Things Your Alarm Company Won't Tell You (But Burglars Already Know)
Alarm systems can be a great addition to any home or business, and bring peace of mind to those who live, work, and own the building. Knowing your alarm system will make it that much more effective of a deterrent to burglary, however, if the burglar knows more about your system than you do, they can take advantage of small flaws that could end up costing thousands of dollars of damage and theft, or worse.
After working at the largest alarm company in the nation, I saw that people who ended up unsatisfied with their protection, or ended up having to recover from a major loss due to break in, made some of these very simple, easy to miss mistakes.
1. Prolonged Power Outages Can Disable the System
Almost every alarm system owner is aware that their system runs off of the electricity of the house, it is either plugged into a wall or it is hard-wired into the building. There is a problem with that however: If the electricity goes out, a breaker flips, or the plug comes loose, the alarm system loses its main source of power!
"But wait!" you say, "I have a backup battery!"
Backup batteries are what your alarm system absolutely depends on during a power outage. These are usually located in the panel or, in the case of enclosed systems, in the keypad itself. What most owners are not aware of, is that these batteries do not have a very long life, and they need to be maintained periodically to work at all. An old, worn out battery, or one that just is not hooked up right, will not power the system.
A burglar may take advantage of this, especially in the case of a prolonged power outage caused by a blizzard, flood, hurricane, tornado, or construction. After 12 hours for most residential and small business systems, the battery is dead. Useless.
How to Combat:
- Maintain your alarm system backup battery properly. Test, and change them as needed. For sealed lead acid (SLA) batteries, which look like mini car batteries, change them every five to seven years. For enclosed systems that use regular AA or D batteries, change them yearly, and after a power outage. SLA batteries will recharge once the power comes back on, but enclosed systems do not have that luxury.
- If the building is in an area that is prone to power outages, consider a backup generator to provide electricity during outages.
- If the building is uninhabited, check on it periodically to make sure that the power is on and that the alarm system is functioning.
2. No Phone Line, No Signal
This is one almost everyone knows about, whether they have an alarm system or not. We have all seen the movies where the burglar sneaks around outside the house until he comes across the phone line entering the house. He pulls out his snippers, and cuts the line. Then, when he busts open the window or front door, the alarm goes off, but no one can get the signal.
Unlike most things in the movies, this is one that Hollywood got right. Normal alarm systems use the phone line to send out any signals at all, including fire, burglary, and carbon monoxide signals. Without the phone line, nothing is received by the alarm company, and no call goes out to the authorities. Even multiple phone line systems are pretty easy to disable from the outside of the building!
How to Combat:
- Consider a cellular or radio back-up, which sends signals wirelessly. These are sometimes not as dependable as a solid phone line for relaying signals (we've all dealt with our phones suddenly losing signal for no apparent reason) but they can be utilized as a back-up plan. Some systems can even be programmed to send a signal when the main phone line is tampered with, so that you will know when it happened.
- Since the siren in the building will still sound, even though no signal is being sent, everyone inside should know that something is wrong. Make sure that a neighbor or someone else that can hear the alarm system knows to check on it.
- Test your system's communication monthly. Your alarm company can walk you through putting your system on a disregard status (to prevent police from being the ones confirming your alarm went through. They don't like doing that much.) and testing to make sure that your system is sending out signals like it is supposed to. Some systems will send a test signal automatically, however, especially in the case of residential systems, the alarm company may not call if the test signal is missed.
- Note any changes with your phone lines and test your system after they are completed. Be especially wary when switching to VOIP phone lines, as these can sometimes not be compatible with your alarm system, and will not allow alarms to be relayed in a timely manner- if at all.
3. Police Response Time
While the alarm company will usually respond to an alarm very quickly, the response time of the authorities can be a whole different ball game. Especially in large cities, busy areas, or if the police department has a lot of calls to respond to, they might not get to the building for a while. Average response times can vary anywhere from a few minutes to several hours!
A burglar is usually aware of the response time. They have staked out the area, perhaps even broken into some houses there already. He probably knows exactly how long he has to haul out everything you own and cherish into that cargo van and still get away without passing a single cop.
How to Combat:
- Reduce false alarms as much as possible! Getting a bunch of false alarms from the same house tends to create a "Boy Who Cried Wolf" situation. Not to mention that false alarms account for a lot of the reason that some police departments are swamped with calls.
