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Alarm Systems - In three parts

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  • Alarm Systems - In three parts

    For the past several years, magazines catering to our profession have published articles dealing with the false alarm problems. There is a spate of enacted and proposed legislation at the state and local levels, ostensibly to remedy the problems. The impact of all of this on the security industry and the alarm system owners is cause for concern, constructive, and measured response. The subject has made the newspapers and national television.

    The law enforcement jurisdictions recommend the fining of either the alarm service or the alarm owner. Still others have proposed not responding to a government building, an industrial complex, business, or residence where more than five false alarms have occurred within a specified time period. One jurisdiction in State of Maryland has implemented the use of a "900" telephone number between the alarm central station and the police department. Do you think they are serious? How many direct police connections that you know about have been removed? How many direct connections do you think have been installed?

    The Dallas Morning News in an article written by Dave Levinthal published December 15, 2005 proclaimed, ?Dallas Alarm Ordinance Finalized: Verified Response for Businesses.?
    The North Texas Alarm Association has stated, ?Verified Response is No Response.? He expresses his disappointment with such a move as have some business owners. Utilization of police resources is marginalized and that is the tragedy of all of this. Therefore:

    Just what constitutes a false alarm? Who says it's a false alarm? How do they or we know that it is a false alarm? We will explore these questions, provide some insights, a different spin, and propose some solutions. This dilemma affects all of us in the security profession to some extent. An ounce of alarm prevention is worth a pound of alarm cure.

    Early in my assignment in the Court Security Division, Systems Branch, U.S. Marshals Service, now called the Judicial and Court Security, Judicial Security Systems, we faced the false alarm problem on a daily basis. We borrowed a page from our experiences while assigned to the U.S. Army Materiel Development and Readiness Command (DARCOM), now called U.S. Army Materiel Command (AMC). Alarms were divided into three categories: 1) actual, 2) false, 3) nuisance.

    We have been saying for several years that there is no such thing as an unexplained alarm. There are still too many people who do not believe that. We were successful in getting the Department of Defense (DOD) to adopt the terms False Alarm and Nuisance Alarm back in 1983. The definitions were: "anything that affects the electronics of the system or the transmission lines constitutes a false alarm" and "any sensor response to unintentional stimuli constitutes a nuisance alarm." To further pinpoint the origin of an alarm, we recommended to the "security community-the system" as we did ourselves; put a power monitor on the circuit. The faith of the most optimistic of us was severely shaken by what we observed. As you may recall, it was during this period that the U.S. Army was in the process of installing exterior perimeter alarm systems at special weapons depots and interior alarm systems at chemical weapons facilities. "Remember the Seneca Saga," was the battle cry at the time. Some of us, including U.S. Army Colonel Charles A. Hammaker, Jr., Chief, Security Office DARCOM, have the scars to prove it.

    The solution, I believe, is threefold:

    ONE. The Equipment. We must have Reliable, Affordable, Available, Maintainable, and Expandable equipment or RAAME.

    RELIABLE ── Regardless of how much the system or components cost, if it is not reliable, working when needed, what good is it? If it alarms every whipstitch, what is its worth? What holy writ or old military saw concludes there must be an alarm every time there is lightning!

    AFFORDABLE ── The first law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot. If the client cannot afford to buy the system what good is it? What is the hourly maintenance charges that will have to be paid when the system is out of warranty? Can the client afford the repairs or will the system stand idle while the client saves up? The notion in the private sector, now being visited upon governments, is you cannot spend $1,000.00; to close up a $10.00, hole.

    AVAILABLE ── Is what we want available when we need it? We must be careful when we shop to be sure that what will fulfill our mission needs, will be there when we need it, and not off somewhere, waiting for the engineering group to release it. Then we need to buy what we need from someone else.

    MAINTAINABLE ── If the client cannot maintain the system, what good is it? We cannot get caught in the lure that states: It's reliable when it works, but it seldom works. And to rub salt in the wound, it takes three weeks from the first phone call before we see or hear from the repairperson.

    EXPANDABLE ── If newer technology comes along or the manufacturer develops an updated version of the sensor or control board; can the client's system be retrofitted to stay current? Or must the client be satisfied with a system that will be obsolete in a couple of years, meaning the purchase of new equipment?

