Opportunities in Alarms and Central Stations

June 1, 2006
As technology evolves, the demand for alarm systems and monitoring is growing.

Central station monitoring fostered the electronic security industry. Where once the market was limited to only high-risk premises and alarm systems were provided by a limited number of companies, rapid developments in electronics and telecommunications has made central station monitoring a reality for virtually everyone, and enabled both small and large private sector security providers to flourish.

Over the years there have been setbacks and obstacles, among them the limited availability of leased lines, and the reliability issues associated with tape dialers. Many of these problems were mitigated by the introduction of the Digital Dialer and alternative backup reporting products.

Other issues such competition from telephone companies and cable carriers, and political pressure as a result of excessive false alarms, blamed largely on the unprofessional conduct of the alarm installation industry, have dulled the luster of the jewel.

The demand has grown and opportunities abound. Off-site services provided by third-party contract monitoring stations include:

  • Medical Emergency
  • Facility Maintenance/Process Control
  • Remote Site Management
  • Access Control
  • Burglar Alarm monitoring
  • Fire Alarm Monitoring
  • Remote Video Surveillance

The potential benefits the locksmith can derive from offering off-site services is somewhat offset by the latest challenges have now emerged, some of which were manifested ironically by the high technology that helped create the opportunities, namely the Internet (the use of VoIP) and Cellular Telephony (The FCC has announced an "AMPS SUNSET". Cellular carriers will not be required to provide analog cellular service after February 18, 2008. )

Changes in these technologies are setting the industry back on its heels as it attempts to retool and rethink how it provides protection.

Gordon Hope, vice president of marketing for Honeywell, comments on the impact of the cancellation of AMPS: "We expect to see significant challenges in the installation side of the issue. The vast majority of installing dealers that use AMPS radios for communications will be forced to make a service call to replace these radios and will need to replace the radio with another radio device. To further complicate the issue, as the time ticks on toward the February 2008 date, the labor required to get to all the installed radios becomes increasingly challenging and very costly. The newer technology radios (either GSM or CDMA) generally have higher price tags associated with them than their AMPS counterparts. In addition, the GSM network is still being expanded and as such, there is not a 100 percent certainty that an AMPS radio being replaced with a GSM radio will actually work in all cases. Over time the GSM network will become very robust, but as it grows, there are the associated coverage growing pains which most adversely affect fixed radio installations."

VoIP: What is it and why it is a problem?

Not too long ago, Internet access was the exception rather than the rule, and it hardly impacted the installation and operation of monitored alarm system.

But now the Internet and network technology have taken over, and these technologies are being applied to security systems with some rather disturbing consequences. The overwhelming majority of installed systems and the bulk of the systems in production and distribution are geared for the typical installation template -- dial-up reporting with either a cellular or proprietary RF network backup.

This template developed because of the convenience of POTS lines, but their drawbacks are relatively low security and low reliability. Just about every premise had a POTS line, and it was common knowledge that the PTSN was subject to frequent failures and vulnerable to even the most primitive forms of compromise. Technologies such as private RF networks and later on, analog cellular units filled the need for alternative emergency alarm communications.

VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) is a category of hardware and software that enables people to use the Internet as the transmission medium for telephone calls. Voice data is sent in packets rather than by traditional POTS circuits. One advantage of VoIP is that the telephone calls over the Internet do not incur a surcharge beyond what the user is paying for Internet access, much in the same way that the user doesn't pay for sending individual E-mails over the Internet. VoIP can also be used to carry voice traffic from a user to the PSTN.

So what's the problem? It happened almost overnight. The introduction of VoIP as a cheap alternative to traditional telephone long distance service has blossomed. Part of the appeal was coupled with the fact that the VoIP operated on the DSL service that became a "must have" for anyone living in an area it was available, and that was, and is, most concentrated population centers in our land.

Many alarm systems do not interface reliably with DSL/VoIP, and additionally, subscribers are switching over without advising their alarm dealers.

