DIY vs Pro Monitored Home Security: How Law Enforcement Responds to 911 Calls
Controversy brews over the DIY and MIY (monitor-it-yourself) market for home security versus systems that are professionally installed and monitored by a central station. Detective H.W. "Robbie" Robinson comments on police response to alarms and 911 emergency calls.
Self-monitored DIY home security systems are disrupting the long-standing tradition of professional alarm monitoring. How much the new monitor-it-yourself (MIY) paradigm will affect the current model is a big question for the industry. But a bigger question for the entire population is: How will MIY security systems affect police response to alarm events?
CE Pro posed this question to one very outspoken police detective and code enforcer, Detective H.W. “Robbie” Robinson of the Phoenix Police Code Enforcement Unit, Alarm Inspections. His lengthy response is below, but first we address some of the players and processes in the security alarm ecosystem.
Alarm Response Glossary - Players, Practices and Processes
- Security Dealer/Installer
Professional alarm company that sells, installs and configures security systems for professional- and self-monitoring. In the case of professional monitoring, the dealer makes the connection between the home security system and the central monitoring station.
- Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP)
Local-jurisdiction call center that processes emergency calls (911), including electronic dispatches from professional alarm monitoring stations and telephone calls from consumers themselves. Trained operators prioritize the calls, dispatching emergency responders (police, fire, ambulance) as appropriate.
- Responsible Party (RP), Call List
Home owners and their proxies who might be contacted by the central station during an alarm event. For professionally monitored systems, the security dealer files the RPs (also known as the call list) with the monitoring station. In a self-monitored environment, users themselves might create their own call lists of RPs that might receive alerts from the security system.
- Monitor-it-Yourself (MIY)
Security system that is monitored remotely by the user, rather than through a professional alarm monitoring service or sometimes in conjunction with a professional service.
- Central Monitoring Station (CMS) The service that processes security alarms and makes the decision to contact responsible parties and/or forward the alarm to the emergency authorities (PSAP).
- Enhanced Call Verification (ECV; also called Multiple Call Verification, or MCV)
Protocol in which a central monitoring station will make at least two phone calls before contacting law enforcement. For example, when an alarm occurs, the monitoring station might first call the household if applicable, followed by the home owner’s cellphone and/or other “responsible parties” selected by the home owner. ECV can significantly reduce false alarms (30% – 50%) to 911 dispatch centers, and is required by law is some jurisdictions.
- Verified Response
Law-enforcement practice of prioritizing alarms that are verified by an eye witness, surveillance video or audio from the premises. Many alarm panels have built-in microphones for listen-in capabilities.
Law enforcement practice of not responding to alarms that are not verified (except for panic/hold-up situations).
- False Alarm
False alarms account for some 98 percent of police calls, which is why police departments have implemented verified-response policies nationwide. Many cities now levy steep fines for false alarms, especially after the first or second offense. A false alarm is defined by many alarm ordinances as any activation of an alarm which results in a police response to the premises, unless the alarm is caused by (or the result of) a criminal act, unauthorized entry, or attempted unauthorized entry.
- Partnership for Priority Verified Alarm Response (PPVAR)
Group of public and private stakeholders comprised of law enforcement, the insurance industry and electronic-security industry that have established best practices for alarm verification, namely, prioritizing calls that include video and/or audio verification.
- Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ)
Person or organization with the authority to determine and enforce code requirements established by local governing bodies. In the case of alarm response, the AHJ might be something like what Phoenix calls the Police Code Enforcement Unit.
How Monitored Security Works
Traditional Professional Security Model Installed by a professional security dealer and monitored by a central monitoring station
- Professional security dealer sells and installs an alarm system for a home owner.
- The dealer links that system with a third-party central monitoring station (CMS), via plain old telephone service (POTS), Internet or cellular communications.
- The CMS charges the dealer a fee for each monitored account. The dealer charges the customer something like $30 per month for professional CMS monitoring.
- When an alarm goes off, the home security system sends a message to the CMS, with details such as which sensor(s) were triggered. If the system includes surveillance cameras, video from the cameras might be sent to the CMS, in a process known as video verification. Most leading security panels today offer two-way voice, enabling CMS operators to listen-in to possibly attain audio verification of an alarm event.
- CMS calls the home owner and/or other “responsible party” (RP) on the owner’s “call list” to determine if the alarm is real or false.
