Columnists Bob Carroll The Best Policy: How good is your alarm system?

The Best Policy: How good is your alarm system?

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A layman’s explanation of Line Security

You are a parent and your daughter is about to leave on her first long-distance driving trip.  You’ve given your permission and you know she is a good driver; still you are apprehensive because she must make the drive overnight and alone.

Your daughter will have her cell phone with her and she promises that if she has any trouble at all on the long drive she will not hesitate to call you; and also that she will call you as soon as she arrives at her destination.

How do you feel about this trip?  Will you be able to sleep?  Is there something wrong with this plan?

Your daughter is driving through a desolate part of her trip and the “check engine” light comes on.  She drives on, there being no apparent problem with the car and also not knowing what she would do about it if there were something wrong.  Eventually, she detects the noxious odor of burning rubber and in the darkness sees smoke coming from under the hood.  She pulls to the side of the road just as the engine dies of its own accord.

She has been passing time as she drove by chatting with a friend on her cell phone.  The talk has been good for keeping her alert, but she did not have the phone charging and now the battery is dead.  It is 1:00 a.m.

Under your plan for safety, “no news is good news!”  So how will you know that there is a problem?  Your first indication will be when she fails to call and report her safe arrival – much later in the morning.  You’ve put all of the responsibility for notifying you of a problem in her hands, and now she is unable to contact you.

Could there have been a better plan – one which put you more in control?

You tell your daughter before she leaves that rather than simply wait for a call from her if she encounters any problems, you will call her regularly throughout her trip.  You will check on her at least every hour, if not more frequently - depending on where she is and how her trip is going.  You will even quiz her to see how the car is performing and if her phone is plugged in and charging.

Now when the car breaks down, you know within a few miles where your daughter is; she has a cell phone with a strong battery, and she may even be able to give you a mile marker.  You call the State Police and help is soon on its way to her.  She is safe.

A jeweler purchases an alarm system for his jewelry store.  There are magnetic contacts on all of the doors, motion detection throughout the store, and even special units that respond to the sound of breaking glass.  If any of the detection devices is triggered after the alarm is set, the system will immediately seize the telephone line and send digitized information about the attack to a monitoring facility known as a Central Station.

Just like the daughter who is driving at night; if there is any problem, the system will call.

Should the phone line not be available to the system, there is even a backup means of communication that uses something other than the “hard line” telephone system.

And surely Central Station personnel are always “there,” ever ready to receive that “trouble” phone call from the alarm system – just like the parent.

On a Saturday night, burglars attack the jewelry store, entering by a means that does not open a door or break a glass.  They reach the heart of the alarm system, the control box, without triggering a motion detector.  Disarming the system is not as difficult or technical as one might expect, especially for a “pro.”

And like the parent with a daughter in peril, the Central Station is still ready to receive the call that never comes.

With the alarm disabled, the crooks bring in their tools and start to work on the jeweler’s burglary-rated TL-30 safe.  Motion detectors still detect, but now those trip signals to the control box fall on “deaf ears”  because the control unit is “dead.”

In less than half an hour, and using tools easily available at any hardware store, the yeggs (safecrackers) create a large gaping hole in the side of the safe and scoop out the contents. 

Fast forward to Monday or Tuesday morning.  The jeweler opens his store and notices that his alarm is not on and feels a sense of foreboding.  “Could I have forgotten to set it?”  Then with disbelief he sees the mess in the back room... and the utter destruction of his safe.  He is overcome by the stark realization that all of his merchandise, including his customers’ property and memo merchandise is gone.

In September the Texas Jewelers Hotline reported six recent attempts as of that date, which included three successes, since the first of the year in that state alone – including six- and seven-figure losses.

Why are jewelry store burglaries on the rise?  In response to burglary crime in the ‘80s, the jewelry industry realized that fire safes were easily defeated and began upgrading to burglary rated safes; i.e., safes tested by Underwriters Laboratories against burglary attack rather than fire.  Also alarm technology improved and jewelers got better alarm systems.

So, for the next 20 years real burglary attacks on jewelry stores diminished, other than the “Smash, Grab, and Run” variety (throw a rock through a window, rush in and grab what’s available, and run away before the cops come).

But while the rated safes that many jewelers moved up to were a big improvement for the time, the fact remains that UL only tests the door and framing around the door in the TL-15 and TL-30 tests; the body of the safe is not tested.  Also those tests do not include use of the oxyacetylene (“welder’s”) torch.  Thus manufacturers predictably put their best work into the fronts of these safes, with less attention given to the design and material of the back, top, and sides.  The crooks know this!  [Note: a safe that is rated “TRTL-30” does include a torch test.]

