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CONSUMER TO CATCH A THIEF

The latest word on burglar alarms
By Si Dunn |

IDIDNT’SEE or hear the burglar until he had advanced four steps inside my apartment and had discovered, to his shock, that someone was home on a workday afternoon. I had just moved to Dallas from a small town in which people seldom locked their doors. I believed in locking mine, though, even on a bright Tuesday that I had taken off to read some novels. But locking and latching the door had seemed a bit much. It was something I planned to do at dusk.

“May I help you?” I asked, spilling wine, popcorn, books and pillows all over the couch and coffee table as I sat up with a start. Ridiculous words to blurt out to a scraggly young picklock. Absolutely absurd words to say to a criminal who might now feel obliged to kill me.

“Oh, excuse me!” the burglar stammered as he backed up, ashen-faced. “I thought nobody was home!” A well-used screwdriver fell from his grimy field jacket as he turned and fled. I scooped it up, brandished it like a sword and charged after him in my sock feet. I felt like a one-man Light Brigade until he stopped in the parking lot, jammed his right hand in his jacket pocket and made a bulge that may or may not have been a pistol.

Shaking, I retreated home, locked everything, armed myself with a rusty ice pick and a vicious steak knife, and called the police. Several patrolmen made a search of the neighborhood, but the best description I could give them-long hair, Army-surplus field jacket-fit millions, male and female.

I stayed awake all night, leaping up from my bed and waving weapons at the slightest sound. The next morning, I phoned the office, said I was sick and took off for the nearest hardware store. I bought batteries, hookup wire, buzzers, toggle switches and assorted pieces of brass and copper and spent the day rigging a homemade burglar alarm system to my doors and windows. It was crude, but it worked. Open something, and it made loud sounds, like the end of recess at an elementary school. As soon as I finished testing it, I collapsed into bed and slept through the night with great peace of mind. Of course, it only worked when I was at home. The fear that I would be ripped off while I was at the office finally drove me to break my apartment lease. I moved to a small suburban complex where the owner-manager puttered around her building all day and noisily kept tabs on her tenants’ arrivals, departures and visitors.

Ten years ago, security alarms were the domain of businesses, banks and collectors of valuable artworks, gems or coins. “It used to be only the rich who had them [alarms] in their homes,” says Ray Cherry, director of marketing for Smith Alarm Systems. “Now we are selling home systems to people in all parts of town.” Dallas companies are buying home systems as perks for key executives; suburbanites in $60,000 tract homes are having alarms installed; and security systems for townhouses, condominiums and apartments are a fast-growing trend, Cherry says.

Support Services Group (SSG), a California-based research company, estimates that nearly 20,000 residences in the Dallas/Fort Worth area now are equipped with home security systems. (Dallas city officials confirm that they are seeing a steady increase in the number of new residential alarm systems, both in single-family dwellings and apartments.) According to SSG’s recent study, three-fourths of the residential alarm systems in the Dallas/Fort Worth area are “monitored’-linked by telephone lines, cable- TV lines or radio signals to control rooms or answering services that can quickly notify police or fire departments. The remaining 25 percent of home alarm systems are “local’-wired only to set off audible or visual alerts inside and outside the house if an intruder tries to break in. The study estimates that the average cost for a residential security installation in the Dallas/Fort Worth area is $1,613 and that subscribers to monitored systems pay an average service fee of $21 a month.

“But you can spend as much as you want to on peace of mind,” one alarm salesman says. The possibilities range from battery-powered, $3.50 alarms that attach to doors or windows to interconnected arrays of sophisticated, sensitive and expensive electronic devices. For $2,000, several alarm dealers say, a homeowner can protect a typical house with an area of 2,000 to 2,500 square feet. For a few thousand dollars more, you can turn a larger house into a semi-impregnable electronic castle. And for $10,000, as one resident of Preston Hollow recently learned, you can wire a large house and yard with an elaborate system that includes several closed-circuit TV cameras and other surprises for trespassers and burglars.

Electronic security systems, house sitters and private security guards are almost de rigueur these days for famous athletes, corporate presidents and wealthy socialites who travel frequently and have their financial gains and valuables discussed in the media for everyone-including criminals-to see. Most houses with alarm systems are wired mainly for protection against the typical burglar, not a professional burglary ring that cases its target for days or weeks and employs experts who know how to disable alarm systems.

