Founder, Zeecure.com, Sonitrol of South Central Ontario

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Colin Bodbyl is the founder of Zeecure.com and Chief Technology Officer at Sonitrol of South Central Ontario. He has over 10 years' experience in the security industry specializing in the design and installation of physical security, IP CCTV, video analytics, and access control systems. In 2012 Colin developed Zeecure.com to connect with other integrators and end users through his unique video blogs.
March 14, 2013

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Working with the insider threat

Why Self-Monitored Home Alarm Systems Don’t Work

Self-monitored alarm systems have become a growing trend amongst end users.

At least once a week I am asked if it is possible to monitor your own alarm system. Even commercial and retail clients are asking me. Of course, the answer is always an unequivocal “No”, which is always followed by the client’s inevitable question, “Why?”

At this point, most people think I am just being biased because I want to sell them a monitored system. Every time this happens I tell them the same story about Joel Matlin, president of AlarmForce, and how the self-monitored portion of his home alarm system almost failed him completely.

VideoRelay — monitored by the end user
AlarmForce is one of North America’s largest home alarm companies. Their systems include the typical features found in today’s modern alarms: wireless devices, two-way voice, and motion-activated cameras marketed by AlarmForce as VideoRelay.

VideoRelay is a low resolution camera that calls or emails images to users whenever it is activated. The camera has also built in two-way voice capabilities. The crippling catch? The camera is not monitored by the AlarmForce central station; it is monitored by the end user.

February 4, 2012, Joel Matlin was visiting friends in Florida when his VideoRelay camera was triggered at his Toronto area home (more than 2,000 kilometers away).

His VideoRelay camera first called his cellphone, but he missed the call. Moments later, his phone received an email with images of several suspicious men outside his front door. By the time Matlin read the email, the men were gone and he was not able to utilize the two-way voice feature.

Instead, he called the Toronto Police and asked them to check on his home and emailed them the images from his camera. He also called his step-son, Robbie, who was away from the home but would be returning later that night. Matlin then turned off his cellphone and went to sleep.

Back in Toronto (at 4:30 a.m.) Matlin’s step-son Robbie awoke to the sound of the alarm system announcing the phone line had been cut.

Seconds later he heard someone trying to kick in the front door. He ran downstairs, turned on the lights, and confronted a group of men who immediately fled. Had Matlin’s cellphone been turned on, he would have received several alarms as the men surrounded the house leading up to the phone line cut.

Instead, Matlin was sound asleep in Florida, none the wiser of what had just taken place at his home in Toronto.

Lucky for Matlin, no one was hurt and nothing was stolen. The men who attempted the break-in were arrested later that day in connection with several other break and enters that took place around the same time.

The lesson to be learned is that Matlin’s alarm system never failed him. The monitoring system for his camera failed because it was self-monitored.

Had the initial alarm gone to a professional monitoring station, they would have been able to communicate with the would-be thieves while dispatching police, and had the thieves realised the system was monitored, they surely would not have returned.

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Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

I suppose you get what you pay for. Pay higher subs for a professional monitoring and you’ll see some proper responses. THink I’d want the best of both worlds!

SunitaT
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SunitaT

Pay higher subs for a professional monitoring and you’ll see some proper responses.
@Rob, I totally agree with your opinion. Self-Monitored home alarm systems have many disadvantages and I think its always better to pay the professionals to that job. I am curious to know how much to do charge and do they provide any insurance coverage ?

Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

Top of my head, no idea. Colin, any idea what an average figure for a monitored system would be, from your experience?

ColinBodbyl
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ColinBodbyl

AlarmForce charges $0 installation and $25 per month for their monitored alarm system.
The VideoRelay camera which is self-monitored costs $129 installation and $17.99 per month for the automated emails. You also don’t actually own the camera, you lease it for 36 months at the above rate.
It sounds expensive in comparison to their home alarm system however, the home alarm system is made up of motion detectors and door contacts only making it very cheap to monitor. Since VideoRelay is a camera it would typically cost hundreds of dollars a month to have professionally monitored.

shipwreck
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shipwreck

I have a self-monitored security system in my home.  It was nothing but an annoyance, so I shut it off.  I llive in a low crime area, and it is a lot more trouble than it is worth.  (Of course, I have very little worth stealing.)
If I were to need security, I certainly would seek the services of a monitoring company.  As you said, you get what you pay for, so choose based on service rather than cost.

Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

@shipwreck As David Stubbs said in his blog on using crime data to create a dynamic security solution, if there was a sudden spate of crime activity in your area you could simply turn it back on again. Proportionate, and dynamic approach!

Tony Dobson
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Tony Dobson

Relatively large recurring monthly cost of professional monitoring vs hit-and-miss approach with self monitoring?
I don’t know the answer and it will vary anyway depending on what you have got to lose but if either is chosen the absolutely fundamental requirement is to have an effective response plan.
Whether thats a relative, neighbour, security officer or even the police if you are very lucky it doesn’t really matter, just a fast and very visible response to scare off anybody in the premises or hidden outside seeing if a response arrives.

Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

…or a dog! Dogs always help. Great advice Tony.

Tony Dobson
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Tony Dobson

Thanks Rob, dogs can be drugged or distracted plus I don’t like dogs! Perhaps having a recording of a dog barking linked to your external light PIRs and/or your alarm system is a good compromise for cat lovers! Although my cat would certainly do its best to trip somebody up but would go bonkers every time it heard the barking!!

Adrian Mealing
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Adrian Mealing

Colin, another interesting article, however the concept and the solutions depend very much on where in the world you are, and what your expectations are. I fear the days monthly recurring revenue streams for alarm companies are limited. There are already many pieces of technology in the home, that the user could simply bolt a security system onto. Advances in wireless technology, and the wider use of mainly open protocols make it easier for the non traditional players to get involved, and still offer a level of service that in MOST cases will be more than adequate. AT&T Digital Life… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

Absolutely, the consumer is the big driver in this at the end of the day. For some reason people in the UK don’t seem that interested in home alarm monitoring systems. Bad previous experiences, perhaps?

ColinBodbyl
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ColinBodbyl

Adrian, thanks for your detailed feedback. It is a valid and important point that users need to be aware if what kind of response their professionally monitored system will receive. If police will not respond to the alarm in a reasonable amount of time, there is little value in paying for monitoring. That being said, it’s better to have a slow response than no response at all, which is the risk you face when monitoring a system yourself. Without hijacking the thread, I wanted to mention that your reference to South Africa’s private system hits close to home for me.… Read more »

Mike Friend
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Mike Friend

In my experiance the cost of monitoring and the red tape that goes with the system having to be serviced and maintained by ‘an approved’ company adds greatly to the costs. Our telephone lines are over head and easy to knock out – in fact the whole village would take 5 mins in the right manhole – While my own system operating on a sim card can call up to 3 numbers and relay pictures, all for the cost of the phone call – Local police will not attend most alarm calls during the night with as few a 3… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

(It’s all going a bit Noah’s Ark on IFSEC Global in the last week. I’m going to stop mentioning cats or dogs)Mike, sounds like you have a really interesting and sensible approach to this. And, crucially, it relies on the oldest of crimefighting methods: a community that look after each other. Here in London, it’s not particularly common to even know the names or the faces of your neighbours.

outdoorsecguy
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outdoorsecguy

I think that is a very sweeping statement. My focus is on pro-active systems that provide alerts before someone enters your home. In this area, there are very many more notifications to qualify as an alarm monitoring company doesn’t know who is allowed to be outside of your home. You will also have more false alarms. For this sort of system it’s not practical to use anything other than self monitoring. I also think this is a superior type of system as well as the focus is on early warning detection and potential prevention of a breakin. However, I realise… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

I’m sure there’s some examples of better systems, but is the point that ultimately self-monitored systems can always fail because there’s no dedicated person to answer the alarm?

outdoorsecguy
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outdoorsecguy

That is one way to look at the point. But the point has a context and the context is home monitoring. I carry my phone with me all the time, it’s dedicated with me to answer. Statistically, the amount of time when I cannot answer is very small. I receive E-mails and two different kinds of push notifications. I know typically within 4 seconds that someone has entered my property. That’s potentially still minutes away from a breakin alarm when an external monitored system would be notified. If I can monitor my home myself and thus respond in a meaningful… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

