No Two Ways About it


For some, two-way voice technology is the answer to the industry’s false alarm problem while, for others, its use only muddies the effectiveness of a properly installed security system Is it the wave of the future or a marketing gimmick? The pundits of two-way voice alarm technology are of two minds.

“Two-way voice sharply decreases false alarms, chases intruders from premises, gets priority response from the police, and most important, it saves lives,” states Christopher Baskin, president of American Two-Way, headquartered in North Hollywood, Calif.
Pointing to his company’s claim to fame as having engineered the first two-way voice devices three decades ago, Baskin says it was the concern over the high numbers of false alarms from existing alarm panels that prompted American Two-Way to develop a method for immediate verification of emergencies.

“The result of our research became the basis for two-way voice (or audio) verification,” he adds.

American Two-Way currently boasts over 700 dealers across Canada and the United States. In 1997, the company transitioned from manufacturing security systems to focusing on monitoring residential and commercial clients through its UL-listed central station. Today, most major alarm manufacturers — from GE and Honeywell to Tyco Fire & Security — offer some form of two-way voice technology, either incorporated into their panels, or as separate add-on modules.

The earliest two-way voice systems were simple devices with a bevy of buttons to key the microphone, switch on to talk and switch off to listen. Today, the systems are much more sophisticated, user friendly, and faster. Most if not all of them offer a plethora of enhanced functionality.

In most systems, if an alarm is triggered, a five-second siren sounds. At this point the system falls silent to allow the microphone to open and the central station operator to listen in. The operator then calls the homeowner requesting an identifying password. This direct communications link, extolled by many observers as shaving precious seconds off response times if an intruder is detected, is the core appeal of the technology.

Proponents of the technology

It is this procedure that interests Pamela Petrow, executive vice-president of Pittsburgh, Pa.-based Vector Security, a leading electronic security, fire alarm, access control, and video surveillance provider, with central monitoring stations serving 165,000 customers in Canada, the U.S., and the Caribbean.

“Yes, the technology has been around for years and we’ve been offering two-way voice to the residential market for the past decade,” she says. “It’s especially effective since there’s no pause in processing the signal and getting verification quickly.”

Vector offers two-way voice because, Petrow declares, her customers ask for it.

“It’s almost totally market-driven,” she insists.
But it’s not civilians alone who are fans of two-way voice.
Offering his own perspective on the benefits of the technology, much of it stemming from his background in law enforcement and as former security dealer/owner, and now heading GE Security’s residential market for networked solutions based in Tualatin, Ore., is Kirk MacDowell. He fully understands why more police departments now mandate alarm verification before a dispatch is initiated.

“Responding to false alarms costs everyone, not just in officers’ time but in taxpayer dollars too,” he remarks.

MacDowell explains that, though the original two-way voice devices had limited speaker range and needed to be installed in practically every room and on every floor of a building, today’s microphones are so advanced that two units can ably cover two-story 2,500-square-foot premises.

“This level of sophistication also helps cut costs for manufacturers, dealers, installers and end users. False alarms could mean the difference between life or death,” he firmly states. “False alarm protection is too important to be optional. Two-way voice will continue to be the best alarm verification tool for residences and small businesses.”

Second thoughts about two-way voice

But despite consumer appeal and the interest of law enforcement, not everyone is convinced that two-voice is all that it’s cracked up to be.

Other industry members, aren’t quite so sure this technology can deliver on all of its promises.

“I have a fundamental problem with the system,” asserts Mike Jagger, the founder of Provident Security, headquartered in Vancouver’s West Side, serving about 4,000 clients. “I view two-way voice as suited to health-care uses, such as PERS (personal emergency response systems designed to let the user summon medical help in an emergency), but its effectiveness in reducing false alarms and thwarting burglars are suspect. It’s basically a speakerphone and there’s not much difference between talking to a monitoring station through a speaker and communicating on the phone. And if a crook breaks into a home and takes the phone off the hook, there’s no way an operator can get through.”

He adds: “Two-way [voice] just isn’t worth the cost.”

Jagger isn’t the only one who doubts two-way voice’s utility.

Dan Small is the past-president of CANASA’s Atlantic Chapter and general manager of Dartmouth, N.S.-based Armstrong Communications, a monitoring station with 35,000 clients.

“Although our business is not a big user of two-way audio for burglar systems, we do monitor thousands of two-way audio customers for medical alarm conditions (representing about 20 per cent of Armstrong’s residential customer base),” adds Small.

Stating that, Small admits that only about one per cent of his clients presently use two-way voice for home and office security. He attributes dealers’ hesitancy to implement the technology as part of the reason why consumers aren’t chomping at the bit to have two-way voice installed in their respective homes.

“Dealers aren’t pushing it, preferring to talk up video instead,” he says. “Another problem arises when, for example, 10 voice calls come in at once and each must be answered right away. How does an operator decide which to respond to first? It can cause major headaches for central stations.”

The future of two-way voice

Despite the heated arguments over two-way voice, the fact remains that its message does resonate with a growing number of consumers. It has also struck a chord with security industry consultant Lou Fiore, based out of Sparta, N.J., an unabashed proponent of voice technology, and a speaker on behalf of the Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) as well as the organization’s Standards Committee chair.

Because the deployment of two-way voice to monitor homes and small businesses is accelerating, Fiore’s been advocating the creation of standards for the technology. The results of his committee’s efforts have recently been published as ANSI/CSAA CS-V-01.

“The CSAA has long been working to get the word out on false dispatches and the need for verification, and this standard addresses those issues,” nods Fiore. “Two-way voice is a reality, and we believe this technology, when networked with video, is the answer to reducing false alarms. Anything that achieves that goal is good for the security industry.”

Published July 10, 2006 · SP&T News · Written by Jack Kohane

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