How Central Station Monitoring Works

By Benjamin Curto ~ June 29th, 2009. Filed under: Security.

Ever wonder what really happens when your security system alarm goes off? A lot of this depends on your system and what kind of ‘language’ it speaks. The ‘languages’ really aren’t connected to what type of system you have as much as how old it is. Here’s a quick rundown:

Ademco 4/2   – Older and much slower… but one of the few to work with IP phone lines
Contact ID      – Most prevalent, it sends all pertinent information
SIA FSK           – Still analog but much faster than Contact ID
TCP/IP            – Fastest and most current

There are lots of minute differences between the communications formats but for the non-professional they really don’t matter all that much… they all allow your alarm panel to call into a central station. Now that the boring part is over (excited?) let’s see what happens next!

First the central station ‘receiver’ will answer the phone call from your alarm system, followed by nasty fax noises while they exchange pleasentries. Old friends and all.

Second an available (**more on this later**) operator’s computer screen will pop up with all of your information (remember that form you filled out?) like your address, directions to get there, your zones, passcodes, duress codes…. etc. and of course the current message from your alarm system whether it’s an alarm or a trouble.

For trouble conditions alarm centers will either fax, email, or call your installer or yourself to notify you then exit your account and wait for another signal.

For alarms they will always call the phone line of the alarm location(residence or business) first, then the first contact on the list. If neither phone is answered of if the person who answers isn’t on the list/doesn’t have the correct cancellation code they will then dispatch the appropriate agency (ie fire, police, or medical). They will then continue down the remainder of the list and start over a second time until they are able to reach someone who is authorized (ie is on the contact list and has thier password) then exit your account and wait for another signal. All of this is more or less mandated by law so there isn’t much of a difference in how various monitoring stations work.

So why is there such a difference in prices? Well obviously markup plays a part but most of the difference is staffing in two key areas:

Understaffed/oversold. This is very common in the larger national alarm companies everyone recognizes and knows. I’m not privvy to the exact numbers but say a normal central station has 1 operater for every 1,000 accounts these companies may have 1 operator for every 5,000 accounts. The numbers still fall within the legal range allowed… however it’s the difference between your alarm information sitting in queue waiting for an available operator for 5-20 seconds or sometimes up to 30 minutes!

Undertraining/underskilled. This is not as common but you’d be surprised. Your entire system can be comprised by the nice person from the central station that gives your burlar a hint to help them remember ‘thier’ (your) password. Even if they don’t completely compromise your security they may ‘help out’ for 15 minutes while your home is emptied. Professional operators are trained to be quick and efficient knowing that a false alarm dispatch is infinitely better than no dispatch.

Monitoring stations however never contract directly with alarm owners, it’s more efficient for them to market and deal directly with dealers only. This allows them to have a single contact for hundreds or even thousands of accounts and lowers their overhead. How much the alarm installer marks up this service and what they provide in return varies widely. Typically central stations may charge from $7 to $20 per month depending on the type of account and alarm dealer, dealers then typically turn around and charge $10 to $50 per month (again depending on the type of account).

How do you choose a good monitoring station? A lot of times you can’t…. do some research on the internet, stay away from national dealers who oversell accounts, and never sign a contract locking you into that dealer or central station. Here’s the beauty though: virtually all alarm systems and all central stations can speak all of the languages! This means if you’re unhappy with your central station or alarm installer you should be able to find another central station or alarm installer to replace them WITHOUT having to replace your system! Never be satisfied with bad service.

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