Alarm Monitoring Improves Awareness Through More Services
Editor / Provider: a&s International | Updated: 9/15/2011 | Article type: Tech Corner
Alarm monitoring is one of the oldest security businesses. When away from one's home or business, alarm monitoring offers the reassurance of knowing someone is vigilantly standing by. Should the worst happen — fire, broken window or intrusion — professionals will have taken the appropriate response. The right authorities will be notified by alarm monitoring operators, providing peace of mind.
Global security monitoring revenues totaled about US$40 billion, according to First Research in a July report. This encompasses residential and commercial alarm monitoring. Europe and the U.S. are the largest security system markets, dominated by ADT Security Services, Securitas and G4S.
Effective alarm monitoring requires a stable infrastructure, robust enough to not miss a single signal. However, wired or wireless transmission media provide unique benefits and drawbacks. Redundancy depends on multiple technologies. Signal priority makes sense of which alarms are most important. The majority of alarms are false, wasting the time and resources of law enforcement and other first responders. Newer systems have the infrastructure to support audio or video monitoring as secondary verification. However, these systems require more bandwidth or a complete system overhaul, as more customers rely on mobile devices.
Our coverage explores alarm monitoring for commercial and residential applications. We explore the market potential for each, along with key technology developments, usage issues and challenges. While there is no single solution, a successful one combines people, processes and technology to solve problems quickly.
For business owners, alarm monitoring offers unbeatable value for securing assets. a&s examines the market conditions for commercial monitoring, as well as technology trends and usage issues.
The commercial market dominates the alarm monitoring landscape . “Growth rates are highest for commercial applications where there are more significant cost savings to be made by outsourcing monitoring services or replacing or augmenting guard services with monitoring,” said Ewan Lamont , Market Analyst at IMS Research. “Overall market growth, for residential and commercial services combined, is forecast to be approximately 4.2 percent CAGR.”
Alarm monitoring is largely concentrated in the U.S. and Europe. The security systems services industry in the U.S. includes about 5,000 companies with combined annual revenues of US$15 billion, according to First Research. However, the 50 largest companies generate 60 percent of the US industry's revenue. China issued alarm-monitoring regulations in 2010, but monitoring centers are largely operated by the police, except for private centers run by Secom in Beijing and ADT in Shanghai.
Growth in the commercial sector is driven by new office construction, which has slowed due to economic conditions. “On the commercial side of things, new businesses are opening at a slower pace, which hurts that market,” said Gary Perlin, Director of CCTV Products, Tri-Ed/ Northern Video Distribution.
“There is still a healthy market for retrofitting existing systems with new technology like IP-based systems.”
Commercial accounts had less attrition compared to residential ones, said Morgan Hertel, VP and GM for Mace Central Station. Its business is split 65:35 between commercial and residential alarm monitoring.
Demand remains strong for alarm monitoring, as customers look for higher levels of performance, convenience and simplification of technologies. “This industry has been on a very consistent growth path for around 20 years, even performing well in difficult economic times,” said Rich Hewitt, Director of Commercial Sales for Protection One. Commercial monitoring offers more options beyond fire and security alarms. Some businesses monitor crucial equipment, such as freezer temperatures or power supply to industrial air pumps for fish farms or aquariums, said Tye-San Yap, GM of Certis Cisco Security, a Singaporean security service provider. If alarms are triggered for equipment, operators will notify the customer, saving on downtime.
Remote Video Monitoring
As monitoring stations improve their infrastructure, video is becoming more accessible. This helps for secondary verification of alarm signals, reducing the number of false alarms. Video monitoring is one of the fastest growing services in remote monitoring, worth nearly $250 million in the Americas and EMEA in 2009. “Everybody is a winner with remote video monitoring services,” Lamont said. “Alarm dealers can make bigger margins on remote video services compared to alarm monitoring, as well as generating revenue from increased equipment sales, installation and maintenance.”
Xtralis recently acquired German HeiTel Digital Video for its remote video monitoring, demonstrating its potential. Xtralis' annual growth in the video monitoring market is expected to exceed 10 to 15 percent in the years to come, said Kim Loy, Deputy GM of Global Security, Xtralis. [NextPage]
City surveillance projects are a perfect fit for alarm and video monitoring, with a team on standby to respond in time. The London Borough of Bexley selected Siemens Building Technologies to run its town center monitoring center. Siemens performed all video surveillance services and took over the operating center in April 2010. The Borough of Bexley became London's safest borough this February, up from fifth place. Video monitoring is more efficient and has increased the amount of evidence provided to the police by 17 percent, according to Siemens Building Technologies in a prepared statement. Camera downtime has also been reduced, with asset ability running at 99.8 percent.