- If the alarm is deemed real, or no RP can be reached, the CMS will contact the local 911 dispatch office, passing along intelligence from the alarm panel and video. This 911 agency is known as the Public Safety Answering Point, or PSAP.
- **The PSAP is where the magic happens. Officials prioritize emergencies to determine which responders should be dispatched and how quickly, much like a hospital triage unit.
Monitor-it-Yourself (MIY) Security system installed by home owner (DIY) or security dealer that is not tied to a central monitoring station.
- When an alarm occurs, the home security system sends a message to the home owner and/or other RP, with details such as which sensor(s) were triggered. If the system includes surveillance cameras, video from the cameras might also be sent to the RP.
- If the alarm is real, the RP would call 911 (PSAP) and describe the emergency.
- **The PSAP determines the priority of the emergency ….
Hybrid MIY/Pro Many if not most security systems include elements of both MIY and Pro-monitored services. Most professional security systems allow users to receive alerts and monitor their homes remotely, while automating the process of notifying the authorities in case of an emergency.
Likewise, some DIY/MIY systems have optional services for professional monitoring. For example, a system might be mostly monitored by the homeowners themselves, except when they’re traveling, in which case they might activate a pay-as-you-go professional monitoring plan.
How Does a PSAP (911) Prioritize Calls? With both professional- and self-monitored home security systems, it all comes down to the PSAP, the clearinghouse for 911 calls. With limited resources, and the massive number of false alarms, how do they prioritize emergency calls? Do calls from a central monitoring station get higher priority than those from frantic homeowners who receive a text message from their alarm system?
The security industry likes to believe that DIY-MIY alarm calls are less worthy of police response than calls from professionally installed and monitored accounts.
But that is simply not the case, according to Det. Robinson, who explains his sometimes-controversial views below.
>Do Police Treat DIY-MIY Calls the Same as Pro Alarm Calls?>
Written by Detective H.W. “Robbie” Robinson of the Phoenix Police Code Enforcement Unit, Alarm Inspections Edited by CE Pro
This question can lead down a couple of rabbit holes, one being the DIY-MIY customer and their decision process on what they will do with the alert, and the other being what will law enforcement do when the MIY calls to request police dispatch?
Since the question of what the MIY customer will do with the alert is completely unpredictable, I will focus on: What happens if the DIY-MIY customer decides to call 911 or the police department to request police dispatch?
I have been asked about law enforcement’s reaction to DIY-MIY by several people in the security industry. Some are looking for law enforcement to impose a restriction on the DIY or the MIY or both to protect their business interests.
Some are asking law enforcement about the DIY-MIY issue from the perspective of growing their business and jumping into the fray before they miss the opportunity. They are looking to see if law enforcement is likely to do something down the road that would interfere with the profitability of their business model or product.
Law enforcement will have to deal with the fact that DIY-MIY is here to stay and it is still up in the air about how many DIY-MIY systems will be installed. The projected growth I have seen from the trade publications and security industry resources seems to indicate that the residential penetration rate is expected to grow around 8% due to DIY and other factors.
I do not think that DIY-MIY growth will overwhelm law enforcement. The bulk of the alarm systems will remain in the realm of "professional installation" and "professional monitoring."
The security industry needs to understand that law enforcement cannot stop someone from calling 911 or the non-emergency lines to request police dispatch.
Even trying to stop obnoxious 911 abusers requires a lot of documentation to get a court order or for criminal prosecution. The challenge for law enforcement will be handling the occasional call from the MIY customer who is reporting an alarm event and they are a little excited because someone is messing with their stuff.
It is my opinion that, even in a non-response jurisdiction [where alarm verification is normally required for emergency response], police will respond to a DIY-MIY owner that is giving a credible description of a crime in progress at their home or business based on the video that they are watching on their cellphone alarm app.
The Public Safety Answering Point (or PSAP, the clearinghouse for 911 calls) may not even know it is a DIY-MIY calling until after the officers get to the scene, depending upon what the MIY person said to the PSAP operator.
Chances are, the caller does not sound like a typical CMS operator: “Hi, I am Jane calling to report an alarm at the Doe residence."
The MIY guy is going to be yelling that someone is breaking into their house and the PSAP operator is going to hit the crime-in-progress button and then start getting the details from the MIY caller.
If the DIY-MIY is reporting a non-verified alarm activation – for example, they received a text alert from their security system that the front door was opened -- then it would be processed the same as a normal burglar alarm call from a professional CMS for the most part.
