False alarms changing home security system landscape

By Melissa Neiman Posted : 08/14/2012

video home alarms and insuranceHomeowners purchase home alarm systems in hopes of warding off thieves and keeping home-sweet-home safe. But some police departments complain that an overwhelming percentage of alerts turn out to be "false alarms."

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To address the issue, some cities, including Las Vegas, Milwaukee, Eugene, Ore., and Lakewood, Colo., have taken steps to lower the number of police responses to false alarms.

One practice is called "verified response," which shifts alarm signal verification to alarm companies by requiring an eyewitness, such as a private guard responder or a video camera with interactive audio, to verify that a crime has or is occurring before police are dispatched.

Stretched resources cause tough choices

Requiring verified response is among the  tough choices law enforcement agencies have had to make about  how to respond to home alarm alerts.

A wide range of factors can trigger a false alert in traditional home alarm systems, according to Story County, Iowa Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald, former president of the National Sheriffs' Association. In some cases, the alarms simply aren't set correctly and thus go off when they shouldn't. In other instances, they may be triggered by animals, high winds and even power outages, he says.

Alarms that cry wolf frequently stress the increasingly meager resources of many law enforcement departments, Fitzgerald says.

"The problem that we're having all across America is declining budgets and increased calls to service, and whenever you have that kind of combination, any law enforcement agency is going to begin to prioritize what their resources are going to respond to," says Fitzgerald.

Jim Schweitzer, COO and senior vice president of investigations for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, agrees that a high number of false alarms has caused some law enforcement departments to rethink how to respond to them.

In some cities, police departments may charge a homeowner after responding to a private alarm. That approach is similar to one used by cities that have mandated fees for emergency runs by fire departments and EMTs, Schweitzer says.

"With the budget and staffing issues facing most (law enforcement) departments today, they must set priorities," Schweitzer says.

Video alarms to the rescue

Enter video alarm systems, Minnesota-based RSI Video Technologies, for instance,  sells Videofied, an alarm system that sends a 10-second video clip of an intrusion to a 911 center as a crime-in-progress.

RSI President Keith Jentoft says that the product boasts a 25 percent arrest rate, compared to the 0.01 percent arrest rate associated with traditional monitoring systems.

"Police are motivated to make arrests … it's a fundamental part of being an officer," Jentoft says. "So when they know that there's a crime in progress, they'll race to get there to make the arrest."

The new alarm systems are a far cry from nanny-cams Jentoft says.

"There's no one looking in at you. If there's an intruder, the camera on the motion sensor takes a 10-second video clip," which is then forwarded to local authorities, he says.

Jentoft estimates that Videofied alarm systems cost about 10 percent more than a traditional alarm system. But he says the extra money is well worth it.

"What you're really buying if you're buying a monitoring system is a siren. What you think you're buying is a police response," Jentoft says. "It's better to pay 10 percent more and to have the police come than pay 10 percent less and not have them come."

Fitzgerald agrees that video alarms that provide actual real-time images of a burglary are more likely to get a police department's attention than traditional alarm systems.

"Officers are going to respond, usually a little more quickly, when they know they have a crime actually in progress," says Fitzgerald.

The video images also help officers to be "a little more on their toes and prepared for what they're going to encounter, " he says.

Schweitzer also believes video alarm systems may have an advantage in that they provide important details that can help the department prioritize the call.

"The argument can be made that law enforcement is more likely to respond if they can 'see' that there has been a break-in and that the suspects are on the premises," says Schweitzer.

In addition, such video can be used to help resolve the case and any insurance claims tied to the break-in, he says.

Video alarms and your homeowners  insurance

Installing an alarm system  -- whether it's a video alarm or a more traditional alternative -- can also save you money with your insurance company, says Michael Barry, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute.  (See:  "Install a home security system to lower your insurance rate.")

"Home insurers will often offer double-digit percentage premium rate discounts to homeowners who proactively take steps to protect their property through the installation of sprinkler and/or security systems," says Barry.

Barry defends traditional alarm systems against charges they are outdated and ineffective.

"Burglar alarms are a deterrent to crime because criminals often flee the scene after activating an alarm system," he says.

He acknowledges that he has heard anecdotes about police departments that no longer respond to traditional alarm systems.

"I would imagine these departments remain a distinct minority, and that most police officers in the U.S. respond quickly when an alarm sounds," says Barry.

If you decide to purchase an alarm system in hopes of lowering your home insurance rates, make sure you talk to your insurer first. For example, in order to get a discount, some companies might require you to buy an alarm system approved by Underwriters Laboratories (UL).

"The criteria that needs to be met for a security system discount, however, is going to vary from insurer to insurer," says Barry.

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