Alarm technology has changed dramatically over the last several years.  Almost completely gone are the dedicated “Direct Wire” systems which used leased phone wires to communicate to a Central Station or the Police Department.  Today many systems send information digitally over standard phone lines (less expensive than dedicated lines) and provide more details to the monitoring facility about alarm trips.  And such systems are often backed up with a secondary means of communication (cellular or radio) in case the phone line is compromised. 

But digital communication with a back-up is still completely controlled at the jewelry store, and is based on a presumption that the system remains operational.   IF the thieves take down the system before entering, and there are many instances where they have, then the monitoring facility is like the parent, assuming that everything is fine unless there is a call - and the call never comes.

There is another level of alarm communication – a technology that may have been the difference between the successful and unsuccessful burglaries reported by the Texas Hotline.

The system is called “Line Security” by UL, and it takes the initiative of the Central Station checking on the premises system on a regular basis – all night and all weekend long.  Like the parent who says, “no, it is I who will be calling you - frequently.”

In effect, it is the monitoring facility calling your store alarm during the night as if to ask, “are you out there and are you alright?” to which there must be a response - “yes, I’m here and everything is fine.”  Interrogate  . . .  Response.  The absence of a response is the first sign of possible trouble at the store.

It is like a game of ping-pong in which the alarm company is the perpetual server.  The monitoring company serves the ball, “ping!”  Your store alarm system returns the serve, “pong!” And so the game continues all night long, with a new serve occurring at a prescribed interval – not just once a night or once an hour – but much more frequently than that.  The alarm industry refers to this as “polling.” 

Today, a very effective means of Line Security communication uses a jeweler’s Internet connection – which means that it is available to any jewelry store that has an Internet presence.

How do burglars know whether a system has Line Security?  It doesn’t matter.  Thieves will attack a store and “take down” the alarm system (including the so-called “back-up” unit) and they wait.  If there is Line Security, then the absence of a “pong” after the store has been “pinged” signals that there is trouble at the store and police or guards are sent to investigate.  The crooks realizing the alarm system is still “alive” abort to select another target.  If no one comes, the thieves enter and set to work on the safe.

Margin for Error

An Internet alarm system does not automatically poll at the rate required for Line Security unless it is set to do so.  The same equipment may be set to poll once every 12 or 24 hours, or not at all - making it no more secure than non-Internet systems.  The system must be set by the alarm company for Line Security protocol, as defined by UL.

Talk to your alarm technician; find out what kind of communication link exists between your store and the Central Station.  Does the monitoring facility only receive information from your store alarm system?   In other words, are dispatchers ready to respond but only if there is a “call” from your system?  Or is there constant two-way communication going on – regular and frequent test signals from the monitoring facility to your alarm system to assure that it is “alive an well?” 

And the next question – if polling by the Central Station is taking place, how frequently does it occur?

If the answer is that it polls once every so many hours, that is not Line Security.

And if you do not have Line Security

Then take measures to protect all of the space around your alarm control box.  Don’t assume that a person would have to walk past a motion detector to reach it – professional thieves are smarter than that.  Use passive infra-red motion detectors to directly cover the box itself plus any antennae that are part of the system, and also any crawl space above (very important considering the nature of many recent burglaries).

Then be aware when you respond to a call after your alarm has gone off that “real” criminals don’t use doors and windows at a jewelry store; they come from the roof or from the place next door.  In one case, the thieves entered a vacant building three stores away and meticulously worked their way through each one until they reached the jewelry store.  And since the jeweler’s safe was on an outside wall, the rest was easy.

Reminder about safes.  Safes that are tested on all six surfaces are much more secure than those that are not.  And today “6-sided” safes cost relatively little more than the door-only tested safes.  The UL tag tells you which are which:  a TL-30 safe is a door-test safe, and only common hand tools were used in the test; a TRTL 30X6 safe was tested in its entirety – with a torch (“TR”) as well as hand tools. 

Use your insurance agent and carrier as a resource; and always make certain that your security is in compliance with your insurance requirements.

Bob Carroll of Robert G. Carroll and Associates is a Certified Insurance Counselor and independent agent who has been insuring members of the jewelry industry for more than 30 years, representing Jewelers Mutual and other carriers in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Tennessee.  “Jewelry insurance isn’t just what we do; it’s all we do.”  See www.robertgcarroll.com; or contact Bob at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 
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