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Monitoring Solutions 101: The Alarm System Monitoring Process

Alarm Signal Transmission

Home security systems use various technologies to transmit their alarm signals to the central stations that monitor them.  Eighty-five percent of home security system’s still use the conventional method - POTS (Plain Old Telephone service); the rest use long-range radio waves, cell phone,  VoIP, Broadband IP or fiber-optic technologies to transmit the signal. As with most industries where the trend is shifting from analog to digital, the same is seen in the security industry: The piece of the security system pie dedicated to cellular, VoIP, fiber-optics and Broadband is getting bigger, while the number of homes with landlines only is declining significantly.  This isn’t because the latter are any less reliable than digital technologies; it’s mainly because the security systems themselves are being designed to work with a range of features, accessories and automated systems that interact with everything from your flat-screen TV to your Smartphone - and these are all digital.

The Alarm System Monitoring Process

The back-end process of security systems is pretty much the same, regardless of the technology used to transmit the alarm signal:  when an alarm is tripped (because a sensor has detected an inappropriate event), the control panel, which is linked to the sensor, immediately contacts the central station (the company who monitors your alarm) notifying them of the event.  The central station then verifies that the alarm was not a false alarm (this process does vary slightly) and once verified, help is dispatched.

Types of Alarm Signals

For those security systems connected to POTS,  the control panel will “seize control” of the phone line and, using the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN), dial the central station.  The control panel’s pre-recorded message will be communicated to the central station, identifying the sensor that was tripped and its location, e.g. “the window was broken in zone 6 on the southern end of the house.”  Radio transmissions can only communicate small amounts of information, like “break-in” vs. “fire,” although they are faster than any other type of signal.  It’s quite common to have redundant monitoring and a second signal type used as a back-up.  The redundant dialer might be connected to a second phone line, a cell phone, radio or internet device. Many systems that use VoIP, Broadband or cellular technologies are wireless and often include CCTV or video surveillance equipment.

Central Stations

Central stations are not all alike; some have given up monitoring landlines altogether, others have still not switched over to “modern” technology, but almost all handle fire alarms. Some monitor alarm signals, but do not conduct video surveillance, while others specialize in video surveillance and might even offer child or elderly monitoring.  Medical alerts transmitted via a remote panic button are usually administered by a central station that specializes in emergency medical care, but not always. Many home security systems include panic buttons as part of the package.  If the central station handles wireless or web-based monitoring, a picture of your home and the breached zones might be transmitted during an alarm event.

Once the alarm signal is received, a representative from the central station must contact you (the home owner) to verify that the alarm was real.  Once they reach you, they will ask for a pass-code, notify you of the event and then contact law enforcement to dispatch help to your residence. If they cannot reach you, they will contact the second number on your list (Most central stations, in an effort to reduce false alarms, require at least two contact attempts before dispatching authorities. This is known as Enhanced Call Verification.). ECV does not usually apply to fire alarms or medical emergencies. Some central stations even offer “non-dispatched” monitoring; they notify you in the even of an alarm and leave it up to you to contact the authorities.

Web-based & Innovative Monitoring Solutions

Some web-based security systems cut out the central station, allowing customers to monitor alarm events themselves.  Each of the sensors, detectors and live feeds of video surveillance can be streamed to your computer inbox or cell phone; in the event of suspicious activity, you can notify the authorities yourself - even before an alarm is tripped. Remote monitoring is also useful if you want heightened access control options that would allow you to grant entrance into and out of your home while you are away or to gauge levels of environmental sensors. Other features of automated systems include electrical equipment control, e.g. turning lights on and off and adjusting heat levels.

CPI Security Systems promotes a “Real Time Response” technology.  When an alarm is tripped, a monitoring professional will communicate to you (presuming that someone is inside the house) within seconds via a speaker phone that broadcasts their voice throughout the house.  You could then speak to them from any room in the house to notify them of the situation.  The novelty of Real Time Response is that a real person is on the phone with you monitoring the entire event (and if you are not home, they would presumably be scaring away the intruder.).  This technology is also beneficial for medical emergencies and coincides with a “no false alarm guarantee.” CPI will cover any municipal fines for false alarms that occur due to a glitch in their system.