Public space surveillance operators must be licensed by the UK government through the Security Industry Authority. This ensures operators are competent to undertake their role and includes criminal record checks. “Considering town center schemes , a key trend is the rollout of virtual matrix solutions,” said Tony Allen, Chairman of the Security Equipment Manufacturers Section, British Security Industry Association. “The advantage here is that these are able to seamlessly bring together geographically dispersed digital and analog equipment, from multiple locations, allowing control room operators using a map-based graphical user interface to point and click on a specific areas so incidents can be tracked and dealt with in a timely manner.”
An alarm center is all about getting the signals. Most signaling communication is usually by public switched telephone networks (PSTN), as it is the cheapest option, said Brian Kelly, MD of Bold Communications, a provider of alarm-monitoring software. “However IP/GPRS is becoming more popular, as it is more secure and can save money.”
Commercial sites can opt for either phone lines or IP, but insurance requirements typically mandate higher-grade connections — at least Grade 3 or 4 — with dual paths, Kelly said.
Lamont added both IP and cellular communications are relatively well-established transmission methods, but one is yet to rise above the other for alarm monitoring. .
Redundancy can be done in a number of ways, to make sure alarms are not missed. ADT operates two alarm-receiving centers in Manchester that are each large enough to house all staffers, should something happen to either building. “Each has two telephone providers into the building,” said Dominic White, Head of the UK Customer Service Centre, ADT Security Services, which covers the U.K. and Ireland. “If British Telecom goes down, a signal could go in on another provider.” .
Both sites have diesel generators connected to uninterruptible power supplies, along with servers duplicated across sites, to keep downtime to a minimum. “If you take an alarm signal from your home, that alarm presents to both alarm-receiving centers, then the system decides which center takes the alarm,” White said. “So we have no single point of failure to the customer.” .
Redundancy also featured into Mace's central station, which receives signals from three different telecom providers, as well as copper and fiber signals on a gigabit network. “We invested heavily on a platform to take all the things that might come in,” Hertel said. The platform supports alarm monitoring, along with medical monitoring and geolocation devices from vehicles. .
Once the alarm reaches the monitoring center, operators must decide how to respond. Signals from sites will be verified and filtered before reporting them to police, Yap said. The majority of signals sent from a monitored site are not true alarms, but usually warnings about low battery, AC failure or sensor trouble. [NextPage]
A primary alarm-monitoring duty is notifying the authorities. However, the last thing first responders want is to pull up, only to find an alarm was tripped by the wind. Alarm-monitoring operators review alarms to eliminate false ones, before passing that information on to the police. “In the U.K., it's two strikes and you're out,” White said. “If the police are called more than twice, then the police will withdraw services from that site. For every false alarm, there will be an action. We may contact the customer for additional training or additional delays. We might change where the alarms or sensors are to better suit them.”
The majority of agencies do not require any other verification from the alarm; they just go to the event. “That being said, a number of agencies are working toward requiring video verification,” Hertel said. “Certain fines are starting to get levied.”
Most information sent from the central station to the authorities, such as 911 centers in the U.S., rely on phone calls. “This in itself is a time-consuming event, prone to human error,” said Joe Sanchez, Senior VP of Customer Operations for Protection One. “Additionally, protocol and standardization vary from agency to agency. Central stations traditionally attempt to standardize; however, their overall success rate is dependent on the responding agency.”
Much of the industry is several years behind the latest technology. “A number of agencies have considered and implemented electronic relay, which is still in the testing phase with select monitoring centers,” said Craig Pyle, Product Development Manager, Vivint.
Some cities are adopting standards of communication between alarm-monitoring centers and emergency operators. Houston was the first city to adopt the Automated Secure Alarm Protocol, which is estimated to save $1 million to $2 million annually by successfully transferring data and reducing the number of traditional phone dispatches. “Based on the electronic solution, the standardization in process and data verification required to transmit emergency information is done expeditiously and virtually error-free,” Sanchez said.
Secondary verification reduces false alarms significantly. “In U.K., every customer who wants a police response must register with the police agency to provide their information to the police,” Kelly said. “If there is video surveillance associated with the alarm, the details, including the video alarm clip, can be sent to the police. If it was a lone-worker alarm triggered, the audio data would be forwarded to the police.”
In general, fire and panic signals are given priority over standard burglary and trouble signals. “Programming the alarm and the panel, combined with the technology at the central station, is the key in defining alarm signal transmissions,” Sanchez said. “Manufacturers and industry standards, based on the type of installation being monitored, dictate the response time.”
ADT's alarm-receiving centers prioritize alarms by type. “We deal with 95 percent of fire alarms in 30 seconds,” White said. “For intruder alarms, 95 percent are handled within 60 seconds and personal attack is broadly similar. They're standards we adhere to in the U.K.”
Monitoring center software has to handle a wide range of signals, be scalable and display alarm data in a comprehensible format to operators. As operators interact with software and hardware on a daily basis, a good solution needs to be flexible and account for human usage.
