Security System Alarm Reporting Process

Understand How Home Alarm Monitoring Works and Alarm Response Times in Under 5 Minutes

In Home Security by Jody2 Comments

Disclaimer
The information here can not possibly cover the procedures of every alarm company.  It is common to most companies.  Additionally, every police and fire jurisdiction will have their own policies for responding to automated alarms from security systems or alarm companies.  You will have to inquire with your locality to determine their process and average response times.  Pro Tip: You might want to do that in person when they do a security audit of your home so they don’t think you’re a criminal when you call them.

The home alarm monitoring and response process

  1. A sensor activates the alarm panel or hub.  The panel immediately contacts the alarm company or waits for a programmed delay (to allow you time to disarm it).
  2. The alarm monitoring center matches the alarm to your personal information about the property, including contact numbers.
  3. When an operator is available, they see the alarm and account information on their workstation display.
  4. The monitoring center operator follows the on screen instructions and his training to respond to the alarm.  Usually a) the operator calls the residence (or contact via the alarm panel) to see if there is an emergency and b) reviews audio and video sensors for additional evidence to indicate a burglary in progress.
  5. Try additional contact numbers until someone can be reached or a pre-set number of failed attempts is made.
  6. Notify the police department that there is an alarm at the property, along with any alarm permit information that may be required, and information about which alarm sensors have been activated.
  7. An officer will be dispatched to check on the property (could be as hands-off as driving by depending on staffing, call volume, and the circumstances of the call).

Like I said, your mileage may vary slightly depending on your particular alarm company.  Some are gracious enough to provide details about the process on their websites.  Others don’t bother.

What are the “alarm response times” that alarm monitoring companies talk about?

Most alarm companies actually outsource the actual  home alarm monitoring to a 3rd party monitoring center.  In your discussions with a prospective company, they may provide you data about their average “alarm response times.”  Or if you find out what monitoring center they use, you may be able to find that information on the monitoring center’s web site or by contacting them.

Usually, the “alarm response time” that they give you covers steps 2-5 in the list above.  In other words, the part of the process that is under their control (from the moment they get an incoming alert to the time that they contact the authorities).  The Frontpoint blog has an entry that discusses this in detail too.

In other words, they aren’t going to (and can’t) tell you the actual “alarm response time” that you care about, the time from someone kicking in your door to a patrol car showing up in front of your house.

Let’s break down the alarm response process and understand the typical time frames.

How long does it take a home alarm panel to contact the monitoring center?

Brass tacks: 10 seconds to 1 minute, up to NEVER

The skinny:

It depends, usually under a minute to give you time to disarm the system when you arrive home.

Factors that make alarm response times quicker:

  • Backup communication protocols, e.g. WiFi + cellular (CDMA or GSM)
  • Alarm systems that have programmable delays for different sensor types

Factors that make alarm response times slower:

  • Inconsistent or poor connections to the monitoring center

NEVER?

  • Do you have exposed telephone or internet wires outside your house that could be cut?
  • Does your alarm system require power to alert the monitoring center and is your power line accessible from outside?
  • Does your security system have crash and smash protection, i.e. can a burglary immediately destroy the hub or panel to prevent the monitoring center from being contacted?

The details:

First, when you enter the house there will be a delay (15-45 seconds, generally) to give you time to disarm the system.  If your alarm panel allows multiple delay settings for different sensors, then a door sensor may have a delay while a window sensor does not.  For systems that push notifications to your phone, it may take a minute or two for the notification to be delivered to your phone.

How long does it take the alarm monitoring center to contact police?

Brass tacks: 10 seconds to several minutes, up to NEVER

The skinny:

The average response times should be under a minute.  Laws in some jurisdictions may prevent reporting if you can’t be contacted or you don’t have a permit for your alarm.

Factors that make alarm response times quicker:

  • A great monitoring center with low average response times
  • Quality video and audio equipment to supplement and validate alarm indications

Factors that make alarm response times slower:

  • Inconsistent or poor connections at the monitoring center
  • Insufficient staffing at the monitoring center or high alarm volume
  • Inefficient monitoring center processes, equipment, and software
  • Inadequate equipment to verify the alarm

NEVER?

The details:

Once the security system monitoring center is contacted, the response times can vary based on the quality of the monitoring center,  the amount of contacts that the center will try to get in touch with before notifying the authorities, and the laws in your jurisdiction regarding reporting.

The monitoring center staffing can play a big role, putting your alarm in a queue for the first available person.  And, the software used at the center and the quality of your account information can also cause delay after the alarm is received.

Depending on their processes and the number of contacts that you provided when you set the system up, the monitoring company may call several to try to get in touch with you, your spouse, or a neighbor before dispatching police.

How long does it take the police to respond to a home security system alarm?

Brass tacks: 5 minutes to NEVER

The skinny:
Up to 98% of alarm reports are false alarms and police departments have limited resources to commit to alarm responses (according to US Department of Justice data).  That problem is exacerbated by the recent reduction in the cost of alarm systems and resulting installation rates.  If you happen to live in one of those jurisdictions, the local police department may have altered their response process to make the most of the resources that they have.  Unfortunately, that may include not checking on your house.

Factors that make alarm response times better:

  • Living in an urban area (3-5 minutes typically for emergency calls)
  • Verified alarm via video or audio evidence by the monitoring company, after having contacted the property owner
  • Multiple sensors being triggered
  • Quickly contacting the property owner and confirming no one should be in the home

Factors that make response time slower:

  • Living in a remote area (response times may be > 30 minutes)
  • Your city requires an alarm permit.  In some localities, not having a valid alarm permit means that the police won’t ever respond to your alarm.
  • The alarm is unverified.

The details:

If the alarm company calls your house and then the other contact numbers you left with them and couldn’t reach you, they will report the alarm to the police.  The same is true if they did reach you, and you indicated that no one was home.  The emergency call will be placed in the queue for general dispatch and an officer will respond when one is available (could take 8 hours depending on your locality and the severity of the call). Cities that are particularly cash-strapped may not respond to unverified calls at all.

This release about the Detroit policy says the department won’t respond unless:

  • Someone visually verifies a crime has been committed
  • A break-in or crime is verified via audio or video
  • The alarm company reports multiple alarm trips from at least two sensors at the property

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