NY Times Questions the Value of Home Alarm Systems…

The NY Times printed an article by Paul Sullivan on Saturday called ‘Weighing the Value of a Home Alarm System‘.

In the article, Sullivan points out one of the central tenets of this blog over the past six years… that the most important reason for paying for a monitored alarm is to generate an immediate response.

Sullivan argues that given a very high false alarm rate (he suggests 80% of alarms are false – although my experience puts that figure much closer to 98%) most Police departments cannot, or will not, provide priority response.

His article should give a lot of people reason to question the ‘value’ that they are receiving from their alarm.

Unfortunately, for the vast majority of alarm owners, the reality is even worse than what Sullivan describes.

Sullivan’s article is focused on the following five major points:

  1. Issues with power failures;
  2. Slow Police response times;
  3. Insurance Discounts
  4. Deterrent value is outweighed by cost of an alarm
  5. Getting more than just burglary detection from an alarm

[This post addresses the first two points above… I’ll post my comments on the last three issues later this week.]

Sullivan is correct in all of his criticisms about how most alarms work. However, not all companies handle these common issues in the same way.

Here are my thoughts on each of his points…

POWER FAILURES: “People may be surprised to learn that when they most need their security system to protect their house, they oftentimes cannot rely on it. Jackie Ostrander discovered that when a storm knocked out power to her home in Greenwich, Conn., for a week in March — too long for her backup battery to keep going. And it took her security company three weeks to restart her system.”

Virtually every alarm system on the market has the ability to communicate that power has been lost as well as if the back-up battery is low.

At Provident, we set-up all of our clients’ alarms to send every possible signal, not just alarms. As a result, as soon as power is interrupted, we receive a signal from each of our affected clients. Once the back-up battery starts to get low (after approximately 6-8 hours on most alarms that we’ve installed) the alarm will send us another signal.

At that point, we will attempt to contact our client to confirm that they are home and ask if they would like to replace the battery and/or implement additional security measures (such as mobile patrols or posting a guard) while the power is out. If we cannot get a hold of them, we will respond to the home and replace the back-up battery.

Most of our clients have standing instructions with us telling us what to do in the event that we cannot reach them.

The ‘power failure’ issue is really a ‘response issue’ and can be easily solved.

POLICE RESPONSE TIMES: “There are about 36 million security systems in the United States, half of them in homes. Revenue for the industry was $28.2 billion in 2009, according to the Installation Business Report, an annual security industry survey. So a lot of people apparently think their homes are going to be impervious to burglars.

But even when the systems are working properly, the police response times can be slow.

Stan Martin, executive director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, acknowledged as much. He said that in big cities like New York, Atlanta and Chicago, police could take 30 to 45 minutes to respond, while in smaller towns the best that could be hoped for was six to eight minutes.”

The truth is that in many cities, large and small, Police Departments are making the decision to not respond at all. For example, Police do not respond in Whistler, Salt Lake City or Fremont, California. Other cities, like Seattle, have implemented a misleadingly titled program called ‘Enhanced Call Verification‘.

Of those Police Departments that still respond, the response time is often far longer than just “30-45 minutes”. In Vancouver, the latest Patrol Deployment study showed that the average Police response time to an alarm is 2 hours and 6 minutes.

Sullivan goes on to point out that even when the Police do respond, it’s hardly a complete ‘service’…

“To combat false alarms, many police departments charge after the first or second one, he [Martin] said. In Stamford, Conn., for instance, the cost is $75. Yet these fines are often levied when a police car just drives past your house, not even pulling in the driveway, let alone walking around the property.”

The fact is that the alarm industry has gotten away with providing an incomplete service for a very long time. What other industry is able to sell a service that relies on a government agency in order to provide any value?  The alarm industry is very much a parasite on the Police … at least the traditional model of delivering alarm ‘service’ certainly is.

The most important  reason for paying for alarm monitoring is to generate an immediate response. That’s it. An alarm provides information that has an incredibly short shelf life in order to be of any value.

If the alarm signal being received is a ‘low battery’, what can the Police do about it? In many cases, the Police do not even know that the alarm they are responding to was a battery issue rather than an actual burglary signal.

The Police do not hold house keys and often do not know what exactly is ‘in alarm’… they just get told that there is an ‘alarm’.

Click below to watch a video clip from one of our home security seminars where I explain how Police response actually works… and why any incident is most likely long over before the Police even first hear of an alarm, let alone get a chance to start responding to it.

This is why at Provident, we do not make any verification calls.

When an alarm trips, we send our response teams to provide immediate response. We hold keys and we know exactly what the alarm is reporting… and what to do to correct it. If the Police are required, we call 911 from the site and report a crime in progress… a call that results in very fast Police response.

We guarantee a five minute response, but we also work to educate our clients than a security alarm is NOT a security ‘system’. An alarm is one part of your overall ‘system’ and should not be relied on as a stand-alone security tactic. As far as effective security tactics go, nothing beats Five Minute Proofing.

Without effective ‘Five Minute Proofing’ in place, an alarm is unlikely to provide any real value in minimizing loss during a burglary. The good news? Many Five Minute Proofing strategies are either free or very low cost.

Click below to hear more about Five Minute Proofing…


This post seemed like it was going to be far too long. Definitely too long for a single post. If you’re still reading this far down the page… Thank you.

I’ll post the balance of my thoughts on the points Sullivan raised  later this week.

Back to Blog