Subscriber Discussion

What Are The Main Causes Of False Burglar Alarms?

False alarms are a huge problem for the burglar alarm industry, I think everyone will agree. Problem is, no one can figure out what's causing it, let alone what to do about it. 

In your experience, what are some of the big reasons for false alarms?

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people

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Improperly installed devices mostly PIRs with no pet < Rat> Immunity and not using wide gap door contacts especially on Industrial Garage doors...

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#1 by far: user error or poor customer training.

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False alarms are almost nonexistent with our customer base. We have a few of false alarm and real alarm verification methods. The number one thing we've done to reduce false alarms is install DMP and activate the false alarm question. When a system goes into alarm and they enter their code at the keypad or on the app it will ask them if it's a real or false alarm. After they enter their code they can select false alarm, this will cancel dispatch from our central station. We always program ambush codes in the event someone is forcing them to enter their code. This will overide any false alarm verification. We also use video verification at the app for more accurate police dispatch. 

In the past, we have discovered that nearly all false alarms were caused by user error. Which is why we like the above solution. We don't install cheap detectors so we rarely have false alarms caused by equipment malfunction. If we do the system is usually over 30 years old. 

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John, it's not that "false alarms are almost nonexistent with your customer base" the alarms are still occurring.  What you have done is inject a process into the administration of the alarm by allowing an employee to assess and determine the alarm to be real or a nuisance.  So, basically instead of having  2-3 employees at a SOC to administrate and process the alarm you have increased your number of SOC employees.  The nuisance alarms are still at the same rate as if the SOC was the only administrative group, you just alleviate the work load on the SOC.  Now should the individual creating the alarm be the one to declare it is an actual or nuisance alarm, well that is a topic of its own.

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Maybe so. But, to me, creating and implementing procedures to mitigate problems is nearly as impressive as eliminating the problems in the first place, especially if 1) very few others in the same industry have had any success in mitigating those problems and 2) as others have suggested, part of the problem isn't due to installation or design errors, but inherent flaws in the equipment itself, which alarms installers cannot do anything about. 

Well done, John. This is a great example of clever implementation overcoming inherent weaknesses of product. 

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The biggest cause is People!  First off they are not "false alarms" but nuisance alarms.  The system going into alarm is the edge devices doing what they are designed to do.  I have designed and managed the install of numerous corporate systems and commissioned the system where they are working properly, then you introduce the work force into the mix.  Grant it, I believe every system that is working properly will generate some nuisance alarms, that is inherent of the system doing what it is designed to do.  The cause of the nuisance events is going to vary greatly depending on the design deployed.  Residential, commercial and industrial all have different design challenges and devices.  There is also a difference in a stand alone intrusion and one that is integrated through the access control system.  A proper assessment of the end users needs in the beginning will drive a successful design.  Following the installation a thorough commission/testing process MUST take place to insure the system is functioning in the manner it was designed.  A Honeywell FG1625 glass break deployed in a 10'x10' office set on high sensitivity is going to generate nuisance alarms.  Set the sensor to the appropriate sensitivity will help prevent nuisance alarms.  In designing security systems more does not equal better.

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Ah yes, FALSE vs UNWANTED alarms- The equipment of the last 20 years generally override the lack of false prone hardware of years prior. That being said, if the alarm goes off because the technology detected the motion/noise/circuit break is was designed for, the culprit can be improper application by the installer. A large part of the high volume install companies go for pre-packaged kits and when those items get introduced into areas not intended for (think standard contact for overhead door as mentioned previously or indoor motion on a back patio), alarms can happen that are not necessarily "false".

In many municipalities, they will categorize any alarm that doesn't yield an arrest as false, even those where the intruder possibly was scared off. As an ex-installer myself, I saw responders blame the alarm company even though a door was ajar causing the dispatch.

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Yes operator error and lack of knowledge fall into a different category than actual FALSE  alarms caused by improper equipment operation or install breakdowns...

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Yes operator error and lack of knowledge fall into a different category than actual FALSE  alarms caused by improper equipment operation or install breakdowns...

Dennis, When municipalities report false alarms do they follow your categorization?

For example, City of San Antonio's website:

In 2015, the San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) reported over 67,000 calls (91%) of all burglar alarms were false alarms.