The AICC (Alarm Industry Communications Committee) formed to help represent the monitoring and alarm industry's interests in Washington DC reports that alarm companies have been encountering an increasing number of problems when their customers replace traditional wireline telephone service with VoIP service. Traditional alarm systems use telephone lines and central station monitoring to protect a wide range of property and people from fire, burglaries, attack and other emergencies.

There are approximately 26 million alarms systems monitored by central stations, of which about 20 million are in residences.

"Central station monitoring is a critical feature of these alarm systems. When an alarm is triggered, the security equipment in the premises sends a signal to the central station who then takes the appropriate action, typically contacting a public safety agency. Central station monitoring provide access to public safety providers even when the subscribers are unable to dial 911 themselves," according to the AICC.

Historically, the underlying communications network used in conjunction with central station alarm systems has been the public switched telephone network (PSTN), a backbone which has hardened over time and has redundancy and power backup systems to ensure continuous and reliable functioning. Central station alarm systems also contain redundancy and power backup systems to ensure continuous and reliable functioning. Even the alarm panel installed at the customer's premise has a 24-hour battery backup so that the alarm continues to operate even during a power outage.

New technologies, such as cable and VoIP, do not necessarily have the same level of redundancy and power backup as the PSTN.

Often cable providers do not have redundant computer capabilities and, as a result, when routine computer upgrades are required, the entire system is taken down for various periods of time. If a consumer is relying on such a company for its communications network and an emergency occurs while the company is performing routine maintenance, that consumer will not be able to call 911. If a consumer has a central station alarm system and there is a security event during the period of routine maintenance, the alarm signal will not be sent to the central station and, therefore, emergency services will not be dispatched.

All providers of broadband Internet access service also should be required to ensure that they do not interfere with other public safety mechanisms employed by subscribers, such as central station alarm services. The need for such a requirement is not theoretical.

As the industry sorts out the situation, rest assured that the switchover to GSM and VoIP is the now and the future of telecommunications.

So what should you do? First of all, none of the adversity just presented should trigger someone to abandon their off-site monitoring service, or frighten them out of entering the market. However, here are a few suggestions for those in the business or contemplating entering it.

Understand the technologies so that you can perform effective installations and provide reliable services.

UL Listing Explained

Selecting a central station on the basis of price is not a good idea, because several things can affect the level of service you'll get form your central station. One benchmark for a selecting a central station is if it is UL certified.

What does it mean when a central station says it's UL Listed, and what are the listings available? Steve Schmit, UL's section manager, security & signaling, answers the question:

A "UL Listed Central Station" is an alarm company that has been found to be in conformity with UL827, The Standard for Central Station Services. It is capable of delivering Code/Standard compliant alarm service and is authorized to use a UL Alarm System Certificate for any system they wish to declare in conformity. The Alarm System Certificate is the UL Mark for central station services. Companies that have demonstrated an ability to deliver compliant service, and are authorized to issue UL Certificates, are all "Listed" together in UL's Online Certification Directory (www.ul.com/database).

Central Stations that carry a UL Listing are audited at least once per year by specifically trained UL staff to verify continued compliance with UL requirements. Noncompliance findings must be corrected or the Central Station's Listing will be withdrawn.

Requirements in UL827 address Facilities and Equipment, Fire Alarm Services, and Burglar Alarm Service. Specific Sections of the Standard are enumerated below to illustrate the technical areas covered. During a Listing investigation, UL examines the Central Station facility for conformity with building construction, power & hardware requirements. The facility itself must always comply with UL827 construction requirements if it is to maintain its Listing.

As a condition of Listing, UL auditors also examine the Central Station's ability to conform to service requirements. A Listed Central Station will have demonstrated the ABILITY to deliver Code/Standard compliant service. However, a Listed Central Station is not required to deliver Code/Standard complying service for all their accounts. The Listed Station is held accountable for Code conformity by UL only for those accounts for which a UL Alarm System Certificate is in force.