According to the Texas Crime Prevention Institute, “most home burglars are amateurs looking for easy targets.” These days, the average burglar can fall victim to a host of hi-tech items ranging from hidden switches that trigger silent or audible alarms to infrared, ultrasonic and microwave motion detectors. You can surround yourself with listening devices, vibration sensors, proximity detectors, panic buttons and telephone devices that automatically deliver prerecorded messages to police departments, fire departments or private security companies. One black-and-white TV setup that recently came on the market can switch off your soap opera and show you who’s at your front door. And with its built-in intercom, you can tell the visitor to get lost without opening the door.

For security’s sake, you also can festoon your fortress with various brands of alarm horns, bells, whistles, flashing lights and Klaxons that go WHOOOOP! WHOOOOP! WHOOOOP! in the night. With the right peripherals and software, you can even program certain brands of home computers to pretend that you are home. At selected intervals, your computer will faithfully send signals through power lines and activate special switches that turn selected lights, stereos and TV sets on and off.

You can choose among dozens of “hardwired” home burglar alarm systems-ones with all of their sensors electrically linked by wires. Or, if you fear that a smart burglar will cut your alarm cables or telephone lines, you can install wireless sensors or have your home guarded by a system that is linked by radio to a staffed control room.

Home security systems can-and should, security experts say-include smoke and fire detectors and other safety devices. But the primary purpose of most home security systems is to deter burglars. “According to one recent national study, the probability that you will have a burglary attempt at your house is reduced somewhere between 600 and 1,000 percent if you have an alarm system,” says Dennis Bryant, president of Sentinel-The Alarm Company and a past president of the Dallas County Burglar and Fire Alarm Association. And any advertising (window decals and yard signs) that tells everyone that you have a security system will help discourage break-in attempts, according to security experts.

Ernest F., a musician who travels frequently, believes in the power of such advertising. He had been burglarized twice and robbed once while living in a house near White Rock Lake. When he recently bought a renovated house in another part of Dallas -a house that had been broken into three times, the previous owner told him-Ernest had an electronic security system installed before he moved any of his belongings and musical instruments. He considers his home security system a double investment: “It gives me peace of mind while I’m away and while I’m at home; and I think the security system will help me sell the house later on.”

Before Ernest made his selection, he met with salesmen from a half dozen alarm companies, carefully compared their estimates and “security concepts” and asked to speak with satisfied customers. The winning bidder, Qube, not only had the lowest price but also put him in touch with a customer, the daughter of a former Dallas police chief.

“They all tried at first to sell me on the same concept, a system designed so nobody can break in, period. If you open any door or window, you set off an alarm. But those systems were very expensive,” Ernest says.

The estimated cost to wire his doors and his 30 windows plus install several intrusion sensors inside the house soared to $4,000 and higher in some estimates-well beyond his budget, he says.

He lowered his sights and let Qube wire only the windows on the blind side of his house, away from the busy intersection. These were the ones previously used by burglars. The rest of the windows, he says, are protected only by warning decals. The company also installed “floor traps” in strategic locations: switches hidden in mats and activated by the weight of an intruder. Since Ernest has a cat, 30-pound floor traps were installed instead of the more sensitive traps that can be triggered by as little as 10 pounds of pressure. “Now, you can’t walk through the house without setting off something,” Ernest says.

An alarm system linked to Network Security was one of the features that sold a Bryan Place house to a Dallas city official and his family. And as they prepared to move in, they found out just how well and how quickly the alarm system worked. “We were grubby and were fiddling with the front door,” the official says, “and suddenly the police showed up with their guns drawn. They got there very quickly. It took us a lot longer to convince them that we were who we said we were.”

In his days as a patrolman with the Dallas Police Department, Sgt. Chris Smith felt his adrenaline surge every time he was dispatched to answer a “good” burglar alarm. “There was nothing I loved better than to answer an alarm at a location we knew was good,” Smith says. “That was excitement. We caught some guys while they were still in the buildings.”

When break-in alerts came from sites known for repeated false alarms, however, the thrill and haste often were missing, says Smith, who now heads the police department’s alarm unit.

“We have no way of knowing if an alarm is false or not,” says another alarm unit officer, Cpl. Lonnie Bolin. “So we respond to each one as if it is real. But it’s like the boy who cried ’Wolf!’ all the time,” Bolin says.

“If you’ve had to answer calls four or five times a week at the same location and they’ve all been false, you’re going to tend to drop your guard. You’ll think, ’It’s just another false alarm.’ But that’ll be the time a burglar’s in there, and he may put the hurt on you.”

False alarms from electronic security systems are a major headache in Dallas. But equipment failure is low on the list of causes. Cherry says. “The biggest cause is subscriber error. And electrical storms are second.” Home alarms also are tripped frequently by children, pets and domestic help, Cherry says.

