What Alarm and Video Surveillance Isn't

Big brother isn't watching after all, so maybe you should.


Can technology, by itself, make you safe? Can an alarm system, a video camera, a computer program increase safety while reducing costs? Without human support involved in the solution it is impossible to make anyone safer. All technology exists to enhance human interaction, human experience, or perhaps to increase longevity. None of those mandates work without the human being serving to interpret data, provide a response, and ultimately to adjust the technology based upon the input received.

The Tennessee Burglary and Fire Alarm Association puts it this way: "Alarms detect a change in a condition, such as an open door, a broken window, heat from a fire, smoke from a fire. Monitoring systems receive notification of the change of condition and then report the alarm or condition per the agreement with the client. In some cases the system also records the condition as it unfolds."

More simply put alarms, sensors, and other technology do the following three things:

  • Detect a change. A door is opened a circuit is closed or opened and the hardware detects the change.
  • Report the change. The system senses the change and actuates a phone dialer, emits a tone, or radios a message to the necessary personnel.
  • Record the change. The system makes a record of the situation.

Over the past several months I've met with a number of private security companies and private investigative firms, and listened as folks touted the enhanced security offered by their systems. With no human interface and reaction, the solution is nothing but a wad of wire connected to a group of boxes.

Who among your department has visited a regional monitoring station such as ADT, Sonitrol, ERMC, or Brinks? Better yet, have you ever taken a few minutes to call local alarm companies to explore their local services? We can't, as police officers, recommend particular brands, and most of us deal with false alarms and alarm reduction programs, whereas the owner of a house or business gets billed for false alarm response. Statistically, about 98% of all alarms are false.

Truth is, most of us hate house alarms, and fewer of us like commercial alarms.

Most officers don't know that most states have strict licensing requirements for sales, installation, and service of fire and security systems, including alarm systems. We only see Bubba and his alarm truck, installing systems. The reality is that Bubba is becoming a dying breed. The State of Tennessee, for example, now requires a 24 hour entry course with an examination, and continuing education credits for all new sales, installation, and management staff. Some states, such as North Carolina, require that the agent or company reside within 150 miles of the job site. The performance standard is being raised, both in a regulatory and business fashion.

Listen closely, the security industry has rapidly accelerated since 9-11-01 and many large corporate concerns are playing in this very big arena. The biggest in the world is Tyco. It seems they've bought up most of the existing innovative companies in the industry.

Video System Impacts

Exploding numbers of privately owned camera systems, ever-increasing numbers of city and state owned cameras, and gradually increasing competence among forensic examiners mean that video is here to stay, and is there and useful after a crime. In a robbery-homicide several years ago in my city, the suspects, with the victim, bought cigarettes at a convenience store near the crime scene. This seemingly unrelated video ultimately proved very important to the successful prosecution of the suspects. At a sports riot in Vancouver, Canada several years ago, many of those arrested were identified by local merchants' camera systems.

Where is it going? Who knows? One thing is certain: if you aren't contacting merchants near crime scenes to view video, you are likely leaving cases unsolved. In many cases, the merchant's system will run out of storage within 30 days, and will overwrite the video shortly thereafter.

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