    TWO. The Client. Ensuring that the site has been carefully examined and prepared are crucial to the successful operation of an alarm system. More importantly, we need to instill in the owner or operator a high degree of confidence in the system. Doing all of this means the occupants must not be made to feel like prisoners. The term "user friendly" is in vogue. This does not mean the occupants can do anything they want in or to the protected business or residence. Whatever they do to or in the protected spaces could have an impact upon having a false or nuisance alarm free system. The client must be well trained in the functions and operation of the entire system. Training includes a short list of do's and don'ts, religiously followed, which goes a long way to eliminate both false and nuisance alarms. The client is 100% responsible for nuisance alarms. Why? Nuisance alarms are always avoidable. Close and lock all of the windows and doors. Space protection, depending upon sensor selection, means nothing flapping in the breeze when the heating, ventilation, or air conditioning (HVAC) is running. The system must be Armed and Disarmed in accordance with the instructions provided by the manufacturer. The client can be responsible for false alarms after the system has been correctly installed. The installation of a new electrical service and the introduction or rearrangement of other emitters are two of the offenders that immediately come to mind.

  • #2
    Part Two

    When this is fully explained and thoroughly understood, then there will truly be peace in the valley.

    THREE. The Site Survey and Site Preparation. I have maintained for years that in the installation of alarm systems (industrial, commercial, and residential), half of the technical battle is won with a thorough site survey, which includes environmental factors along with testing for the effects of inductive, conductive, and radiative interference.

    What does all of this mean? It means asking a lot of questions and doing a lot of hard work. It also means the people who are responsible for the system's design must work closely with the installers before and during the installation. The following is illustrative of what must be done. In what type of an environment, electrical and physical, will the alarm system be placed and expected to operate efficiently? For us to know, understand, and fully appreciate the impact of the environmental conditions on sensor equipment, especially those that are computer enhanced, the following information must be meticulously obtained and confirmed for accuracy:

    What is the condition of the building's electrical system? This includes everything from the building's transformers and switchboards, bonding and grounding networks, circuit breaker panels, switches and receptacles, and all of the wiring in between all of these points. Electrical noise from one part of the building will travel through the building's wiring and interfere or damage electronic equipment. Loose connections, in addition to causing voltage and current losses also cause arcing, which is electrical noise. From my experience as a physical security specialist/inspector while working first for the Air Force, then the Army, Navy, and finally the U.S. Marshals Service, I found two disturbing constants. The majority of sites had incorrectly wired AC receptacles and were using light duty use residential grade receptacles. Connecting a sensitive alarm system to these receptacles severely downgraded their performance.

    When was the electrical system last upgraded or underwent a major modification? A quick answer may come from the question, "How often are the same incandescent light bulbs replaced?" If the answer is weekly, every two weeks, or even monthly, there may be a serious problem, which requires someone's immediate intervention.

    Is there a lot of computer equipment installed throughout the building? Chances are there may be a great deal of mutual interference, harmonic distortion, and the resultant neutral conductor heat build up which means inefficient operation and, has in the past, resulted in fires.

    Do we know what kinds of electrical equipment are powered from the circuit breaker panel serving the area where we would like to install our alarm equipment? If there are large demand loads that repeatedly turn on and off, consideration should be given to the selection of a different circuit breaker panel or the installation of a new panel or a sub-panel. If the panel directory is not marked, or worse, improperly marked, we may never know and connect the system to an incompatible power source.

    Do we know the condition of the circuit breaker panel that is to provide the electrical power to the console or other alarm components? If the panel is not properly maintained, we could have problems in getting the alarm system to operate properly.

    Is there physical space and electrical capacity (ampacity) for an additional breaker? Lack of physical space could be a problem corrected by adding sub-panel. We may have physical space, but cannot add another circuit breaker because electrical capacity will be stretched beyond safe limits.

    Will we be able to use an existing electrical circuit and receptacle or will we have to install one or the other or both? Before we can use the existing electrical circuit, we will have to know what else shares that circuit. We would be well advised to have a dedicated circuit installed for the alarm console. Many manufacturers? recommend that we do that, but invariably we don't. It has been my experience that depending upon the distance of the circuit between the circuit breaker box and the receptacle, radio frequency interference or RFI, will cause us operational problems. When RFI is severe enough, damage is done. Depending upon the environment, a great deal of power conditioning and interference filtering may be needed.

    Where are the console and sensors to be located? Are the console and sensors inside a building where the temperature and humidity can be controlled? If the temperature is too high or too low, or the humidity too high or too low, the equipment will not work as designed. The console or sensors will go into a degraded mode. Just as with electrical instability, the window of vulnerability widens.

    Are the console and sensors exposed to the elements? If so, what precautions will be taken to insure against the effects of rain, salt water, and dust? Depending on the location the equipment may have weatherized and heavy-duty air filters used.

    Site preparation is far more complex and comprehensive than the client may imagine. What was detected yesterday may not be detected today because something has changed in the protected area. Sensor placement and wire runs require the correct answers to the following questions.

    In the place where you want to put the console or a sensor, do you know where ALL of the electrical wiring and or conduits are located? Ceiling? Walls? Floors? Really!?