Law enforcement already receives non-verified burglar alarm calls like this from neighbors who can hear the siren going off at a fully monitored alarm subscriber system. It becomes a major issue when an alarm subscriber is not correcting the problem causing the alarm (siren) to go off repeatedly, and is only cancelling police dispatch through the CMS.
I have had to handle the obnoxious ringer called in by the neighbor plenty of times as the alarm inspector for Phoenix PD. It is usually because the subscriber is complaining about getting charged for a false alarm even when they cancelled police dispatch with the CMS. We encourage the neighbors to call for PD dispatch on the ringers so that they are documented in the Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) records and false alarm tracking system.
Nobody likes obnoxious ringers at 3 a.m. and if the neighbors ignore the alarm, then they are contributing to their own sleepless night. I need the documentation to go after the alarm user and get them to fix their alarm.
If the DIY-MIY is reporting a verified alarm activation using technology such as video, where the caller can articulate that they are watching a crime occur and give detailed information, then it would be processed the same as any crime-in-progress call where there is an eye witness.
The alarm industry has lobbied the law enforcement community for priority dispatch. The recommended best practices for priority response have been laid out by the Partnership for Priority Verified Alarm Response (PPVAR), which considers the ability of the CMS operator to observe and report what they believe to be a crime in progress. It stands to reason that this goes both ways for the security industry and the MIY user.
The challenge for law enforcement will be getting the MIY person to calm down and explain what is going on. Law enforcement call centers are used to dealing with people that range from calm, professional CMS dispatchers to the hysterical traumatized person yelling into the phone. The MIY caller will be somewhere in between, and they will be suffering from an adrenaline rush if they think someone is breaking into their home or business.
Understanding Verified Response
Priority response or "verified response" from law enforcement hinges on one concept and that is a "crime in progress." It does not matter to law enforcement who calls to report a crime in progress as long as they can articulate what they are seeing or hearing in a credible fashion that would lead a reasonable person to believe that a crime is in progress, where a priority response by law enforcement would be reasonable to protect persons or property.
I think that the security industry is having difficulty trying to grasp this concept because they want to be the ones to call law enforcement and exclude the MIY guy.
In the world of law enforcement, "video verification" of a crime in progress being reported by the "owner" or responsible party, who reasonably knows or should know what is normal or not normal for the location of the alarm event, is no less credible than a central monitoring station operator relaying what they are seeing in a video or hearing on audio at a site where they have no intimate knowledge of the protected site.
The security industry has a reputation of false alarms that they have to overcome, while hysterical property owners watching someone steal their stuff have a high degree of reliability.
That is one reason why the PPVAR worked with law enforcement to develop their best practices and came to the conclusion that the mere presence of a human on a video or audio verified security system is not a crime in progress unless the alarm company has contacted the responsible party during the enhanced call verification (ECV) process to confirm that the person seen in the video or heard on audio is not an authorized person at the site.
The PPVAR best practices conclude that it is reasonable for the CMS operator to believe that a crime is in progress and skip the ECV process before calling for police dispatch if the video or audio clearly demonstrates criminal activity and not just a person standing there or casually walking around.
There are way too many "silent" video/audio-verified alarm systems tripped by the alarm user or other authorized persons to warrant priority response unless there is an element of "crime in progress" that can be articulated.
As far as new technology and phone apps go, I really like the concept of "filtered monitoring" where the alarm activation information is sent to the user's smart phone, allowing the user to push a button to “ignore” a false alarm or hit the “valid” alarm button to push the alarm to the CMS, which in turn would contact the PSAP. (For DIY-MIY systems that are not part of a professionally monitored solution, the “valid” button would be used to call the local police.)
This filtered monitoring method even puts call verification by the user ahead of the CMS. If the user hits the “false alarm” button, then the call is logged only. If the user hits the “valid alarm” button then the CMS can go straight to calling PD for dispatch because ECV was accomplished thru the phone app.
The CMS does not have to go down the call list … and I am sure the CMS would like to process a few less ECV notification calls. It is even better for a CMS using this phone app with a video verification system because the user or other responsible party has viewed the video, and the CMS does not have to view video clips and try to guess if it is a false alarm or not. This should take a little of the liability pressure off of the CMS. The CMS will still have to process the alarm activation according to standard operating procedures if the user does not respond via the phone app.
I have seen some exceptional product demonstrations for processing the video with the alarm activation and was very impressed. I believe this up-front ECV method combined with a verification technology such as video is about as revolutionary as the ANSI/SIA CP-01 panel standards in terms of false alarm reduction.