But where that ‘most of the time’ falls down might be when you’re most vulnerable. For instance, burglars see you pack your car to go on holiday. They break in while you’re on the airplane to your destination. Or, maybe you go to the other side of the world and you’re fast asleep in a different time zone and don’t hear your phone ring. You’re right though, if you are in a position to answer, you can do more effectively, of course.

outdoorsecguy
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outdoorsecguy

I’m not saying that there’s no argument for an external company. My point was more that in the case of security that is outside of the home there’s a whole different argument and home monitoring becomes much more relevant, maybe even necessary to be practical. Might actually be a good topic for a new thread actually, as there is a lot to discuss here and I’ve probably pushed it slightly off course. In any case, pre-breaking monitoring is clearly the way of the future as it’s obviously better so it would be interesting to discuss just how external monitoring could… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

There’s also some really simple tips from the Met Police’s Operation Bumblebee on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgo1O162s4E&list=PL5gcFbG9ghq7CwgRH7-vWs6D5aP5UXQZr&index=5
Simple things like security lights, alarms and just having gravel in front of your home. The picture in the UK is very different to the US when it comes to home security, mind you.

batye
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batye

yes, Rob you are right… and Canada is totally different from USA in the approach to home security/safety/alarms… 
but from my expirience Self-Monitored Home Alarm Systems Don’t Work for regular home owner… unless he/she is ex-military or police officer… as human nature… do not have security habits build in… only could be learned… from exp… in the military/police/security…

outdoorsecguy
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outdoorsecguy

I think there are a lot of people for whom self monitoring would be a pain and they would not do a good job. It would be nice if there were monitoring companies well geared up for my field, specifically outdoor monitoring but I think this is still a green field area for many security companies. There are a lot more problems with ourdoor monitoring and I think the market hasn’t yet geared up properly to provide this kind of monitoring on a mass market scale yet. Please correct me if I’m wrong here, I would be happy to hear… Read more »

ColinBodbyl
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ColinBodbyl

My business has been doing outdoor monitoring for over ten years now, but it’s not cheap. You really have two options if you want the system professionally monitored. Pay up front for a good quality system that uses video analytics, fence detection, or any other smart technology to minimize alarm activity and, in turn, pay a relatively low monitoring fee. Or, install a cheap system that uses video motion to detect activity. You’ll save up front but monitoring fees will be extremely high due to the volume of alarm activity. In regards to self-monitoring, @outdoorsecguy, do you ever get on… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

Sounds to me like the multiple false alarm scenario isn’t worth it. I’d rather just pay more on my insurance to cover myself if the loss does occur.

outdoorsecguy
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outdoorsecguy

Some people will no doubt prefer that. A lot of people also not. When you consider the psychological issues that people often experience after a breakin I’m not sure that insurance can cover that. Also, an increasing number of breakins happen when the person is still home, they run the risk of confronting the intruder with themselves or their children. Not pretty.

Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

Oh, absolutely re. the psychological issues of being present while a break in happens, but that’s another matter entirely. I also think you have a point on the psychological issues of a break in when not present, though. That’s obviously going to be hugely different from person to person.

outdoorsecguy
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outdoorsecguy

The conditions you mention in the last paragraph are all valid examples of missed alters. But these have to be weighed up against the even bigger loss of alerts caused by the scenario whereby a client has an external monitoring system for outside the house but then they turn it off because they are home and then get broken into whilst they are still at home which is how a large number of breakins were happening in the Netherlands last year. They “explicitly” chose times when the owner was at home to exploit this very tendancy. Perhaps a hybrid solution… Read more »

Rob Ratcliff
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Rob Ratcliff

You could pay the monitoring company on a sort of Pay As You Go basis for when you are using their monitoring perhaps. Interesting idea.
Shocking tale of burglaries in the Netherlands, also — I would have thought that people would be safest when they were in the house. You certainly wouldn’t have thought burglars would explicity target such times. At least, I wouldn’t. Thanks for sharing.