Less Alarm for Verified Response

Madison’s Verified Response Ordinance did no harm to most security companies. Some even found ways to prosper.

When Madison’s Verified Response Ordinance was considered, it was panned as another government-imposed cost on business, among other things. But as the practice of verified response has unfolded, it has not only saved the police department thousands of man-hours, it hasn’t really harmed security companies in a dramatic way. In fact, some have used the VRO as an opportunity to offer more value.

Under the ordinance, pushed by the Madison Police Department and in effect since 2007, someone other than a police officer – such as a security firm patrol – is required to physically respond to an alarm at a business and check it out before calling in the law. If there is trouble, the alarm is verified and police are summoned to the scene. Alarms deliberately activated by a person, such as panic buttons, continue to get a first response by the police.

At the time of passage, the Madison Police Department said 98% of all alarms they responded to were false, and they fought for the change because false alarms were a considerable burden on time and resources. Verified Response was pursued to have alarm companies accept some of that burden.

Jason Sweeney, sergeant of training for the Madison Police Department, noted that in the first year the VRO was in effect, there was a slight modification due to a spike in burglaries nationwide linked to a heroin epidemic. That prompted the department to announce it would give officers the option of responding to alarms between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

“We air them and they decide whether to go, so that’s a slight change,” Sweeney said. “Anecdotally, it has freed up a lot of officer time.”

It has freed time both anecdotally and statistically. According to data provided by Madison police, officers responded to 4,457 alarms in 2006, the year before the ordinance went into effect, consuming 1,765 officer hours. In the first year the ordinance was in full effect, officers responded to only 1,578 alarms, which consumed 624 hours of their time.

Those numbers have gradually gone back up, reaching as high as 2,989 alarm responses (1,174 officer hours) in 2010, but are nowhere near pre-ordinance peaks.

In security

Overall, Josh Manring, vice president of Integrated Security SOLUTIONS and president of the Wisconsin Electronic Security Association, said the ordinance has not had a significant negative impact on most alarm companies. “Most companies have contracted with third parties or hired internal staff to provide alarm response service,” he said. “That has been the approach from day one of the ordinance, and continues to be.

“In most cases, this cost is passed through to our customers,” Manring added, “but they always have the option of responding to their own alarms, which we do not recommend, as most customers do not have the training to respond to a potentially dangerous situation.”

 

Manring also credited member companies of the Wisconsin Electronic Security Association, which has worked to educate its Madison customers on avoiding false alarms and helped them maintain their security systems to limit the number of false alarms.

In addition, he noted the majority of dispatch centers have moved to a new standard called Two-Call Verification. Under this approach to verification, an additional call is placed to the end-user’s contact list before police are dispatched. Combined with the proper training of alarm end-users, it has drastically reduced false dispatches nationwide, said Manring.

On patrol

James Mankowski, president, JBM Patrol & Protection Corp., had plenty of experience with verified response in Milwaukee, which passed a similar ordinance a few years before Madison. 

Mankowski said he did not lose local customers, noting that his service to commercial clients is more of a convenience. “You own a business and you’ve got to get up at 6 a.m. to start your routine,” he explained. “The last thing you want to do is go to your building at 2 a.m. because the alarm is going off for no particular reason [false alarm]. So over the years, we had always marketed the service as more of a convenience.”

Regulations can take one of two forms – burdensome cost driver or business opportunity. Fortunately for Mankowski, he had plenty of experience with verified response in Milwaukee, so he had an approach in mind. 

JBM’s marketing strategy centered on increasing its presence and getting to alarms fast. As he did in Milwaukee, he broke Madison into segments and, believing that having someone on site waiting for alarms would not be financially feasible, he committed to having people on the street in each segment of town, ready to respond. Two patrol cars were added to what the company already had.

In Mankowski’s view, the ideal response time is within 10 minutes, but given factors like inclement weather and traffic flow – unlike police, these cars have to obey the speed limit at all times – that’s not always possible. “There are alarm companies out there with one guy in Madison chasing alarms,” he said. “That’s okay in theory, but if you can’t get there in 10 to 15 minutes, you might as well not even go. Realistically, that is a long time for a break-in.”

Part of the staffing question is dictated by time of day. Armed with internal staffing studies, Mankowski knew the hours between 3 p.m. and 11 a.m., when most business alarms are set, is the peak time for response calls. “That’s when we stepped up our increased presence,” he said. “When I knew the ordinance was coming, and based on my experience and based on the number of calls to the Madison Police Department, I knew between 3 and 11 was going to be our busiest time. We had to tweak it a bit, but we were on target in terms of meeting the needs of the people that hire us.”

In addition, JBM targeted certain businesses in the area and sold them property patrol service “with the understanding that if something were to come up, we could respond to an alarm,” he added. “So yes, we did expand our business.” 

According to Mankowski, JBM Patrol responds to more alarms than any company in the state because it serves all of Milwaukee. In Milwaukee, the company had to segment the city into service regions because the city mandates a 30-minute response time. Since his Milwaukee office is located near Miller Park – good luck getting anywhere that fast in Milwaukee Brewers traffic – having patrols on the street is not optional. JBM hired four people per shift in Milwaukee because “if you’re going to get there and actually have a chance of keeping the customer happy, you have to get there fast,” Mankowski noted. “The only way to do that in Milwaukee is have more people out there.”

