Jaci Fox


By Jaci Fox

A typical shift in a communications center would not be complete without receiving at least one call concerning a burglary/intrusion alarm. An estimated 32 million security alarm systems have been installed in the United States, with roughly 3 million new systems added each year. Sixty percent are installed in residences and the rest in commercial and institutional properties.1 Considering these figures, it’s little wonder that dispatch for these alarms can comprise 5–10% of a center’s total annual call volume and rank among the highest misuses of 9-1-1 and police resources because of the high percentage of false alarms.

The Police Priority Dispatch System (PPDS) has an efficient way of managing these calls: Chief Complaint Protocol 104: Alarms.

Protocol 104 defines alarms as: “Physical hardware installed at a given location to monitor burglary, robbery, medical, fire, hazardous materials, panic, or distress situations. Alarms may be monitored by an alarm company or may make local notifications only.” Several types of alarms require the response of law enforcement, including: audible, burglary/intrusion, holdup/panic/duress, telematics, vehicle, and visual (flashing lights).

Audible alarms

Audible alarms can emit continuous, intermittent, or specialty sounds—chimes, chirps, warbles, and sirens—which are a relatively recent innovation used to attract attention in a world increasingly overrun with audible technology. Audible alarms are used throughout several industries; for example, in radiography, these devices are used to reduce the likelihood of accidental exposures by alerting personnel of radiation levels above a preset amount. Audible alarms are also used to deter car thieves.


According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), burglary is the most common threat to our homes. Statistics released in December 2011 in the FBI’s Preliminary Semiannual Uniform Crime Report indicate that the number of property crimes—burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft—decreased 3.7% compared with figures from the first six months of 2010.2 But that doesn’t mean burglary is a crime that will soon disappear.

The optimal time for burglary depends on the property. Most (62.4%) residential burglaries occur during the day, between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.4 when the resident is out of the home. Generally, residential burglary rates are highest in August and lowest in February, although factors such as weather and location do influence the rate. In non-residential burglaries, the higher percentage (58.0%) of incidents occurs at night after the building has been vacated for the evening.5

Single-family detached houses, compared to other types of residential settings, are more often the attractive targets—with greater rewards—and are more difficult to secure because they have multiple access points. Only about a quarter, 23%, involve initial entry through a first-floor window, while another 22% involve access through the back door. Overall, businesses are four times as likely to be burglarized as homes, and small businesses are targets in more than half of the commercial burglaries committed.

In the absence of an on-site security patrol, businesses and residential property owners put their money and trust into home/commercial security systems, selecting the type based on the level of protection that fits the buyer’s needs. A burglary/intrusion alarm system is activated to monitor motion when premises are vacated. The alarm is triggered at an attempted entry or when motion is detected from inside the empty building. Alarm systems may utilize different technology to detect intrusion or motion in the building.

A basic burglar alarm system is built into doors and windows and other points of entry. The more points of entry armed with detectors, the higher the cost of the system. If a security company is monitoring the system, a simultaneous alarm alert is sent via a phone line or wirelessly.

More sophisticated and costly systems include intrusion detection devices in addition to other features such as security bars, glass break detectors, outside motion detectors, heating and air monitors, security cameras, communications systems, and a siren system. Various technologies can be used to detect entry such as passive infrared detectors that detect body heat, photoelectric beams that sense obstructions in visible or infrared light beams, ultrasonic detectors that emit signals (sound waves) to detect frequency changes, or microwave detectors that monitor energy shifts.

Business or home owners can also set up a closed-circuit TV monitoring system allowing them to call for assistance while actually monitoring the intrusion in real time.


While the majority of alarms that are reported for residential properties are burglary/intrusion alarms, panic/duress alarms are popular as personal alarm systems. Panic buttons are normally activated by a person and can be hard-wired or wireless, fitted in a fixed location (such as under a desk or adjacent to a door), or carried by an individual. They can even be worn as a pendant. They can be silent or emit an audible alarm. A panic button can relay a signal to an alarm panel and can be monitored for response.

Telematics/Vehicle alarms

Telematics is a type of alarm system “that supports two-way communication with a vehicle for the collection or transmission of information,” according to Protocol 104. For example, the OnStar brand of telematics is incorporated into a vehicle’s electronics, and a specific button alerts an OnStar operator who asks about the problem and arranges the appropriate response. Currently, OnStar operators use the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS) to process medical emergency calls.

