You Should be Alarmed
You should be alarmed … and monitored! Forgive my play on words to get your attention but the concern is real, a facility not properly alarmed and monitored diminishes the value of other security mitigations. For example, without alarms how would security forces know to respond to a break in or an unsecured door, or view the door on a CCTV system monitor? The purpose of this post is to help you understand why alarms are important, what to look for in an effective alarm system and how to test your existing system.
Alarm systems can be grouped into 2 categories, Central Station and Proprietary. A central station system is an alarm system that most of us are familiar with and used in our homes. In these systems certain openings are monitored to determine if they are opened or closed. Presumably these systems are used when the homeowner (or small business owner) is away from the building or, in the case of a home alarm are retiring for the evening. Usually, when not in use, the system is turned off and does not report the condition of the openings.
A central station system is monitored by a service company remote from the facility being monitored, in fact for many small alarm companies; they contract their monitoring with large central stations located outside their immediate area. For example, your small business in Jackson Mississippi may be served by an alarm company located in Jackson or Vicksburg or Meridian but your monitoring comes from Des Moines Iowa. That is not just possible; in today’s market it is likely. Because these systems depend on phone lines to signal an alarm and phone lines to spread notification of the alarm, the physical location of the monitoring station has become less important.
In addition to openings these systems can monitor other devices to ensure the safety and security of a home or small business. For example space sensors, devices used to detect the presence of a person inside a room or area, can be easily monitored. While we might prefer to detect someone when they are entering a secure area these perimeter systems can be defeated or fooled so space sensors are used to monitor the space inside the protected area for human activity.
There are other devices used to monitor other conditions such as gas detectors, moisture detectors and water levels. Also, these systems can be connected to other systems such as fire and smoke detection, halon and perimeter detection so that the monitoring of all these systems can be centralized to help coordinate activity for the security force and management.
Proprietary systems function in much the same way as central station systems, the biggest difference between the two is the monitoring. A proprietary system is monitored on site by employees of the facility being monitored. Many proprietary alarm monitoring systems are an adjunct to some other security product such as access control or closed circuit television management systems.
Another major difference is the communications between the monitoring point and the centralized monitoring station. In proprietary systems, phone lines are generally not used, the monitored points are either hard wired or use existing LAN facilities for communications. Being an “old school” security guy, I favor hard wire whenever possible.
The components of an alarm system can be grouped into these categories:
- Monitoring point sensor
- Communications to monitoring
- Monitoring display
Monitoring point sensors are the most varied portion of the system. They include a wide range of door sensors and window sensors and a lengthily list of space sensors each with its own characteristics and limitations and from a wide variety of manufacturers. The most effective ones are designed for specific applications.
Communications comes in just a few basic flavors, hard wired, IP based (LAN) phone line (and related services) and wireless. Each service has its own application and limitation and each can be effective in its own way, selection depends on the environment.
Monitoring displays comes from a variety of manufacturers but generally, displays are provided by other systems that make adding alarm monitoring to their product simple and easy. These are access control vendors, CCTV vendors and, of course, vendors who only do alarm monitoring. The most feature rich of these tend to be the alarm monitoring systems but not by much. Many of the add-on systems to access control and CCTV do a very good job of providing alarm monitoring features. Here are some features to look for in your new system:
- Visual and AUDIBLE displays of alarms
- Assigning different sounds to each alarm classification
- Assigning different visual symbols to each alarm classification
- Full text display for each alarm
- Instruction text for each alarm, individually
- Alarm response text at least a 1,000 character window with classification fields
- Correlation between alarm and a floor plan display showing location of the alarm
- Correlation between alarm floor plan and CCTV location display
More features may be needed but they are application and environment dependant.
Testing your Existing System
If you have an existing alarm system you should verify the function at least annually. If you have a high security facility, that test is best done quarterly or monthly.
- Notify the staff and those receiving alarms that you will be testing
- Violate the alarm points one by one and time the system’s notification
Investigate a lack of response and delays in response.
Later in this BLOG series we will discuss protocols, instructions used by alarm monitoring personnel to effectively do their job.