Cause for Alarm: Too Often the Sense of Security is False

All the doors and windows are electronically alarmed and monitored, the motion detector’s red eye would blink at the drop of a hair and the smoke detectors won’t let toast burn without complaint.

The question is: with all the gadgetry and gizmos of the home security system, are you safe from burglary or the awful consequences of fire?

The answer is a resounding no, according to local security experts. And that might come as an unpleasant surprise as more homeowners than ever are turning to monitored alarm systems for security and peace of mind.

Last March a Surrey couple fitted their home with an alarm system. On November 5, while the husband was away on business, a fire broke out early in the morning.

By the time the alarm went off and Surrey firefighters were called, the house was engulfed in flames and the man’s wife died. It made the news. But what didn’t was the fact that after he moved to other premises, thieves broke in over Christmas and stole valuables including his wedding ring. He had another alarm system installed but it malfunctioned and the installing company wouldn’t come and fix it because it was New Year’s Day. While the system was down he was robbed again.
Alarm fatigue caused by false alarms and the reluctance of some police forces to respond to unsubstantiated calls renders the average system “virtually useless” in preventing burglaries, according to Michael Jagger, founder of Provident Security, probably the fastest growing security company in the city.

“The fundamental problem with most security alarm systems is that once the alarm goes off the response is typically non-existent,” said Jagger.

“Ninety-nine per cent of all alarms are false. In Vancouver the police will not even accept a phone call from an alarm company until a verification call has been made by the company to the client to ensure there is a problem,” he said.

And monitoring companies — often located outside the province — cannot call 911 to report an emergency but have to phone the non-emergency number before being switched through to dispatch, further delaying the response.

Such intrinsic delays benefit only thieves, who exploit the flaws in the verification-first process.

“Thieves aren’t bothered by an alarm system. They’re quite scientific in how they approach it. If they trip the alarm, the next thing they hear is the phone ringing and that’s the security company making a verification call, so they know no one’s been dispatched yet and they’ve got enough time to rob you before there’s a response,” said Jagger.

His company has astutely positioned itself to disrupt the comfort zone that false-alarm syndrome has handed criminals.

Provident, which controls its own monitoring system, guarantees to have a security guard at a client’s home or business within five minutes of an alarm’s being tripped.

“With us there’s no such thing as a false alarm. The only way to prevent our showing up is for a client to call us off,” said Jagger.

“We don’t do verification calls. We respond to everything.”

Jagger counsels residents against keeping their most precious belongings in the bedroom — the first target of burglars.

“If you put your valuables somewhere else these guys won’t have the time to find them before we arrive,” he said.

Strengthening doors, installing alarms, putting in video surveillance cameras are all useful and Jagger’s company does this but “you can spend $1 million protecting your home and still someone will still break in,” he said.

“If they’ve got time to think about it they’ll find a way. The best thing is to detect them while they are making an attempt and respond immediately,” he said.

The no-false-alarm and five-minute response strategy has won the company 3,500 residential and corporate clients including the Kerrisdale Business Association, the South Granville Business Association, Gordon Campbell’s constituency office, the Four Seasons Hotel, QLT Inc., and Angiotech Pharmaceuticals.

John Leyburn, who runs the Surrey company RobberStoppers, is as busy as Jagger thanks to an onslaught of robberies against businesses and homes that have reached such proportions that the Insurance Bureau of Canada now says they are having a measurable effect on the economy.

“People who rely on their alarm have a false sense of security. Some B.C. police departments won’t respond to home alarms unless they are accompanied by a 911 call, which leads you to wonder what people are paying for,” said Leyburn.

“Alarms don’t deter crime. They have their place and if you’re at home they will alert you to trouble. But it can take anywhere from eight to 24 minutes for the police to show up and yet the average burglary takes only three to five minutes to complete,” he said.

“What you have to do is keep thieves out. Make it so hard for them they’ll go somewhere else,” he said.

Leyburn’s company specializes in hardening commercial and residential properties against burglaries by making it physically difficult to gain access.

This has resulted in some companies taking the kinds of measure developed by the U.S. to protect its embassies in the Middle East.

In January alone Leyburn installed 93 anti-ramming barriers — 6.5-inch diameter iron pipes embedded in concrete and sticking up 40 inches — outside 16 Lower Mainland businesses that have suffered from thieves ramming stolen cars through the front doors or windows of their premises.

“Thieves are becoming very brazen. They’re not stopping at prying open doors any more. They’re stealing vehicles and driving right through. Stores have made it harder for them to get in so they’ve upped the stakes,” said Leyburn.

This latest trend in smash and grab is inflicting horrendous losses on small businesses in damage and stolen property — often compromising their ability to insure their premises — not to mention the costs to insurers and the owners of stolen cars.

“I don’t know if you could call it an epidemic but Langley alone has had 18 of these robberies so far this month,” said Leyburn.

“And they’ve been happening in Newton and other areas of Surrey too,” he said.

“Normally you’d expect to see one a week in the whole of the Lower Mainland,” said Leyburn in an interview Jan. 29.

Less than a day after the interview, thieves rammed a stolen car through the front of the Rogers Video Store on
64th Avenueand Scott Road.
It’s a tactic being used against video stores, sporting goods stores, electronic or computer equipment stores, stores that sell video games or cellular phones. Even restaurants haven’t escaped.

Leyburn can rattle of the names of some the latest victims: “Mad Dog Sports, Riverside Golf, Blockbuster Video, Rogers Video, Willow Video. Great Clips, Smart Cell, Fraser?Valley Wireless, Toy Traders, New China Kitchen . . . .”

“In the New China Kitchen they were after booze,” he said.

Some customers such as Madison Properties, which controls the Langley Mall, wanted something less stark than a grim line of iron in front of their stores and have asked Leyburn to design barriers shaped liked an “M” to match their logo.

“It’ll still do the job,” he said.

At one time store owners would place concrete barriers in front of their premises in the hopes of dissuading a ramming but an SUV driven hard enough either pushes them aside or rides along with the vehicle to breach the door.

RobberStoppers has retrofitted the front doors of some Surrey schools with “lexan,” a form of plastic that can’t be broken with an ax, to keep out thieves who would smash out the glass and ignore the alarms while they stole equipment.

“We’ve helped thousands of different customers, everything from people with garden sheds to the Federal government,” he said.

Financial institutions that have lost computer equipment now have their computers enclosed in a steel cage anchored to the floor. Steel shutters and steel screens are not uncommon in business, he said.

“When I’m called out I’ll go and listen to their story and sympathize when they tell me the alarm system didn’t work they way they expected and the police didn’t show up in time and I’ll say ‘just look at your building; if you were going to break in how would you do it?’

“They see there’s no anti-pry bar on the door and the windows can be easily broken. The fact is there’s thousands of places left unsecured. all containing something worth stealing,” said Leyburn.

Published February 3, 2004 · The Vancouver Sun · Written by Gerry Bellett

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