An anti-theft device in a vehicle relies on loud audible sounds (a siren, klaxon, pre-recorded verbal warning, the vehicle horn, or a combination of all these) activated when the door handle is forced or significant amount of vibration or shock is applied to a vehicle. The noise is designed to act as a deterrent by attracting significant attention to the vehicle. Unfortunately, as with other alarm systems, it’s not always thieves tripping the alarms. A majority of car alarms are false alarms triggered by trucks passing the parked car or glitches in the car’s electrical system.

False alarms

Not every alarm alert identifies a crime in progress. According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice (False Burglar Alarms 2nd Edition), police responded to about 36 million alarm activations in 2002, at an estimated annual cost of $1.8 billion. The vast majority of alarm calls—between 94% and 98%—are false. Alarms can malfunction due to storms, high winds, power outages, animals, tampering, heating cycles, water contact, or operator error. No matter the cause, each false alarm requires approximately 20 minutes of police time, usually for two officers.

Many jurisdictions charge a fee for service in cases of a false alarm. For example, Salt Lake City, Utah, established a system of fines to reduce the number of false holdup, duress, and panic alarms. In the United Kingdom, a combined approach of fines, eventual loss of police service, and device reengineering is used to reduce technology-related false alarms. Jurisdictions trying to recoup costs, however, generally omit the lost-opportunity costs (when police and associated public service workers—including police calltakers and dispatchers—are unavailable to respond to actual crimes due to resources allocated to the false alarm).6

Emergency communications

Suspicions of a false alarm aside, all alarms must be considered a crime in progress until proven otherwise. Protocol 104 provides three pathways to effectively collect information from different types of callers: an alarm monitoring company, a private caller, or a telematics representative.

Most commonly, the EMD will use the alarm monitoring company pathway, which takes just over a minute to process interrogation. This question sequence asks for pertinent property information including the name (commercial and residential) and owner, the specific area where the alarm has triggered, the phone number listed for the business/resident/owner, and possible contact with a keyholder. If contact has been made, the calltaker asks for the name of the person responding, the mode of transportation, and the estimated time of arrival (ETA).

The second pathway addresses private callers reporting a sounding house alarm, vehicle alarm, or other alarm when the source or location of the alarm is unknown. The calltaker asks how long the alarm has been sounding and whether any suspicious activity has been observed. If the alarm is coming from a vehicle, the calltaker will ask for the vehicle’s description using the acronym “CYMBALS,” which stands for “Color, Year, Make/Model, Body style, Additional (paintwork/damage), License, State/Province”.

The third pathway assists the calltaker in gathering information from a telematics call center. This pathway determines the type of response required, the vehicle’s description, and the associated phone number.

After completing Key Question (KQ) interrogation and sending the correct Determinant Code, the EPD should provide Post-Dispatch Instructions (PDIs) when appropriate.

Keep in mind that Case Entry Rule 4 instructs calltakers to shunt to the correct Chief Complaint during interrogation when a more specific Chief Complaint becomes known. For example, the scenario quickly changes when the caller is originally reporting an alarm coming from the direction of a vacationing neighbor’s home (Protocol 104) and then notices, during KQs, two strangers going through an open window. At this point, it is appropriate for the calltaker to shunt to Protocol 110: Burglary (Break and Enter)/Home Invasion. In addition, the calltaker should provide the appropriate PDIs and use the Case Exit Panel X-2 “Stay on the Line” instructions to provide law enforcement with any updates.

Because a calltaker may use Protocol 104 to address non-emergencies several times each shift, these calls must be handled efficiently to deter crime and limit lost-opportunity costs as much as possible.


1 Sampson, R. “The Problem of False Burglar Alarms.” U.S. Department of Justice. False Burglar Alarms 2nd Edition Guide No. 5. 2007. http://www.popcenter.org/problems/false_alarms/1/#endref4 (accessed March 5, 2012).

2 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Preliminary Semiannual Crime Statistics (December 11, 2011) www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/fbi-releases-preliminary-semian...), (accessed Feb. 13, 2012).

3 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 2010 Crime Clock Statistics http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/2010/crime-in-the-... (accessed March 7, 2012).

4 “Burglary Facts and Statistics.” Articlesbase. http://www.articlesbase.com/home-and-family-articles/burglary-facts-and-... (accessed Feb. 14, 2012.)

5 See note 4.

6 Sampson, R. “Community Oriented Policing Services.” U.S. Department of Justice, False Burglar Alarms, 2nd Edition. www.cops.usdoj.gov/files/ric/CDROMs/POP1_60/Problem-Specific/FalseBurgla... (accessed Feb. 13, 2012).

7 See note 5