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LOL not at all..I was not speaking to what the City categorizes as a false alarm, only what we consider as a company as a false alarm...here is the City of Chicago's definition:

“False alarm” means a burglar alarm system activated in the absence of an emergency whether wilfully or by inadvertence, negligence or unintentional act, including any mechanical or electrical malfunction of the alarm system, to which the department of police is alerted for a response.  A false alarm shall not include an alarm activated by a temporary surge or loss of electrical power or loss of telephone service to the burglar alarm user; the testing or repairing of telephone or electrical lines or equipment outside the premises if prior notice of the testing or repair is given to the department of police; unusually violent conditions of nature; an illegal entry, theft or robbery, or an attempt thereof; or an observable act of vandalism; where evidence of such activity exists. "

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Dennis, thanks for the citation. That is what I figured.

The question then becomes: who and how many actually track false alarms triggered by a faulty sensor vs false alarms triggered by users? I think it would be worth seeing such breakdowns, especially since so many agree that user triggered false alarms are greater.

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20 years ago, we in Texas were battling a claimed 97%-99% false alarm rate with just about every metro area. Then came the onslaught of end user fines and non-dispatch policies. That curbed some of the abuse. Then some vendors banded together (SIA possibly, can't 100% remember) to introduce false alarm prevention measures with control panel functions aka CP01 which was a set of parameters that helped with arm/disarm or other end user tendencies that generated "false" alarms due to lack of proper execution of training by the installing company. This brought the unwanted alarms down further.

The opposing element is startup or high pressure installation companies that don't take ownership of anything end user except a signature on the contract... The famed "Summer Programs" where college age kids are recruited to blanket cities for the purpose of closing deals at any cost and then installing the system before the ink dries and moving on. These become problematic due to the volume involved and a public relations sore spot. By the time the media is reporting these figures, the alarm industry is viewed as non-caring and contributing to the abuse of public resources.

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Now in Chicago even a single FALSE ALARM will get you a violation and fine...I think it is $ 100.00 dollars each for the 1st 3 and it escalates as you go plus you have to got to a Administrative Hearing ...They used to issue a PERMIT you would buy $ 34.00 and that would get you 3 per year with no fines...that stopped in 2009 I think..

After looking again at the exact question that started this thread from the municipality and definition it does not matter..But as a business owner responsible for the systems it does to me...Both financially and from a professional stand point... 

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We did a False Alarm Reduction Study for a large public school district many years back. We found that the majority of false alarms were indeed caused by "user error", however we were able to drill down further to determine that most problems were caused by infrequent rather than regular users of the system.

In most schools, you have a core group of "openers" who are usually the first ones to arrive in the morning. Along the same lines, you have a core group of "closers" who are usually the last to leave at night. We found that these people were very comfortable using the alarm system and created very few false alarms.

The ones who did create the problems were teachers and other staff members who had been issued codes to operate the alarm, but rarely came in after regular school hours except on special occasions. In many cases, these people had forgotten either their codes and/or the correct procedures for using them and couldn't disarm the system when entering. To solve this problem, we recommended that the district stop issuing keys and codes to people who didn't regularly open and close the school. We put procedures in place so that teachers who did have a special need to enter the school after hours could be let in by a security patrol officer.

Another big cause of false alarms was people arming the system while other people were still inside. Many schools were so large that teachers had no awareness of other teachers or staff members who were also in the building. A common scenario was that one teacher (Teacher #1) would arrive on a Sunday and disarm the alarm. Another teacher (Teacher #2) arrives a short time later and notices that the alarm is already disarmed, so just enters the school. Teacher #1 finishes up with her work, and being unaware that Teacher #2 is on the premises, rearms the alarm. A false alarm occurs when Teacher #2 walks into the coverage area of a motion detector.

To solve this one, we instituted a procedure where, before arming the system, the teacher would make an announcement over the school's paging system that he or she was about to arm the alarm, and that if anyone was still in the school, they should make their presence known.

In one case, we installed a chime module connected to the paging system that automatically played "Home Sweet Home" for the duration of the exit delay cycle after the alarm was armed. (These days, I would probably use a voice module rather than the chime...) People who were still in the school could then go to a nearby keypad and disarm the system before it became active.

I have a philosophy that most so-called "user error" is actually defective product design and/or bad system layout. If 50% or more of your users are having difficulty using a system, I feel that the blame should fall on the manufacturer and/or installer, not the user. The truth is, most of the systems out there are way too complicated and completely counter-intuitive to operate.

I recently sat through a training session where an integrator was explaining to an end-user how to selectively arm zones on a large Bosch intrusion alarm system. Even with my 40+ years of industry experience, I was having a hard time keeping up. I can only imagine what the end-user was thinking.