    When an alternating current or AC travels from one conduit back through another, and in many instances through the building's structural steel, a ground loop is created. This ground loop creates fluctuating magnetic fields that are received by the sensor or at the console, generating a false alarm.

    In the place you have selected for a sensor location or for the security console, how close will it be to electrical transformers, switching gear, banks of electrical circuit breakers, or other emitters?

    Voltage and phase can and do change. When there is electrical activity nearby, these changes created by that activity might effect the sensor's processing abilities. Currents may create electromagnetic fields that are so powerful that despite conditioning and filtration, the sensor is overwhelmed.

    Metal lath used in plastered walls and ceilings, coils of electrical or telephone wiring in the ceilings, under the floor and in the walls, metal tracks for suspended ceilings and the loops of wire suspending them, decorative metal circles in the floor, ceilings and walls, metal hand- rails that contain large or long loops, and metal construction studs can cause interference. If the handrail is made of steel of any kind it should be bond-grounded to structural steel. If this is impossible then they should be replaced with aluminum or brass. Can it be said we honestly know where these items are located or their condition? Probably not! If we must have extra wiring, to include equipment wiring, form a figure "8" out of the excess wiring. Eliminate the antenna effect.


    • #3
      Part Three

      Metal lath, tracks, and studs not properly bond-grounded to structural steel, can reradiate various frequencies changing them, enriching them with harmonics, creating even more serious interference problems.

      Modern sensors are immune from the effects of AM, FM, and TV broadcast frequencies. Hand held radios on the other hand could cause interference in some kinds of sensors. We may not be able to control all of these radio transmissions.

      The sensors should not be placed within four feet of any public address speaker. The coils inside the speaker create electromagnetic interference.

      Experience has taught us that sensors do not operate well on a surface that is subject to vibration. Heavy truck traffic can cause this vibration. The sensor's operation may be disrupted from time to time if they are in or near a parking garage.

      If we were fortunate enough to influence the selection of electrical equipment that is to be used from an electrical source connected to the same circuit breaker panel that the alarm system is connected to, my recommendation would be that equipment powered by an induction motor rather than a brush motor. An induction motor creates less electromagnetic interference.

      When power conditioning is mentioned, the first idea that comes to many minds is the surge protector. It is not a surge protector; it's a spike protector. Surge and spike protection are very important, but it requires the right equipment to be effective. It is only one part of what constitutes true power conditioning and we cannot go to a local store and buy a power strip with metal oxide varistors (MOV) and think we are completely safe. When the protection lamp goes, so does the protection. At least some of the manufacturers are honest enough to state, "This device is not a lightning protector."

      True power conditioning must do four things: 1) Reduce all power line disturbances to levels that are harmless to an alarm system. 2) Provide a clean, single point, all-purpose reference ground. 3) Stop disruptive interactivity between noise generating loads. 4) Provide peak current on demand without sacrificing efficiency. Power related problems cause disruption, degradation, and finally destruction. Disruption and degradation contribute to false alarms. Destruction takes out all or a part of the system. It might have given us a false alarm, but it was the last alarm for that particular piece of equipment.

      There is one final piece that remains, the uninterruptible power supply (UPS). Depending on the geographical location and the results of the power survey, UPS could be critical in the avoidance of false alarms. Newer computer based alarm systems need steady power and disruptions, regardless of duration may generate a false alarm. The UPS will fill in the gaps and sags. There are two kinds of UPS' on-line and stand-by. I strongly recommend the use of an on-line model. The stand-by model reacts to a power loss by switching on. While this action may be considered fast, in many instances it?s not fast enough to preclude data loss thereby generating false alarm. With an on-line UPS you hear a "beep" or "chime" when it fills-in a sag. In some instances the action of the UPS is so subtle, there is no indication of a "fill-in."

      As a result of the experiences in my previous career, I was determined to avoid the snarls and snags of bad power. A top-of-the-line power conditioner protects the computer, monitor, printer, and facsimile machine. The cost is roughly $100.00 an ampere. I consider that good insurance considering the costs in buying new equipment not to mention the time spent recreating files. Another conditioner protects the telephone/facsimile line. The horror stories about overheating neutrals, the recent changes in the National Electrical Code, and the advice I received, industrial grade receptacles, 10-gauge wire, and a 20-ampere circuit breaker were used when the computer circuit was installed.

      In summary, the questions we ask the client, the client's answers, our careful analysis and verification of both the questions and the answers can tell us all we need and want to know about the site. Site preparation, correct sensor selection employing the phenomenology compatible with the environment, smart installation techniques (remembering bonding, grounding, and shielding), power conditioning, and UPS, if required, will eliminate the gremlins. Again, the only effective method to determine the existence of noise and other potentially damaging power problems is to use a sophisticated power line monitor.