This is analogous to UL's product Certification programs where a product is considered Listed only if a UL Mark appears on the specific item in question. Products that do not bear the mark are not considered Listed and do not fall under UL's factory surveillance program. Similarly, alarm service provided to a specific property is considered UL Certificated only if an active certificate is in force for that property. All Certificated alarm systems are subject to random audit during UL's annual audit of the central station.

UL currently offers Listing in the following Central Station categories:

  • Central Station Burglar Alarm (CPVX)
  • Central Station Fire Alarm- Full Service (UUFX)
  • Central Station- Monitoring Only (UUFX)

UL827 contains detailed requirements in the following areas:

Facilities and Equipment, including:

  • Building Construction Requirements
  • Physical Protection
  • Fire Protection
  • Standby Lighting
  • Power Supplies
  • Receiver Units
  • Automation Systems

Fire Alarm Service, including:

  • Central-Station Operation
  • Personnel (Operators and Runners)
  • Runner's Equipment
  • Communication and Test
  • Re-Transmission
  • Records
  • Maintenance and Service
  • Testing and Inspection
  • Protected Premises Control and Transmitter Units

Burglar Alarm Service, including:

  • Central-Station Operation
  • Personnel (Operators and Runners)
  • Runner's Equipment
  • Communication and Test
  • Re-Transmission
  • Burglar-Alarm Protected Premises Control Units
  • Burglar-Alarm Protection Service
  • Openings and Closing
  • Closing and Malfunctions during Closing
  • Alarms and Unauthorized Openings
  • Identification of Subscribers
  • Handling of Subscriber's Keys
  • Records
  • Maintenance and Service


UL now has customer service professionals on hand to handle all your non-technical matters and deliver fast and efficient service to meet your needs. They can be reached 7 a.m. – 6 p.m. Central Time, Monday-Friday in the U.S. at 877-ULHELPS (877-854-3577) or via E-mail at [email protected]. Another way to ensure you are getting the best possible central station services would be to refer to the CSAA's Five Diamonds Central Stations Resource: http://www.csaaul.org/FiveDiamondsCentralStations.htm.

The Central Station Alarm Association is the professional association for central stations, and they recommend the standards and coordinate the training and trade activities for the centrals, much the same as ALOA does for locksmiths. Does your shop strive to achieve certification for all your mechanics? That's what the CSAA does for the centrals. Bear in mind that some states require that a central be registered, and all employees be state certified in order to provide monitoring services.

Explore the available alternative alarm reporting technologies available in your geographic area. These include Digital Cellular products, Long Range Radio Services, and now Internet based technologies. The differences, benefits, and availability of these different products is too involved to go into in this article, but while you are evaluating a central station, you should ask which of these they provide and which they prefer and recommend.

A final thought is to try to keep it local. Pick a central that is nearby.

Did you ever PING? It's a test you can perform on an Internet or network connection to test its speed and route the path between you and another location. You can't PING a telephone line. With the complexity of the PTSN and Internet, it actually impossible to predict how any one communication event will be routed, even of the source and destination are within the same area or same area code, but it's common sense that the closer the two are, the better.

If a central station is UL listed, but all its equipment is in one location, and all its phone lines route through the same switch, it is obvious that should the area of the country where the central is located is the victim of a crisis, it will no longer be able to protect your customers.

Some central stations have strategically located alternate fallback locations with automatic forwarding of incoming signals so one of them is likely to survive even if one location or one element of the PSTN or Internet are disabled by a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

Recently a prospective client, upon learning that the central station we were offering with our alarm system was located in Florida, asked; "What if there is another hurricane there?" Good question! While I was an alarm dealer on Long Island, my central was up the road about five miles, and I used a long range Radio Network for backups. In 30 years, I never had a situation where the alarm failed to communicate with the central due to line or radio failure. But that was before 911, 800 centrals and Katrina.