Protecting Your Home, Part 2, or, What Readers Think

Home security turned out to be a hot topic with readers. The column I wrote last week on the strengths and weaknesses of alarm systems prompted a spate of responses.

I ended up concluding, though, that the people who wrote in fell into three categories: technologists, pessimists and pragmatists. All made valid points about the best way to use security systems and what you can expect from one. So I thought I could use this week’s column to share their ideas.

TECHNOLOGISTS The technologists contended that I had not given security alarms their due. Through advances in monitoring technology, they said, the false alarm rate could be lowered and police response time shortened.

Peter Goldring, the chief executive of Sentry Protection, told me about video verification systems that send a clip to the security company of the thief inside your house. With this, the company can tell the police there is a crime in progress, which gets them to your door quickly. “We can prioritize,” he said.

Likewise, Jeff Kessler, a managing director at Imperial Capital, an investment bank, and a former security industry analyst, said advances in notification via cellphones helped reduce the false alarm rate, while add-ons to alarm systems – like heating and plumbing monitors and services to provide medical assistance – expanded the uses and value of security systems.

PESSIMISTS This group consisted of people with first-hand experience in the monitoring centers of security companies. They painted a far worse picture than I did.

David Scott, who said he used to work as a customer service representative in Florida and is now a computer programmer, complained that security companies give customers a false sense of efficiency with advertisements showing NASA-like monitoring centers. He said that he worked in a cubicle and that standard residential service – as opposed to prominent clients or businesses – was handled by the newest hires.

He had two pieces of advice to cut down on frustration with the security companies. One, make sure your system is properly coded so it tells you where a problem is – bathroom window, for example, as opposed to “Sensor 1”. And if you have guests, particularly anyone who does not speak English well, make sure they know the code. “I can’t tell you how many times I called inside, and mom or dad who spoke little English accidentally set off the alarm while the kids were at work,” Mr. Scott said. “No one is happy when that happens.”

Larry, a retired Suffolk County police officer and security consultant who did not want his last name used because of his law enforcement background, said police response times got slower after a few false alarms. And he cautioned people who rely on barking dogs that an experienced burglar knows how to get by the pet.

PRAGMATISTS But it was those in the third group who provided the most useful insights. The pragmatists admitted that the security industry had many faults but instead of defending or excoriating it, they offered simple, cost-effective advice.

Alan Lurie, vice president of operations at the Kenstan Lock Company and president of the Boa Handcuff Company, said fire department-approved grates on apartment windows, particularly near a fire escape, were effective in keeping people out.

He suggested everyone use restricted keys that cannot be copied without a security card – and many locksmiths have to order the blanks to make them. He also had a word of caution about home maintenance. “You could have a $900 lock on the door,” he said. “But if there is wood rot, the door is going to give.”

Michael Jagger, the president of Provident Security in Vancouver, British Columbia, said his company had a different model to respond to alarms: it has 6,000 customers but they all live in particular neighborhoods that the company monitors closely. As soon as an alarm goes off, one of the company’s cars responds in under five minutes, charging $35 unless the homeowner reports a false alarm.

Even though his company can respond quickly, he said, he still instructed clients on how to secure their valuables until someone arrived. His “five-minute fixes” were often ingenious and would work to confound any crook.

He suggested putting a deadbolt lock on your master bedroom. However unsightly this may be, he said master bedrooms are the first place burglars go to look for jewelry and money. While they could still break down the door, the lock will slow them.

Similarly, he suggested people with alarms put poles in their sliding glass doors that are two inches too short. That way, when the burglar tries to force the door open, he will trip the alarm but still be stuck outside. (People without alarms might try putting a thick washer at the top of the slider to keep the crook from lifting it off the track.)

To keep your high-end plasma-screen televisions on the wall, Mr. Jagger said people should use a bicycle lock to attach the TV to the mounting bracket. Yes, the burglars may still rip the TV off the wall, lock and all, but it will take them a bit of time. The same goes for bolting down computers and safes. If they’re not fastened to the floor they are easy to take out.

“An alarm is not a deterrent in and of itself – despite what most other security companies will try to suggest,” Mr. Jagger said. “Because we know that we can get to your place within five minutes, you need to ensure that from the point at which your alarm trips and sends us a signal, it will take a burglar at least five minutes to get to what you are trying to protect.”

Provident’s response time may be unique to its neighborhood model. But the notion of delaying burglars with these simple solutions could reduce what they steal from anyone’s home.

Published May 7, 2010 · The New York Times · Written by Paul Sullivan

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