- Make sure that at least one person on your call list can check on the house. If they spot anything out of the ordinary, they should call the police or alarm company and let them know that there has been a confirmed break-in. Typically, police will respond much faster when someone has physically seen a problem. As a side note, if someone is responding to the alarm, make sure that the authorities or the alarm company knows who is going and what they are driving or wearing, to prevent your friend, neighbor, or loved one from getting shoved into the back of a police car while your robber gets away.
- Some communities have a security guard who can check on the house as well. Make sure that this guard is on the call list if one is available!
4. Police Investigation is Sometimes a Drive-By Look-See
As mentioned above, some towns have very busy police. To save time so that they can move on to the next call, they may not check as thoroughly as you would like when responding to an unconfirmed alarm. Sometimes, all they do is drive by the house and look at it from their car. Not so good if the break-in point is not visible from the street! Other times, police may not see the damage because of a gate, dogs, or inaccessibility to the house.
How to Combat:
- If you have a gate code to your backyard or house, make sure that the alarm company has this. They will give it to the authorities so that they can access the property. This is just a good idea in general, especially in the case of a fire or medical emergency, where seconds can make the difference.
- Make sure that the person who is responding to the house to meet the police has a key and knows how to get into the house. If they unlock the door for the police, oftentimes they will check around to make sure that everything is okay, which is a lot better than just sending in your neighbor all by himself.
- Make sure that your alarm company has descriptions for each zone. Sometimes, especially if the technician gets in a hurry, he will not program the alarm to show anything except a zone number. "Alarm Zone 3" does not tell police very much! Of course, neither does "Alarm Billy's Window". Set up your zones so that anyone would be able to find which zone is causing the alarm.
5. Your Alarm System Has Automatic Codes
When alarm systems are installed, they have a set code out of the box so that the technician and the new owner can arm and disarm it easily while installing and learning how to operate the system. What most owners do not realize is that this code is the same for almost every alarm system, regardless of brand.
If your code is 1-2-3-4, I'm talking to you.
Burglars know this, and why would they pass up the opportunity to give it a try?
How to Combat:
- This one seems pretty simple doesn't it? Change your code after it is installed! Preferably while the technician is on site. Make it something that is meaningful to you, but not easily guessed (last 4 digits of the phone number, house number, birthdays, and other special dates are often easy to guess just by looking at your mail).
- After changing your code, make sure that the old one no longer works. Some systems allow for dozens of codes to work at the same time, and one wrong button can leave the old code available.
6. Remote Arming and Disarming is Convenient (For Burglars)
Nowadays, everything we could ever want is available at the touch of a button. Music, TV, coffee(!), a warm car, and even your alarm system. It might seem like a technological advancement comparable only to the invention of memory-foam slippers, but that convenience comes at a cost. That keyfob remote that is dangling oh-so-pretty on your keychain can fall into the wrong hands very easily, allowing a burglar to simply turn off your alarm system and walk right in.
While the alarm company can replace your remote and reprogram your system if the the keyfob is stolen, this is almost never covered under any warranty or maintenance plan. A technician may not be able to come out to the building for several weeks, and over-time (on-call) hours can end up costing you more than you would think possible.
How to Combat:
- When possible, avoid using your keyfob remote. Arming and disarming your system is fairly easy, and if you cannot remember your code, your alarm company will walk you through changing it within minutes in most cases.
- Keep your remote someplace safe. Keychains are great, except that they are small, portable, and easy targets for pickpockets and thieves. Putting the remote in an old jewelry box (the kind a watch or ring comes in) and keeping it inside your purse, briefcase, or car will keep it safe and prevent you from butt-pressing the hold-up alarm.
- Always keep your alarm system and the information that the alarm company has up to date. Delete codes that are no longer being used, and change your own code periodically.
- Be proactive about testing your alarm system. Unless your system is programmed to do so automatically and the alarm company is watching for the signals, your system will go untested for a long time.
- Be proactive at responding to alarms, and make sure that at least someone on your contact list will respond if you cannot. The alarm system is there to let you know that something is wrong, and the police are there to respond in the case that no one else on the earth possibly could.
- If you have any questions about how your alarm operates, different features, back-ups, or anything else, call your alarm company and ask them! It might take a few hold times to get to someone that has all of the answers, but it is better to know than to just hope.
- Ultimately, how well your alarm system works depends solely on you!