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Michael, excellent insights, thanks!

I have a philosophy that most so-called "user error" is actually defective product design and/or bad system layout. If 50% or more of your users are having difficulty using a system, I feel that the blame should fall on the manufacturer and/or installer, not the user. The truth is, most of the systems out there are way too complicated and completely counter-intuitive to operate.

Ari brought up something similar earlier week. I am hoping that IPVM's upcoming intrusion testing can help point out / contrast / analyze product design issues. Anyone with thoughts or example of product design problems, please share.

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"If 50% or more of your users are having difficulty using a system, I feel that the blame should fall on the manufacturer and/or installer, not the user. The truth is, most of the systems out there are way too complicated and completely counter-intuitive to operate."

We discovered the same thing. Four years ago we called all of our customers focusing on the ones that weren't using the system or where generating false alarms. The #1 comment we heard was that they didn't really know how the system worked. They knew their passcode and what to do when arming/disarming but they didn't really understand countdowns how to bypass why to bypass the different arming options or even how the system communicated with the central station. 

This is why we now offer graphic touchscreen keypads with rfid readers built-in and an app. We always demo the system before the sale is made to make sure they know how the entire system works before they make their decision and then again after the install. We also offer free on-site visits once per year by a technician to test the system and demo new features. This year we're starting a monthly webinar series for all client to view featuring updates and ideas on how to better use their systems. We'll have one for businesses and one for residential. 

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I completely sympathize with that Bosch user. Arming and disarming are stupidly unintuitive and the vast majority of keypads. 

I've been operating Honeywell systems with 6160 keypads for over a decade and cannot tell you how to arm only a specific partition. I never had to do it and it's not obvious in any way. I can't even remember how to bypass a zone from the keypad and I've installed them and had one in my house for awhile. 

With touchscreens so common now and $50 tablets readily available it's ludicrous that users are still forced to push vaguely labeled buttons...ever. 

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I have a philosophy that most so-called "user error" is actually defective product design and/or bad system layout. If 50% or more of your users are having difficulty using a system, I feel that the blame should fall on the manufacturer and/or installer, not the user. The truth is, most of the systems out there are way too complicated and completely counter-intuitive to operate.

Amen and so mote it be. Users can drive cars, operate smartphones, send emails, and operate their cable boxes with DVRs and they have no problem but all of a sudden a product that hasn't fundamentally changed since I was in middle school is too complicated for regular people to figure out and requires multiple hours of instruction to learn? Come on, that's baloney. Either the alarm manufacturers need to start hiring UX engineers, the installers need to learn less convoluted ways to design their systems, or, most likely, both. 

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I think a lot of the residential problems stem from 2 things:

#1 Companies run in and run out and rarely spend time with the customer anymore explaining the proper operations or even offer them online version of User Guides, and explain proper CS contact methods, etc. How to properly test the system,Once its sold its over, Sales method.

#2  Quickie, Poor Installation methods by improperly trained OR under trained"technicians" that are only looking at the pay check. Most NEVER read every installation slip or manual that comes with devices.

This is just my 2 cents worth not scientific survey results.

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Main causes of false / nuisance alarms:-

1/ End users either poor training or just plain stupidity / ignorance eg leave window open when departing

2/ Poor installation eg motion sensors looking towards windows etc

3/ Vermin (this is also partially under end user stupidity heading) where spiders build webs over motion detectors, or gekkos run over them etc

4/ Wrong product for the application

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Back in the day when I was selling fire/Burg (primarily to retailers) 90% of the alarms were door contacts. Frames get old / loose and when the wind blew it tripped the contacts

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User caused errors, minimize by putting no zones on instant and delay before alarm transmission.  Delay before transmission makes the user have to listen to the sounders and pay attention to shut it off.

Low cost motion sensors ( under $10)

Not using 100 lbs animal immune sensors

Incorrectly installed motion sensors which generally are looking at exterior windows, next to heating ducts or by OH doors where drafts cause alarms. Use Dual Technology Sensors whenever you can you will sleep better.

Not using wide gap contacts especially on sloppy doors

Cheap glass break sensors that do not have low frequency followed by high signal processing.

Not using call verification before dispatch.

Poor splices and not soldering or using beans

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Mechanical contacts, lace wire loops and window foil, Oh My!

(Sorry, that was my Back to the Future DeLorean service van tripping out...)

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From SSI survey results:

The numbers are a little confusing since they allow people to choose multiple categories but it does give a sense of relative impact.

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