Is MIY Better than CMS Enhanced Call Verification?
The interesting part of this debate is that for years the security industry has proclaimed that Enhanced Call Verification (ECV) is one of the most effective tools at reducing false alarm dispatches. The key to the ECV process is the ability for the CMS to reach the responsible party (RP) and have the RP evaluate the need for police dispatch.
If the theory of ECV holds true, then the MIY process is even better than a CMS using ECV because the CMS is still going to call law enforcement for police dispatch, even if they cannot reach the RP in most cases.
If the MIY misses their alert and does not call the police department, then nobody is going to call law enforcement and request dispatch (unless someone hears the local siren).
If the MIY does receive their alert, then they are performing ECV 100 percent of the time and should only be calling law enforcement for dispatch when they truly believe there is a break-in.
If ECV works as expected, then there should not be an abundance of false alarms called in by the MIY community. Only time will tell after there is enough data to evaluate the issue.
The Trouble with Traveling MIYs
One key challenge of the self-monitoring paradigm is the location of the MIY when they receive an alert and decide to call for police dispatch.
Most people have come to expect that calling 911 from a land line or a cellphone will get them to the correct police department. This presents a problem for the MIY who is traveling when they get an alert. Simply dialing 911 will get them to the law enforcement agency based on the landline or the geo-location of their cellphone. If an MIY is calling 911 from their vacation in Florida to report their alarm in Phoenix, they are going to have a rude awakening when they realize that they are not talking to Phoenix PD.
The law-enforcement agency in Florida is probably going to tell the MIY user, "Sorry, you need to call Phoenix PD. … No I cannot transfer you."
If the MIY user does not know the non-emergency phone number for Phoenix PD they are probably going to be a little unhappy that they decided to go with the MIY plan, as they frantically start calling 411 to get the number for the Phoenix PD.
I think the MIY user probably understands that there are risks associated with the MIY.
This leads me to an interesting twist on subscription services such as professional monitoring "on demand," an increasingly popular option among security dealers and alarm station operators.
The MIY might not want to pay for professional monitoring every day, all year long. But they might want to spring for the service "on demand" while they are out of town. Monitoring stations are beginning to provide this pay-as-you-go service to dealers and end-users alike. The MIY customer can activate professional monitoring at the press of a button on their app. The service is priced at a premium compared to year-round subscriptions.
DIY-MIY Is Not a Long-Term Problem for Law Enforcement
I do not see DIY-MIY becoming a huge problem for law enforcement as long as law enforcement has a good alarm ordinance that covers all of the possible combinations of DIY-MIY and defines an alarm system in a manner that leaves wiggle room to include all of the possible types of DIY systems that the Internet of Things (IoT) has to offer.
In preparation to teach other law-enforcement alarm coordinators about the DIY-MIY at the Arizona Alarm Association Conference, I came across several devices being sold on the Internet and in retail stores that are "non-traditional" DIY-MIY security systems.
The IoT has transformed the simple into the remarkable with products such as a wall clock with a built-in motion-activated camera and DVR that sends alerts via Wi-Fi to a phone app that allows the user to view recorded or live streaming video.
A security system is not just a control panel with a keypad and intrusion detection devices anymore. It is any electronic device that causes a local alarm or transmits any signal or data via any path to an off-site location, where the signal is used to alert persons to the activation, which may result in the person contacting authorities (private guard service or public police dispatch) to respond and investigate the cause of the alarm activation.
DIY Won’t Increase False Alarms
I also think that the DIY-MIY issue will not have a huge impact on the number of false alarms, ironically for the same reasons that security dealers lament about customer retention.
The security industry has had to deal with customers who get upset and stop using their alarm system after they get a few false alarm fees from the local law-enforcement agency.
Traditional security customers often want out of their alarm contracts and fight to get out of them or do not renew them.
The security industry is looking at additional services to offer clients in an effort to make "sticky customers" who do not stop using their alarm system or cancel as soon as their contract ends.
Now think of this same phenomenon as it relates to DIY-MIY. The DIY-MIY customers are typically looking at the expense of the system and their ability to install or monitor the alarm equipment themselves to save a few dollars. If the DIY-MIY system is causing false alarms and costing them money when they have nobody to blame but themselves, then they will fix it or at least they will stop calling law enforcement to request police dispatch because they do not want to pay the false alarm fees.