      In these days of diminishing resources, our clients can no longer afford to employ large security forces to respond to the spurious alarms. We do not have the financial resources to maintain a staff of specialists and installers to check, recheck, and check it again to get it right. Security sensors are touted as force multipliers. They do not fit that definition if they are constantly alarming, and with good reason. The system is reporting what it is supposed to report. Those stimuli should not be there. If our security forces spend the majority of their time in a reactive mode, there will be little time spent in their proactive or preventive role.

      Test everything; retain what is good, discard what is bad.

      Enjoy the day,


      • #4
        Uhh, Bill....Are you working on your doctorate thesis? Just kidding. One question though. You state that nuisance alarms can "always" be avoided. What if a rodent, such as a large rat, runs past a motion/infrared sensor?
        Security: Freedom from fear; danger; safe; a feeling of well-being. (Webster's)


        • #5
          After 40+ years I am still beating that drumb!
          We should always try to use a small pet discriminator in dual sensor technology. Having a infrared sensor looking down the throat of a warm air duct can do it in the middle of the day or at 5 AM when the heating system starts to warm the house for normal occupant movement.
          My dislike is an alarm triggered by lightning or power interruption.
          Enjoy the day and thanks for commenting.


          • #6
            I agree. Even worse: Employee/operator error.
            Security: Freedom from fear; danger; safe; a feeling of well-being. (Webster's)


            • #7
              Originally posted by Bill Warnock
              After 40+ years I am still beating that drumb!
              We should always try to use a small pet discriminator in dual sensor technology. Having a infrared sensor looking down the throat of a warm air duct can do it in the middle of the day or at 5 AM when the heating system starts to warm the house for normal occupant movement.
              My dislike is an alarm triggered by lightning or power interruption.
              Enjoy the day and thanks for commenting.
              I think this is why we're seeing more and more dual mode sensors, and why they're a good thing. Passive IR + Microwave or Ultrasound with Pet Detection. Unless your an exterminator, I don't think you want an alarm going off because Rover sniffs at the sensor.

              The "occidental antenna" problem drives me mad. I have at least 8 high gain, full loop, antennas hanging off the back of my PC. They're the power and data cords. My Wireless Router is located at least 15 feet from any other electrical device, as to avoid interference from the PCs. I think I'll figure eight all my power cords.

              As always, Bill, nice series.
              Some Kind of Commando Leader

              "Every time I see another crazy Florida post, I'm glad I don't work there." ~ Minneapolis Security on Florida Security Law


              • #8
                There is a lot of site inspection and preparation that goes into making a successful alarm installation not the least of which is ridding the site of the "Fortuitous Conductor." Any conductor which may provide an unintended path for intelligible signals; for example, water pipe, wire or cable, metal structural members, and so forth. Examples include, but are not necessarily limited to, metal lath used in plastered walls and ceilings, coils of electrical or telephone wiring in the ceilings, under the floor and in the walls, metal tracks for suspended ceilings and the loops of wire suspending them, decorative metal circles in the floor, ceilings and walls, metal hand rails that contain large or long loops, and metal construction studs. All such conductors should be bond-grounded especially abandoned wiring or cabling if they cannot be removed. All existing wiring or cabling not in active use should be bond-grounded until activation to preclude becoming fortuitous conductors.

                The alarm industry within the security industry would, in my judgment, take fewer hits from public law enforcement and many alarm owners, if, if, if, the site were properly prepared for alarm systems. Tying up valuable police resources in answering countless false alarms not to mention nuisance alarms means taking away these sparce resources from street crimes and other valuable services they render on our behalf.

                Security/alarm company responders could use their limited resources in more productive areas than to answer "cry wolf" calls.

                Thanks for the kind remarks N.A. They are appreciated.
                Enjoy the day,


                • #9
                  Is this lack of training in alarm installation? Do the major certifications cover electrical bonding and grounding of "rogue antenna material," and other spurrious conductors? I think Bill and Geoff would know about this one.

                  I'm wondering if its "cost prohibitive" to do the site workup against such things, then have the installer come in with a few grounding straps, etc. Some things, no, your not going to be able to defeat - such as replacing all those stainless steel staircase handholds with a non-conductive metal.

                  I guess this would be "how much do you want to pay for proper security." The cities and counties are taking putting a band-aid on the problem, obviously, by verified response.

                  Although, I do know of several alarm response companies to whom false alarms are nothing but a cash cow. They're complacent enough that they can send unarmed employees, after all, the alarms are ALWAYS false, now aren't they?

                  Give it time, we'll read about them in the paper.
                  Some Kind of Commando Leader

                  "Every time I see another crazy Florida post, I'm glad I don't work there." ~ Minneapolis Security on Florida Security Law