and systems currently available.

The Advantages - When to use Wireless

In almost all circumstances, wireless technology should only be used in two cases:

  • When it is prohibitive or impossible to run cables, due to cable access difficulties or aesthetic concerns e.g. a heritage property
  • When portability is required - for example panic-buttons worn around the neck

Otherwise, 'hard wired' technology should be preferred, where standards-compliant cable is run between the central control panel and all end-points to avoid the disadvantages or shortcomings of wireless. Using wireless, where hard-wired is an option, will introduce weaknesses in the system and increase your risk. Be very suspicious of salespeople who argue otherwise. They have a different agenda to yours.

The Disadvantages of Wireless

Battery and Power Conservation

Wireless devices are nearly always battery operated. Every wireless device contains a transmitter which needs to be sufficiently high-powered to guarantee the signal will 'get through' to the alarm's central control panel. This uses a lot of power. You may have noticed, every time you walk past a 'passive infra-red' detector (or motion sensor) of an alarm system, a little LED (light) blinks to show you have been detected, and continues blinking as long as you are moving. A typically sensitive detector in a living-room or office would be activated hundreds of times daily. If every time that detection took place and a signal was sent by the wireless transmitter, with current battery technology, it would require frequent battery changes or recharging, just like your mobile phone.

However, manufacturers recognise that users expect batteries to last at least one year and generally 2-5 years without being changed. So they have designed their technology to reduce and minimise battery use, in most cases, by going to 'sleep' after a single detection. That is, they send one signal only and then no more for an extended period, regardless of motion in the area they are protecting. That way, they might only send a few signals per day and thus conserve battery.

Where this creates a problem, is for a monitoring centre trying to verify whether an alarm activation is genuine and requires a more urgent police or security response. One of the most common ways monitoring centres recognise break-and-enter, is by looking for 'multiple activations'. If you walk across a room with a hard-wired detector, it will detect you (and the LED will blink) several times.

This information helps a monitoring centre operator know it's a person, as other causes of spurious false alarms, such as heat or insects crawling across detectors, do not cause the same level or quantity of detection.

Now compare these two series of events, from the point of view of a busy monitoring centre operator or the police/patrol to whom they've reported it.

Hard-Wired Detectors

  • Zone 3 - Living Room detector activated
  • Zone 3 - Living Room detector activated
  • Zone 3 - Living Room detector activated
  • Zone 3 - Living Room detector activated
  • Zone 3 - Living Room detector activated
  • Zone 3 - Living Room detector activated
Wireless Detectors

  • Zone 3 - Living Room detector activated

Without question, the first scenario would be taken more seriously and 'actioned' more urgently. Certainly both scenarios might see police or security notified, however the lack of urgency means the latter example would only be prioritised as a 'routine' matter, like noise complaints or parking infringements. This is also a compelling reason to use multiple detectors in more areas, rather than the common 2-4 detectors sold in many 'discount' packages.

Radio Interference

Wireless devices are subject to interference, signal loss and deliberate jamming, like any radio device. A wireless detector which is tested and working one day, may not work at all a day later due to new interference from other electronic devices, concrete construction, power sources, high-voltage power lines, other transmitters in an increasingly wireless world. Wireless devices are also more complicated than their hard-wired equivalent and consequently have more components which could fail. Due to these variables and other unknowns, wireless is by definition simply not as reliable as hardwired technology or a hybrid of both technologies. 'Murphy's Law' says they will always work when the technician is present. What happens a week later, is a different story. This is before you account for highly-skilled criminals with access to radio jamming devices.

Cost-Cutting and Reduced Quality

It is acknowledged that hardwired installations do increase labour cost somewhat, due to cabling compared to wireless which is usually just 'stuck on a wall'. However labour is not excessive if the system is well designed. It is a fact however that wireless detectors and receivers cost significantly more than their hardwired equivalent so there is often a balance at the end of the day, and the only difference is the skill of the installer. Better installers can run cables. Inexperienced technicians prefer wireless.

Vendors of cheaper and 'do it yourself' alarms often attempt to keep costs down, and as such, in addition to avoiding labour (and the training requirement it represents) the wireless technology used is often well below standard. Here are some things you should be looking for. If the vendor can't or won't address these issues, in writing beforehand, you should steer clear of them.

Supervision

If a wireless detector's battery has died (discharged), the detector won't be able to detect anything or transmit a signal to the central alarm panel. As a result, the area it is covering is completely unprotected. How would you know about this? To avoid the problem, manufacturers design systems to be 'supervised'. In summary, every few minutes, the detectors transmit a signal saying "I'm alive". If the central alarm panel doesn't receive these signals, it recognises that one of the following has occurred:

  • the detector's battery has failed
  • there is some form of interference or the signal is being jammed
  • the detector has been removed from the premises (particularly common for wireless panic buttons)

You would then be notified and could address the problem, for example by having a service-call or changing the battery.

