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Improving the Reliability of Burglar Alarms through Video Verification

We are all painfully familiar with the problem of false alarms affecting daily life—inadvertently activated car alarms and electronic article surveillance (EAS) alarms being triggered at store exits because a tag has not been deactivated, being prime examples. For the most part, these types of false alarms generate a modicum of irritation for those within earshot and have become so commonplace that the presumption these days is that they are false and so nothing need be done beyond hoping the noise will eventually cease.

However, in the realm of commercial burglar alarms, too many false alarms can have a profound impact, particularly in terms of the likelihood/or not of public policing responding to an alarm. Develop a reputation for too many false alarms and a business can quickly end up on a non-response list. This can prove very costly, not least when the alarm is not false and criminals have actually broken into a property and are helping themselves to the stock, unhindered by any intervention from the police.

One way retailers have responded to this issue is to employ third parties to monitor their burglar alarms—in effect acting as a kind of filter between the activating alarm and the police—trying to verify that it is a real event rather than a false alarm. These remote Alarm Response Centers (ARCs) receive notifications of an alarm activation at a premises and try to determine whether it is genuine or not, traditionally doing this by looking for more than one alarm sensor activation or indeed sending somebody to have a look for any signs of a break-in. In terms of the former, this can be tricky to determine, while the latter is undoubtedly time consuming/highly inconvenient and potentially dangerous for the designated key holder (often someone with the store management team). Either way, ARCs have long been dogged with the problem of identifying exactly when a burglary event is really happening.

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The recent ECR Retail Loss study reviewing the use of video technologies in retailing highlighted this particular issue, where one respondent to the research graphically described the problem they had: “We were getting upwards of 70,000 false alarms a week from our burglar alarm systems in our 1,800 sites; we found that air conditioning is a particular trigger of false alarms, as is light reflection and internal doors flapping.” 

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Sensors

In recent years, along with the digitization of video technologies, another significant development has been the extent to which they have increasingly been networked to enable remote monitoring of multiple locations—staff in a central location can ‘see’ into potentially thousands of sites without leaving the comfort of their office.

With respect to burglar alarm monitoring, this is undoubtedly a game changer—is it an intruder attempting to enter the building, or is it simply a case of a flapping door triggering the alarm? Networked video technologies offer this capacity; when an alarm is triggered, a video operator can ‘dial’ into the local video system and review what is happening in real time. Consequentially, a much more informed decision can then be made about whether to raise a response or not.

For a number of respondents to the ECR research, this has had a profound impact, not least dramatically reducing the number of false call outs: “Since November [two months] we have had 500 calls and only two were an actual burglary—mainly in-store decorations setting off the alarm. It has shown how bad our system is and the number of false alarms we are having.” For others, it has also significantly improved the response times of the police through increased confidence in the quality of the information: “this has increased the police response time significantly, once they have got a true positive—they are so used to 80 percent of calls being false—but once you have that visual confirmation then the response time improves significantly.”

Changing the Alarm Monitoring Landscape

This capacity to remotely monitor retail outlets via video is undoubtedly changing not only the business case for installing/upgrading video systems, but also the way in which burglar alarms are monitored and how those tasked with responding react. For instance, one retailer described how, through sensor-activated external video cameras linked with audio speakers, they can now ‘communicate’ with would-be attackers—significantly increasing their sense of risk of apprehension and very often deterring them from committing an offense. They suggested the impact was significant: “… has had a massive effect in terms of the amount of attempted burglaries we have had; we think we are disrupting about 70 percent of break-ins.” As this evidence suggests, it is hard to see a downside to developing more connected and capable video systems in a retail environment—they certainly seem to be able to make the lives of commercial burglars a bit more difficult, which I think we can all agree is an outcome worth applauding!

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Adrian Beck
Adrian Beck

Video Watch is a monthly column written by Professor Adrian Beck sharing insights on the proactive use and impact of video technologies in retail. It reflects the latest research and monthly discussions of the Video Working Group of ECR Retail Loss, the leading global think tank on retail loss. The research commissioned by ECR Retail Loss is supported by independent research grants provided by Genetec and other leaders in retail loss prevention. 

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