Why Self Monitoring Can't Work...

September 13, 2014

Practically since their invention, alarm systems installed in a premises have been connected to another off-site location which could monitor the secured premises for any signs of intrusion. Over 160 years ago in 1853 Augustus Pope patented a battery operated system which reacted to the closing of an electrical circuit attached to doors and windows. If one of them was opened, the circuit would close causing current to flow to a hammer and bell. A spring which held the circuit closed prevented a would-be thief from simply closing the door to silence the bell - the alarm would keep ringing. Typically the bell was installed in a neighbouring property.

Several years later in 1877, Edwin Holmes built a business running alarm system cables from New York businesses such as Tiffany’s Jeweller, to his office. This was an early example of a ‘central station’ (or ‘central monitoring station’ as Australian companies tend to call them lest they confuse alarm monitoring centres with train stations).

Holmes’ son expanded on the idea and grew the network by utilising pre-existing phone cables. Businesses weren’t using the phones at night and they could be reused for alarms, avoiding the need for laying dedicated cabling.

Edward A. Calahan, a telegraph operator realised, after his boss was robbed while at home that in addition to being made aware of an intrusion there needed to be a way for a central station to promptly despatch assistance. Previously this was managed by sending a messenger boy to arrange help.

Calahan formed a system of central stations being connected to call boxes in police and fire stations, which were divided into districts. That company, American District Telegraph (now known as ADT) continues to provide a very similar service to this day.

Although alarm detection technology and communication methods have advanced considerably over the last few decades, the fundamental concept of a central station providing the monitoring remains unchanged. With the modern proliferation of mobile communications, property owners can now be contactable 24/7 in a way unimaginable twenty years ago. This presents both a threat and an opportunity to the security sector.

Who to Call
The typical alarm handling protocol for a site has always involved contacting a combination of the premises and ‘keyholders’ or some other responsible party and/or despatching emergency services or security contractors. The trained alarm monitoring operator, in contact with other stakeholders could determine the situation at a site and initiate a relevant response in conjunction with owner’s preferences and best-interests. This was performed by telephone with an operator ringing each callee in sequence.

Over the last ten years there has been a shift towards other mobile messaging systems. Instead of a human operator ringing to discuss an incident, the property owner would instead receive an SMS text message or email alerting them, often in cryptic form due to size limitations, of an issue. The below is a genuine example of a signal sent by an Australian monitoring provider with a heavily automated system

2. Date: Wed, 25 Mar 2009 07:39:42 Eastern Summer Time (New South Wales)
Details: There has been a Burglary Alarm reported on zone number 247 ( Sensor 247 ) within area number 0 ( Main Area )


Such messages are not especially helpful to the recipient. In most cases there is also no effective way of responding to them, as opposed to simply telling a human “send a guard” or “don’t worry about it, that was a false alarm”. Some two-way SMS systems allow for short codes to be sent but these rely on a user remembering the message format. For customers with good alarm systems and infrequent false alarms, this is unlikely and they will still want to speak to a human.

The use of mobile ‘apps’ is opening another avenue for reporting where signals can be ‘pushed’ to a customer’s mobile phone and the customer can send a command in response, perhaps using a more friendly interface than abbreviated SMS codes.

Newer generation platforms are even adding video to the messages, and customers can use an app to interact with their alarm system, a central station and on-site video for real time decision making.

While vendors have been quick to launch such tools there are emerging problems with the technology, from a security management perspective. For example, if a human operator were to ring the primary contact and be instructed to stand-down e.g. due to a known false alarm, that would be the end of it with no further action taken. If however a more automated system sent an alert to three subscribers simultaneously or within a few seconds, and one responded “Despatch a guard” and another message recipient said “Stand-down”, who is correct?

On the other hand, if a system can get a message to a customer faster it is absolutely worth investigating. Faster response times can only possibly be good for business.

When Self-Monitoring Fails, it Fails Badly…
The biggest challenge for so-called ‘self monitoring’ is that mobile phones and the people carrying them are simply not reliable. Every person reading this will have experienced a mobile phone being out of reception or out of battery. Mine is typically ‘dead’ by lunchtime on a busy day. Add to that people’s preferences for ignoring phones during meetings, whilst at the cinema, at the beach or asleep and it immediately becomes clear that they are not reliable for 24/7 monitoring either.

SMS messages are frequently delivered late due to networks placing low priority on the message. We have all received “Happy New Year” messages at 5am, which were sent by a friend at midnight. Imagine finding out your building was broken into, except five hours ago.

One irresponsible company is taking advantage of seniors by advertising medical alarms on the basis they have “no monitoring fees ever”. This is because they aren’t actually monitored by anyone and are simply an auto-dialler which rings a preset number and plays back a recorded message. If your elderly parents fall and their auto-dialler rings your mobile (and you’re in a meeting ignoring it) they’re done for. The importance of a professionally monitored service, such as Silent Sentinel which is available 24/7 cannot be underestimated, especially for life-safety applications.

If an end-user receives an alert that their premises is being broken into, what then? Ringing police and requesting assistance on the basis of an automated signal is likely to result in no response (or a response taking days and only attended in order to write-off the job in the police queue). Despatching a guard is also out of the question as commercial arrangements aren’t in place. The idea of end-users or their friends and family ‘ducking home’ to investigate is the making of a coronial inquest. So too is the ‘what-if’ of a home invasion where a victim manages to press a panic button and the only result is their phone beeping, in the next room.

Contemplating ‘self monitoring’ is easy from a technology standpoint however people need to look at the overall incident handling process to work through the ‘what if’ of any given situation.

Does the central station have a role to play?
If all a monitoring centre does is receive a signal, ring a customer and await instructions there is some merit to the question of where they add value. Some end-users would argue that an alarm system sending them a report directly cuts out the middleman (and associated expense) for largely the same end-result. That the reality is different and that this so-called ‘solution’ is in fact highly failure prone is immaterial. The perception is there and security providers need to manage this.

Calamity has saved countless premises from crimes in-progress and response operators have saved lives. To date there is no significant equivalent in a DIY system, although Calamity is also light-years ahead of many legacy competitors who probably can be outclassed by substandard technology.

New Technology
Australian security providers have not been good at keeping up with users’ modern demands on technology. Remote video verification is too hard for many monitoring providers as they are running older software platforms - or they set up ‘orphan’ systems e.g. one computer for alarm, one for GPS, one for video, none of which talk to each other leading to accountability and quality failures.

Security installers will quote for a multi-thousand dollar system, which often won’t allow the end user remote access and the alarm monitoring provider is still ‘blind’ in terms of verifying what caused an alarm. When a homeowner can buy a several hundred dollar CCTV system which allows them to view their home (and their seven cats) on their smartphone it beggars the question why the ‘professional gear’ won’t.

Some major investments in home technology e.g. Google’s US$3.2 billion acquisition of Nest (which in turn acquired Dropcam) show the IT world is getting serious about home surveillance. Locally, it’s unclear what will emerge from Telstra’s acquisition of SNP’s electronic security division but the writing is certainly on the wall.

Should the Industry be Scared?
Self-install and self monitored devices have been cynically viewed as a fundamental threat to the security installation and monitoring sector. However there is a great opportunity for smart players to benefit from increasing consumer demand and the modern lifestyle. How? By giving the customer what they want. That is, IP connectivity with remote interaction. There is one more thing that professional providers can offer that DIYers can’t: Continual Peace of Mind. That comes from knowing that even if your phone is dead or you’re fast asleep, someone is paid and guaranteed to be quietly watching over you and ensuring that your security remains protected.

Originally published in Security Solutions Magazine.

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