If your wireless detectors are not 'Supervised Wireless', the above issues will not be identified and you are significantly exposed. Again, please note that Supervised Wireless is more expensive technology and wireless devices in general are always more expensive than their hard-wired equivalent. To keep costs down, there are plenty of installers or do-it-yourself kit vendors who supply and use cheaper, non-supervised wireless detectors. This is quite legal so you should recognise the difference.

Tamper Detection

Using micro-switches, most detectors have the ability to identify when people are trying to sabotage or bypass them. This is to prevent someone entering your premises when the alarm isn't 'armed' for example, in an office during the day or when you have contractors in your home. The aim is to avoid anyone doing something to the detector which would allow them to return later, when the system is armed, and not be detected. Tamper detection identifies the following scenarios and causes an immediate alarm, whether the system is armed or not:

  • cutting the wire (in the case of hard-wired detectors)
  • removing the cover - to obscure the detector's lens from inside the unit, say with a piece of paper, rendering it 'blind', or to remove the battery
  • removing the detector from the wall - this is particularly easy with wireless detectors. Note, if they are then hidden elsewhere on the premises, for example in a drawer, they will still send 'supervision' signals (see above) but will no longer detect movement.

Cheaper wireless detectors very often do not have tamper detection built-in. If you have wireless detectors already, let your monitoring station know you are testing something, pull them off the wall and see what happens. In many cases, nothing. Would you notice if one had been discretely pulled off your wall or damaged? Not many people would.

Some installers also do not bother configuring tamper-detection on hard-wired or wireless detectors as they are too lazy, have not run sufficient cabling or are inexperienced and don't know the correct resistors to put on the cable or programming of wireless components.

It is very important that all detectors (wired and/or wireless) as well as the central control panel have tamper-detection properly configured.

Installer Qualifications

The wide availability of alarm components has led to a situation where non-Security specific installers, such as electricians or home-theatre consultants are now offering alarm services. To them, it is just cabling, even though to you it is potentially a life saving decision. It is important that you verify the qualifications of both the installer and the company they represent. Do you trust them? Remember, the person who installs your alarm will almost certainly know how to defeat it. Most Australian states now have a legislative requirement for a Security Licence before commencing any form of security product sales or installation. This means at a minimum, the person has been subject to a criminal history check. Demand to see a Security Licence for the individual and for their company (which may also be called a Master Licence) as well as full insurance details. If there is any hesitation, say no. Installers should also have cabling permits from the Australian Communications Authority (ACA).

Remember, a security licence itself is no guarantee of quality. You should be totally comfortable with the company and the installer as well as their proposal, before commencement.

Bear in mind that many smaller security companies or sole-traders will advertise a wide variety of services including:

  • Alarms installation
  • CCTV Installation
  • Back to Base Monitoring
  • Guarding
  • Bodyguarding
  • Guard Dog Services
  • Locksmithing
  • Armoured Cash Escort

and so on. The reality however, more often than not, is it is marketing hype and these companies cannot actually provide most of these services so sub-contract them to others, who may also answer the phone in their name. This is particularly the case for Back to Base Monitoring. Be aware that the multiple parties each adding their own commission or margin results in a higher cost. As such, to remain competitive, many providers sub-contract to a far cheaper service provider downstream. We can refer you to monitoring services that cost just a few cents a day. However they are not worth the money. Poor contracting practices mean your security and ongoing service can be subject to extremely poor quality or with company takeovers, changed altogether without your knowledge. Sub-contracting itself is a standard part of business and not necessarily a problem. However you should always make sure any sub-contracts are fully disclosed and be certain you are getting what you paid for, without misrepresentation. If there is any hesitation by the vendor to answer fully, walk away.

Be sure to check periodically that the company you are initially set up with, continues to service you. It is not uncommon for alarm or monitoring companies to be bought and sold, with customers not aware of being monitored by a completely different monitoring station - until something goes wrong.

Summary

Before committing to any alarm installation, you should at a minimum, verify and satisfy yourself of the following:

  • Quality of installation - Does it meet all applicable technical standards?
  • Component Choice - Why are components being chosen, for example wireless detectors. Is this the best approach?
  • Contracts - Make sure you are confident in whomever is doing the work, who is billing for it and who is responsible for ongoing monitoring or maintenance. This includes any sub-contractors.

It is our sincere desire you will allow Calamity the opportunity to provide our service to you. However, it is also in Calamity's interest that the security industry in general be held to higher standards as under-performance hurts all of us.

Regardless of who you choose to provide security services, make sure that you are receiving the level of both security and peace of mind that you deserve. If however you would like to be certain of it, contact us.

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