Origin of a drastically false assumption about actual alarm system status?
July 10, 2007 10:55 AM   Subscribe

Where does the idea come from that an alarm company can actually tell whether the system actually is armed?

I've worked for an alarm system monitoring company for 6 years. In all my experience, there's only been one single system (that 98% of customers do NOT have) that a dispatcher can actually go into right that moment and determine whether the system is armed or not. Very very few people have this system, yet it is "common knowledge" that alarm companies are able to do this, despite being absolutely untrue. Where does the idea come from that alarm companies can tell? Movies?

On all the rest of the systems, the status is only determined by the signals the central station has received in the past even if that was moments ago. There is no way to actually tell if the system is actually armed right this second. If there is a severed connection, such as a clipped phone line (with no radio-based backup)(among thousands of other possibilities), the system very well could be disarmed and we simply wouldn't know. The fact that an alarm company says "the system is armed" is purely a guess providing for an absurd number of assumptions such as the phones being in proper order, etc.

We've had so many cases of people simply failing to hang up their phone properly that prevented the alarm signal from reaching us (because it couldn't dial out), that when we tell them "it isn't armed" they go back to check to discover that it really is armed (and thus get mad at us), we've had to resort to "we show it is not armed" or "the building may not be armed."

Every time we explain why we only "show" that it isn't armed or why it "may not" be, it's like they're brand new every time, and to a lot of people we have to explain it multiple times, as if the "we actually know" assumption is the automatic default.

Or is this simply not the case at other alarm company central stations?
posted by Quarter Pincher to Technology (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Well, it would of course depend on the interval at which the alarm system sends out status info. If the last status was seconds ago and the status reports "armed"... then it's a reasonable guess to say it's armed.

So... for your company, how frequently is alarm status transmitted/ Also, is there an update sent whenever the status is changed - eg when the user arms or disarms the system?
posted by Artful Codger at 11:01 AM on July 10, 2007

Shrug, maybe it's just the nature of my work, but I've always assumed alarm systems were fairly "dumb" and they worked just as you say it works: if the system is manually armed and then tripped, you guys get a signal but if it's not armed, then nothing.

I'd imagine it's just a common misconception that once someone has installed the system, the monitoring company knows all. Especially in cases of technology where the user is somewhat removed from the actual mechanics, this is rather common. I wouldn't be surprised if the vast majority of subscribers who have this wrong notion of how alarm monitoring works, also think of the Internet as a nebulous "place" (like some magical library) rather than just a bunch of computers connected together.
posted by junesix at 11:16 AM on July 10, 2007

I would assume that the alarm companies traffic these myths themselves. They want everyone to think that they know exactly what is going on all the time. Catching people who break into your house is one thing, but the real goal is to keep people from trying; less risk of violence, less property damage, less legal paperwork, less people in jail, it's better for everyone!
posted by aubilenon at 11:49 AM on July 10, 2007

I think it's just confirmation bias. You're talking to people who already need help, which means they have a higher chance of being particularly dim, which means they have a higher chance of misunderstanding an alarm system as a magical device which solves all ill. The people who get it don't call for service as often.
posted by anaelith at 11:52 AM on July 10, 2007

I think you're dealing with a universal problem of supporting a technical system that's used by non-technical people. To most people, "remotely monitored" means that there's a magical instantaneous connection between their system and the central station, and when the mask is peeled away they feel a little lied to. After all, haven't they been paying an extra monthly fee for you to remotely monitor their system, and now you can't even tell them what's going on with it? How can they trust that you'll know if it goes off? (You guys do get a trouble flag if a given system doesn't check in for a while, right? Definitely explain this to people who ask why you don't know the instantaneous system state.)

Of course it makes sense to you and me that any number of things could happen between the phone line the system is connected to and the montoring equipment on your end, but I bet most of your customers don't really understand that the remote monitoring is accomplished via telephone. For them it's just another line item.
posted by contraption at 12:11 PM on July 10, 2007

The term "monitoring company" certainly doesn't help. That implies constant watching, a constant connection. Less than that would be less than complete coverage, as aubilenon answered. If people were aware that it didn't work like that, they'd feel less safe, perhaps?

That'd be my guess, anyway.
posted by Gucky at 12:13 PM on July 10, 2007

Best answer: Sorry if this is a little too inflammatory, but.. To a certain extent, the whole industry is selling snake oil (to the criminals as well as the customers). You shouldn't be surprised at the type of customer it attracts..
posted by Chuckles at 12:47 PM on July 10, 2007

Maybe you're talking about home alarm systems rather than commercial ones, but several of the retail buildings I've worked in have had alarm systems, and the alarm company could at least tell when employees had "coded out" and set the alarm. At one building Alarmex would call the store if the alarm wasn't set by a certain time (I think it was two hours after we were supposed to have closed), and if the person answering the phone couldn't give their code the police would show up.

I know "being able to tell when the alarm was set and by whom" does not equal "being able to tell the building is alarmed at the very minute" but you can see how customers might assume one would equal the other.
posted by Violet Hour at 1:32 PM on July 10, 2007

In the case of better commercial alarms and many residential alarms, many work on "dry pairs," actually spare wire pairs the telephone company installs whenever it is laying cable, and then leases out, often under special alarm tariffs, to alarm companies. So there is constant communication between the alarm office and the on site system. These systems have a somewhat higher monthly maintenance fee, that includes the leased line costs for the "dry pair," which is about another $21.15 (for 2 wire circuits) and/or $31.90 (for four wire circuits) a month here in Florida, over an out of band system that uses your regular phone line, in kind of a DSL system.

Four wire dry pair system signaling is quite flexible, and robust, if you can stand the expense. An alarm company using this, with redundant radio backup, is going to have no problem telling who is doing what, remotely, under any condition short of Armageddon.
posted by paulsc at 2:00 PM on July 10, 2007

Where does the idea come from? I'd say it comes from the industry itself. Look at the commercials running on TV. Hell, they seem to promise everything up to and including tucking you in and letting the cat out. All while they cocoon you in warmly-glowing ones and zeros. And if anyone so much as breathes on your front door, they're calling the cops immediately.
Given the image of ├╝ber-security they present, why wouldn't the consumer assume you would know if the system is armed or not?
posted by Thorzdad at 2:54 PM on July 10, 2007

In addition to what paulsc has said, there's also systems which piggyback out-of-band signalling over the same pair as a normal POTS service. Think like ADSL, except 20 years older and much less sophisticated.

It's cheaper than a dedicated dry pair (the telcos brought it in when the CPE market was deregulated and people rushed away from the cost of dedicated pairs to the much cheaper dial-out systems), and still provides continuous monitoring - every 4 seconds or so, regardless of whether the phone line is in use or not, the alarm sends a data packet to a scanner at the telephone exchange, which is then routed to the appropriate monitoring centre.

It's commonly used around here by banks, government offices, doctors / pharmacies, pubs, and, for some reason, real estate agents.
posted by Pinback at 5:36 PM on July 10, 2007

On preview: you did mention that, paulsc. Sorry. Serves me right for skimming ;-)
posted by Pinback at 5:40 PM on July 10, 2007

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