Mace's central station manages alarms for 500 dealers, who service 75,000 subscribers. It customizes the work flow up-front, so operators who respond to emergency call will answer in the dealer's name. “We're more customized than anything else,” Hertel said. “A lot of things the dealer decides up front, then he can change them online through the Web portal. He can update the work flow or change something on an account.”
A system health check can ensure products are up and running, such as IP line monitoring, Loy said. This can cover fire and gas detection, access control, intrusion, and video analytics for commercial users.
The wakefulness of the operators can be programmed into the software with randomized prompts. “If someone is at the third shift at 3 a.m., they have 30 seconds to respond on the keyboard to know if they're there,” said Christopher Brackett, GM of AlarmSoft. “If the operator fails to check in, the system sends an email or text to the central station manager. If a fire alarm comes in and the operator's asleep with no response for 90 seconds, the software will take over.” [NextPage]
Alarm monitoring is expressly designed for worst-case scenarios. Business owners understand that their premises are secured by a remote team, even when no one is in the office.
Large alarm centers are best equipped to deal with emergencies, with greater consolidation of smaller dealers or control rooms. When ADT bought Broadview in 2010, it estimated it would take 18 months for integration, including upgrading the central station software platform. “In the case of alarm central stations, the software has been uniquely written to meet specific needs,” Perlin said. “Even two stations operating on the same platform will have enough unique code written into their software to make integration a challenge.”
While it is possible to support legacy systems, they are more difficult to service. “As a system ages, the ability to run remote diagnostics and dial into a panel to fix it is limited,” White said. “We have to dispatch engineers more frequently. It's harder to pull reports, but we still do it.”
Some large commercial users, such as chain stores, may have their own security control room. Alarm monitoring can still play a role in alerting on-site personnel about a situation. “On-site control rooms are unique to specific applications,” Sanchez said. “Even in these scenarios remote central stations can act as a ‘hot' backup. If you are using a remote control room, tasks such as responding to an event with an on-site guard are easily assigned and managed within the central station software. Additionally, any routine or nonroutine follow-up can be accomplished from the remote location as the on-site control room is handling the event.”
Duress alarms can be received off-site, then verified by on-site operators, Yap said.
A retailer with multiple stores may use off-site alarm monitoring to alert security personnel, rather than the shop owner. “If an alarm goes off at night, we will call their security desk,” White said. “They will invoke their own security procedures.”
Building Good Solutions
Selecting hardware and software for alarm stations means the solutions have to run reliably around the clock. “Monitoring stations must use the highest-grade equipment due to the 24/7 nature of their operations,” Perlin said. Consumer-grade TV sets will not be able to deal with heat and power surges that will occur during continuous operation. Professional displays should be bright, have sufficient resolution and accept multiple inputs.
Systems should be modular for smoother integration, rather than one-time customizations that are expensive. “The key thing is people should use industry-standard equipment,” Kelly said. “Most products are not built with the interface because manufacturers want their own advantages and don't think about integration until it's an issue.”
Alarm-monitoring software needs to be configurable and scalable. The software cannot present complexity to the operator. “You have to support product that might be very old,” Kelly said. “It might be used for 20 years — we still have twisted-pair technology we support. But to the operator, it has to be seamless.” [NextPage]
As commercial alarm monitoring does more, it increases the learning curve for operators. Large customers with a national presence are moving toward IP, which provides more information. “They can more specifically tie down when an alarm was activated, which tends to be much more descriptive,” White said. “They use it for more than security.”
“With the offering of the ‘added services,' dealers are talking about having problems with training their staff,” Lamont said. “The majority of the problem reportedly is more in terms of retraining the sales staff to better understand a company's new offering, allowing the sales teams to present the services to a customer in an effective manner.”
Continuous learning is required to keep up with new technology. “Operators have to be trained on how to use a new operating system; engineers have to learn how to integrate different hardware platforms and tech support people have to learn a new way of thinking about problems in the field,” Perlin said. “Even the installers might sometimes have to learn an entire new set of hardware to do a simple service call.”
Different management levels will require different amounts of training. “Operator training is not a big deal; the more challenging area is administrator training,” Kelly said. “It's like having a business management system like SAP — you go through a process of the software vendor asking what you want to do.”
Cutting down on false alarms is a big cost saver for managing infrastructure costs. “Some customers are quite high-risk, such as travel agents or betting offices, where they hold cash,” Kelly said. “They get attacked on a daily basis and need to make sure the system works.”
Another way to recoup investments is through environmental monitoring to save energy on lighting and HVAC. “If a building has no people in it, there is legislation written to reduce lighting and heat,” Kelly said. “Switching those devices off could be a cost saver.”
The right mix of people, processes and technology makes the difference between a good and great alarm-monitoring solution. At the top of the list is connectivity, with redundancy built-in, to make sure no alarm is unanswered. A robust platform prioritizes the most urgent alarms, allowing operators to understand what is happening. Finally, dispatching the right people to respond means a clear process is needed.
In the next article, we explore the residential alarm-monitoring market and its migration toward home automation.