I do not see the DIY-MIY becoming a chronic false alarm problem for a law-enforcement agency that has the ability to charge the DIY-MIY user for false alarms.
The Irony of ‘Bad DIY Installs’
Another issue raised by the professional security industry is that the quality of a DIY installation will be poor compared to a “professional installation” by a trained alarm tech.
I say that it all depends on the “professional” doing the installation and their training or lack thereof. Who has more “pride of ownership” for the alarm installation -- the DIY guy or the lick-and-stick alarm tech that has to install several systems each day to make any money?
Who is more likely to actually take time to read the installation instructions that come with the alarm equipment before they install it? The joke I hear from alarm techs (usually when I am calling them out on a bad installation) is that the installation instructions are just packing material.
What about the alarm tech working under a dealer program that only has to guarantee their installation work for the first 90 days after the account goes online to avoid a return call, chargeback or penalty? Why 90 days for the dealer’s installation liability and a year or more for the attrition chargeback policy?
If your company has any pride in what it does and your installation quality is high and you are installing quality equipment, then why not hold the dealer accountable for a year or more for both installation liability and attrition?
I guess this works for some dealer business models when your reputation does not matter because you are only concerned about RMR and you lose a few hundred accounts out of a thousand installs, right?
So if the “professional installation” stays on the wall past the initial 90-day period, then the dealer is off the hook and the national alarm company has to send out a corporate tech to fix the problems after that. Do you then bill the subscriber for the service call to correct a messed-up original installation? I get these kinds of phone calls from pro-install customers and I have seen the installations.
I have also had the opportunity to coordinate and sit through a post-employment interview with one of the companies that runs a very large national dealer program when their Arizona Registrar of Contractors (ROC) license qualifier pulled his license and walked away. The ROC representative had been disgusted with the company after they kept shutting him down when he complained about the quality of the “dealer” installs that the corporate service team had to go out and fix.
It was amazing to have a corporate representative from the dealer program sit at this meeting and listen to the tale of woes about the problems with the dealer installations and internal issues, and then promise me that he would make some serious changes. I thought I was finally getting somewhere. Unfortunately not much has changed.
As the alarm inspector, I have seen the worst of the worst installations by “professional” alarm companies that have “dealer” or “tech issues.” I know that there are an abundance of professional alarm companies in the security industry doing quality work day in and day out, but for the security industry to claim in general that a DIY installation is probably a poor quality installation just because it is a DIY installation, and turn a blind eye to “known installation problems” within their own industry, does not sit well with me.
I think I’ll take my chances with a DIY that has a little pride of ownership.
Final Word on Alarm Response
At the end of the day it is still up to the local law-enforcement agency to decide if they will respond to alarm calls and how they will prioritize alarm calls.
Law enforcement will be scrutinized for how they handled the alarm call by the 6 o'clock news.
It will not be a good day in the media for that law-enforcement agency if they took an alarm call from a professional CMS and dispatched officers to a false burglar alarm, and at the same time refused to take an alarm call or respond to a valid burglar alarm call from the DIY-MIY.
Imagine how that would look with the DIY-MIY person in front of the camera explaining how the police department did not respond and their house got cleaned out. When something like this happens, then the PD chiefs who report to the city council and the local sheriffs that have to run for re-election will have to answer for their policies. It is never fun to be in the hot seat.
There will always be false alarms from someone -- professionally installed, professionally monitored, DIY or MIY. I believe my job as the burglar alarm inspector for Phoenix PD is secure.
Postscript: Changing Alarm Response Lingo
By the way, some of the long-standing phrases used by the security industry are in transition.
The term ECV or enhanced call verification is in transition because the law enforcement community is taking ownership of alarm "verification."
From the law-enforcement perspective, when dealing with the security industry, a "verified alarm" is not false. It is an alarm activation where there is an element of a crime in progress that can be articulated.
The Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA) will be releasing the new name for ECV in the CSAA CS-V-01-20XX Alarm Verification and Notification Procedures (DRAFT, Version April 13, 2015). The new name for this process will be Enhanced Call Confirmation (ECC). This terminology transition by the security industry and law enforcement includes a change to the meaning of "Verified Response" (which used to mean that the police will not respond to an alarm call) by replacing it with "Non-Response" so that in the future "Verified Response" will be related to a higher priority alarm activation using "verification" technologies to determine if a crime is in progress.
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Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson Email Julie at email@example.com
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