Customer education is still the best way to minimize false alarms. Even with the initial training that alarm companies conduct with the staff of client businesses, staff turnover requires constant training vigilance. JBM has a protocol for such events, which begins with finding the reason for the false alarm, usually employee error. At the end of the shift, the responding officer will prepare a report for the employer explaining what happened and how to avoid a repeat, and it’s up to the employer to educate his or her staff.

Been there, done that

Some alarm companies had more adjustments to make than others. Shawn Smith, president and CEO of MPI Protective Services, runs a company that has been responding to alarms for 20 years in multiple jurisdictions. He noted that many police departments still respond no matter what, but the larger the city, the more likely it will have some kind of verified response.

When the Madison ordinance was passed, MPI picked up 10% more alarms as a result. “It had a small impact, not a large one,” Smith said. “There was probably an initial small surge, but it’s pretty much mellowed out now.”

MPI also divides its geographic territories, following much the same protocol that a law enforcement agency would. The main difference is that when his patrols have verified the legitimacy of an alarm, they are not going to enter a building and confront a suspect because that situation requires a police response. They will monitor what’s happening, but they don’t want to run the risk of tampering with evidence at a crime scene.

“We do something similar with our patrol division that a police department would do, it’s just that businesses pay us to shake their doors, to escort employees to their car, to keep an eye on their parking lot, and to keep an eye on their building because police are already busy and cannot guarantee, like the Sheriff of Mayberry, that they can go out and shake doors,” Smith noted. “We kind of pick up that line of business.

“In between shaking those doors, we respond to burglar alarms. Sometimes with older alarms, thunderstorms or power failures can surge your alarms. Obviously, we keep people and supervisors on call in case we get a surge. In a lot of cases, we are the ones that lock the building up and reset the alarm, and that cuts down dramatically on the false alarms.”

In Smith’s view, security is a necessary expense, but one that can be managed. MPI will charge $25 per month for a retainer fee, but the price goes up for business clients that don’t do a good job educating their workforce on avoiding false alarms. “If the alarm goes off once or twice a year, we’re not going to nickel and dime somebody,” Smith said, “but then we charge $40 per month for more than two a year. Businesses have got to take a look at that expense. For a Dairy Queen, that could be a fair amount of money.”

However, there are some businesses that for a number of different reasons – old alarm systems, the lack of coordination with employees – face fines for false alarms in jurisdictions without a VRO. The alarm industry has tried to minimize these alarms by calling the site first before calling emergency responders, but still there are companies with a lot of false alarms that get fined regularly. “That is where we see a surge in business, just because they have so many people on that alarm going in, and perhaps 50 or 60 employees with access to it,” Smith explained. “Rather than paying police fines, it’s better just to have the security company respond.”

 

Since verification is taken care of with service requiring the security firm to respond to an alarm, he echoed Manring’s advice for business owners to leave responding to the professionals. If there is a verified response, generally MPI sends more than one patrol, and the extent of their training is considerable. 

“These officers are trained, they are armed, they are radio dispatched, and they have to go through a fairly long training process,” Smith noted. “One of our patrol officers, besides having to have military experience or have their college degree done, has to go through about 120 hours of training through a field training officer process before they are allowed to be in that patrol car and respond to these types of things.”

In retrospect

Mankowski, a part-time police officer for the Village of Belleville who supports the VRO, admitted that people in the alarm industry have mixed views of verified response. Some feel that if they sell an alarm, police should respond and investigate; others understand that police departments, in an era of tight budgets, are looking to gain efficiencies, too. “I say we have to have law enforcement doing law enforcement things,” he stated. “Tying an officer up for a false alarm because you didn’t train an employee is a complete waste of city resources.”

Smith, who is a former law enforcement officer, also is sympathetic to police departments and their staffing and resource issues. He contends that 99% of business alarms are false. “What serious police work does that false alarm take away from if police are not patrolling or preventing crime in some other area of town?” Smith asked. “Madison is having problems downtown. Is that [false alarm] situation taking resources off the street and taking away from addressing State Street problems? I was a law enforcement officer in three counties, and alarms were a problem.

“When you get into commercial environs, police are not your security. They are there in a law enforcement capacity. As far as the internal security of your business, I’m in the libertarian camp. I think that is the job of the business owner or the general manager.”

Manring thinks steeper fines would have gone a long way toward prompting businesses to be more proactive in avoiding false alarms. At the time the VFO was passed, the city had a system of fines that was so low it was considered by some to be a cost of doing business. Under the fines, established in 1983, the citation for one to three false alarms was $73; four to seven false alarms resulted in a charge of $107.

“False alarms are always an issue that takes time away from police, and our industry needs to work with their customers and the police to reduce them as much as possible,” Manring acknowledged. “Fine-based ordinances are extremely effective, as they give the end-user a strong motivation to contact their alarm company to correct any issues they may be having with their systems, or work with their employees to properly train them on the use of the system.

“In the end, each community needs to decide what is best for their police departments and citizens.” 

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