Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Keywords: Property, Security, Intruder alarms, Standards
Ray Le¨Monde, managing director of the Active Security Group has supported the industry at many levels, including The British Security Industry Association (BSIA) and the National Approved Council for Security Systems (NACOSS), the independent body that ensures that security systems are of a high standard.
Having also been actively involved with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), Intruder Alarms Group for several years, he has recently been disappointed by the Metropolitan Police who have seen fit to disregard an agreement from which, over the past four years, they have gained much.
Le¨Monde has always been conscious of the external influences that play an important role in the industry. However, he now feels that the influences being exerted have become too great and that many of the groups moralising and advising have no direct commercial skills. The result is that the security industry has become over-burdened by standards with no value whatsoever being added to the industry or its customers.
Even before intruder alarms became the ubiquitous household accessory of the 1990s, false alarms, with their interminable cacophony destroying everyone's peace and quiet, seemed to be one of their more irritating traits. But over the last few years the industry has worked intensively with the police to reduce false alarms. The efficiency of alarm systems has been greatly improved and intruder alarms have contributed to seriously deterring crime, with less than 10 per cent of premises fitted with security devices attacked year-on-year.
The efficiency level of intruder alarms has improved, despite a dramatic increase in the number of installations and an escalation in the number of burglaries. The statistics are clear on this point: for example, in 1977 there was a total of 262,000 recorded burglaries in private dwellings, increasing by 150 per cent to 644,000 in 1995. During this period the amount paid out by insurers increased from £30.5 million to £580 million - an increase of over 1,000 per cent, which inevitably is charged back to the consumer.
Clearly, it is not just home and business owners who have been keen to use intruder alarms. Insurers have a vested interest in property owners taking practical steps to protect themselves further and in some cases will offer discounted premiums. The public has got the message and we have seen the number of installations rocketing. In 1977, for example, 178,000 intruder alarms were being remotely monitored by a central station and in 1995 this had reached 798,000.
But false alarms remain a bugbear. In 1997 police responses to alarms totalled 678,000 and as many as 98.5 per cent of these proved to be false alarms representing an average of 3.8 false calls per system. Fortunately, there have been major improvements since then. But while electronic systems have improved dramatically, it is human error which fuels much of the current problems with false alarms. It is estimated that about 60-80 per cent of false alarms are due to customer error rather than the alarm systems themselves, with casual users generating the greatest level of misuse. Most recently, there is evidence that the automatic diallers in vending machines and other automated dispensing machines are adding to the problem.
The most radical attempt to reduce false calls began two years ago, when the intruder alarm industry agreed with the police to attempt to reduce false calls by 10 per cent per year over a period of four years. So far this commitment has lived up to its promise - over the first two years of the scheme the reduction has been 20 per cent and this improving trend continues.
However, despite this radical improvement, some regional police services have been moving the goal posts. In some regions, if as few as two false alarms are generated by a business or a domestic alarm system in any one year the police will stop responding, effectively defeating the object of having an intruder system to protect your home.
This lack of national policy relating to alarm response could begin to have far reaching consequences and could eventually affect property prices. Insurance companies already refuse to provide cover for some geographical areas. It also raises the issue of whether other private security firms should be allowed to "police" and respond to intruder alarms if regular police forces are not willing to do so. If such private forces were allowed, major questions of public policy would arise. For example, what powers of arrest or detainment should these forces have if they find intruders on premises?
There is little doubt that opportunities to apprehend intruders have not been fully exploited to date. For instance, last year there was the potential for 140,000 captures from genuine alarm signals, yet only 7,000 offenders were arrested and the trend is for more offenders to avoid capture. It is widely acknowledged that the vast majority of break-ins are committed by persistent offenders, which underscores the need to apprehend them sooner rather than later. At present the expected response time for calls is at best five to ten minutes, but in practice can exceed 20 minutes and, if vehicles are not available, there may be no response at all. Yet against this background the police are now actively discussing whether they will continue to respond to alarms at all.
This is clearly a question which requires public debate. In this country we have to date enjoyed the services of a police force which will respond to all emergency calls. The UK is one of the few places in the world where a national police service will still respond aud we need to debate whether this is worth protecting or alternatively bring in private services to fill the gap.
The effectiveness of intruder systems is dependent upon having good back-up. While alarms can do the mechanical work, they cannot provide the further deterrent of actually capturing offenders. Electronic devices need human beings and, now that the functioning of intruder alarms has been improved, it is the human part of the equation that needs to be clarified.
The following provides a background to the current issues of false (alarm) calls passed to the police and the corrosive effect this has on the service provided to the public.
Over the last 20 years the use of intruder alarms has multipled and their efficiency has been greatly improved. However, their success and popularity and the interaction of these systems with the police are beginning to generate important issues which need to be considered in the public arena.
A key issue has been the number of false calls passed to the police. Working with the police, the security industry has been endeavouring to improve the efficiency of the interface of its alarm systems and has greatly reduced the number of false calls.
The point of responsibility lies between the police and the public rather than with the alarm industry, which rightly has no say in this matter of public policy. It is essential that this matter is resolved, since the efficiency of alarm systems is dependent upon good back-up. A false sense of security is far worse than a false alarm.