Between 1972 and 1982, before a new ordinance governing business and residential security systems was passed by the Dallas City Council, the number of false alerts from security alarms “were increasing at an average rate of 24 percent per year,” according to Smith. More than 83,000 alarms were answered by Dallas patrolmen in 1982, and 96 percent of them were false. The erroneous alerts cost taxpayers $1,500,000, wasted thousands of man-hours and endangered citizens’ lives as policemen raced to the scene, Smith says. No official count was kept of the false alarms from home security systems during the same period. But their frequency also seemed to be climbing dramatically, Smith says.

“We’ve had people trigger their robbery alarms just to see how long it takes us to get there. And we’ve had store clerks set off the robbery alarms after a two-dollar shoplifter has been caught.” Dallas patrolmen respond to robbery alarms with “Code 3’-at high speed, with sirens blaring, lights flashing and expectations of possible shoot-outs or hostage situations. En route, they risk their lives and the lives of motorists and pedestrians. At least two patrol cars are dispatched. In 1982, Smith says, more than 3,000 false alerts were received from electronic robbery alarms.

Some citizens with new home security systems have deliberately set off their alarms just to see if the police will respond, Smith says. “It happens all the time. Some people just don’t care.”

The business portion of the new city alarm ordinance went into effect January 29, 1983, and had resulted in a 9 percent reduction in false alarms through the end of September. When the residential section of the ordinance takes effect on January 20, 1984, owners of business and home alarms will face the same penalties for erroneous alerts. The first six false alarms will be free. After that, the city will charge a $30 service fee each time the police respond to a false signal.

“We’re not against alarms,” Smith says. “We like them, and we would like to see more of them. They help us catch people that otherwise might not get caught.”



DECIDING WHICH alarm companies to call can be a tough choice: Consumers have about 200 to choose from in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The alarm business is a field with many reputable companies-as well as some fly-by-night operators who are in the business to make a fast dollar from frightened homeowners, according to the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association.

Smith, Cherry, Bryant and other security experts say that consumers should ask friends, neighbors and co-workers for recommendations, should get estimates from several companies and should ask as many questions as possible before signing a contract.

“The first question you should ask,” Smith says, “is not how much it costs but, how big is your service department?’” Adds Bryant: “Most people rely heavily on the company to tell them what they need. You buy one alarm system for your home, not a new one every two or three years, so it’s important that you pick companies that offer quality control during the installation, keep an adequate supply of parts and have people available to fix things.

“People can go out and spend $50,000 on a car these days, but if it breaks down on a Saturday, they know it’s going to be Monday before they can get it fixed because the dealership’s service department is closed. People can spend $2,000 for a burglar alarm, and if it breaks on Christmas Eve, they expect it to be fixed that night. And the reason is, it’s of absolutely no value if it doesn’t work when they need it to,” Bryant says.

Cherry urges potential buyers of monitored security systems to “ask to see the monitoring center. Find out where the alarm will go and who will be calling the police or the fire department.” Some small alarm companies, he says, subcontract with larger alarm companies for monitoring service. Some alarms alert answering services rather than security companies. And some home security systems in Dallas are linked by long distance to monitoring outfits in other parts of the United States, Cherry says.

If you live in an apartment or a small house, you now can have effective do-it-yourself electronic security at budget prices; a variety of devices and kits are being sold by a number of companies. Radio Shack, for instance, recently has begun marketing a line of home security devices. With one $100 item, you can pick up a phone at work or virtually anywhere in the world, dial home, punch a few buttons on a beeper and turn on several lights, your entertainment system- even your coffeepot or microwave oven. A $220 home or office monitor automatically calls you or a friend with a recorded warning if it detects trouble, and a built-in microphone lets you listen over the phone to what is happening. And there’s a $10 alarm that simply hooks over a doorknob and will sound off if someone outside touches the knob. (If you want to opt for heavy-duty protection, a company called Exclusive Protection, which handles high-value accounts, can supply you with your own bodyguard.)

But alarm systems are not for everyone. Some people resent the intrusion of more electronic gadgets into their homes and lives. They dislike having to set alarms each time they go out or come in and they hate having to watch where they walk inside their own walls. Others think that invisible beams, mat traps and closed-circuit TV cameras simply heighten their paranoia and make them feel like prisoners in their own homes. And many who consider alarms but choose not to buy them believe that there are cheaper, more traditional ways to increase their security.

One Oak Lawn resident who was botheredrepeatedly by prowlers, recently priced electronic alarm devices for her apartment. Shedecided that new door and window lockswould be less damaging to her modestbudget and less disruptive to her lifestyle. “Ialso bought a dog-one that barks at anything that moves,” she says. “And I boughta gun and learned how to use it.”

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