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A Little History  (  A long read, but worth it)

January 2008


When I first started in the alarm industry back in 1973, it was a time when the older, established companies were the one's you hoped and dreamed you were good enough to get a job with.  Back in those days, systems were built rock solid, 16 gauge steel surrounded the control panel and they were bolted to the wall in such a way that not even a major earthquake could move them.  They had a big meter on the front of the panel which told you that your circuit (one circuit) was good and that you could arm the system with a high security barrel key. The big old 10" bell would give you a "ding" and you were sure that your system was working, and then you waited for the central station operator to send you a "ring-back" acknowledging that you were leaving for the day. Banks of 1 1/2 Volt telephone cells powered the system from a separate cabinet that caught the "acid" if they leaked, and when they were getting low, a service technician would "just show up" and replace the batteries.


Ademco ULC listed "Bell-in-box" weighs about a ton give or take and was always a struggle to mount!


The picture of the NYC Central Station (1960) looked very similar to the  station I worked out of in 1973. (Photo courtesy of AFA Protective Systems Inc)


I found this article on the internet while looking for some pictures. Some very interesting information on the history of the telegraph and the role it played in the first fire alarm monitoring system.


 Mechanical door contacts, window foil, pull traps and lacing were the order of the day which was very labour intensive to install. (My first job with the first alarm company I worked for was to apply window foil to every window in a four storey warehouse. This job consisted of about 4000 panes of glass in a four storey warehouse in downtown Vancouver. It took me 3 months!)  It was all highly visible as well and the installer had to make sure that he did a good job.  Foil had to be straight and the corners perfect. Lacing on ceilings, walls and louvered windows had to be effective but just as important, look good.  Technicians wore uniforms and ties and said "Yes Sir or Yes Ma'am" and treated the client with respect.  Technicians also cleaned up after themselves, vacuumed and swept up and packed all of the installation debris away with them, because the company had their own disposal bin back at the shop.  It was taboo to leave anything behind that the client could complain about!

Motion detectors were still in their infancy and rarely worked with any degree of stability. Ultra-sonic motion detectors, although available and being marketed as new and space age detection technology were being manufactured without a whole lot of field testing. Humidity, temperature and a list of environmental problems, including ringing telephone bells would cause them to false alarm. I can still remember taking telephones apart and putting electrical tape on the bells. Not too many clients could afford an ultra-sonic motion detector system, but we all cursed those systems because of the never ending service calls and seasonal adjustments. Later, micro-wave and passive infra-red motion detectors came into existence, all having their own growing pains that took manufacturers years to resolve.

Photo-electric beams had been around for a number of years, but those were reserved for clients with deep pockets.  I remember the first one I ever saw! It was a contraption looking more like an old high school projector.  The "transmitter" was nothing more than a projector bulb, a lens and an electric fan that modulated the light.  They ran strictly on AC power and had no standby batteries.  The receiver had  vacuum tubes and looked more like the inside of an early television. It had a whopping range of 100 feet!


Back then, installers and technicians took pride in their workmanship, and the companies they worked for insisted on it.  There was no complaints from management because the job went a couple of hours over, and if it didn't, they got suspicious about the quality of the installation. Supervisors would go and check each and every job to make sure that it was up to company standards, go over the system with the client and make sure that they were well instructed on the use of the system and answered any of their questions. Clients were "warned" very sternly about false alarms and taking the whole thing very, very seriously.


Employers treated their installers and technicians differently in those days.  They took the time to train them and show them how the company expected things to be done! There was no free time!  If you weren't working, you were learning. If you weren't learning installation or troubleshooting skills, you were learning work ethics! If you still had some free time, you were cleaning up the stock room, washing your company truck, sweeping floors or out in the field performing inspections.  There was always something to do which we did willingly in order to keep our jobs and our $3.35 and hour (minimum wage was about $2.00 an hour so we were well paid)!  We were allowed to leave at 4:30 and not a minute before! The night shift had the job of cleaning the central station, replenishing ticker tape in the McCulloh receivers, checking the central station batteries and always had reports to write.


In those days clients realized that their security was extremely important and looked upon an alarm system as something very, very serious.  They took steps to prevent false alarms and train their staff and make sure that the alarm system was working 100% at all times.  If they had to stay late after work to wait for a service technician, they did so without complaining because that alarm system had to be working. Clients paid a lot of money back then for a security system, often tens of thousands of dollars because they appreciated the system and the protection it offered. They relied on their system and their alarm system provider!


This is what it was like when I started!


So What Happened?


In the 1980's technology exploded! Motion detectors were getting more and more reliable.  They were also getting smaller and smaller and as they became more popular, they got less expensive. Rechargeable batteries took the place of dry cells, bells were replaced by electronic sirens and key switches were replaced by numerical keypads.  New "chips" gave us digital technology and such outrageous new concepts such as "Entry Exit Timers" (no more mounting a key switch and light bulb outside the building). Technology was exploding and the alarm industry welcomed the changes with open arms. Tape dialers (a recorded voice message announcing the alarm to the central station) was almost instantly taken over by digital communicators.  Faster and more reliable systems were here! By the mid 1980's control panels and digital dialers were combined into one unit which revolutionized the alarm industry! This was truly an exciting time to be an alarm technician! New this and new that............I was like a kid in a toy store!


Manufacturers started to compete fiercely for market shares. Dollar by dollar they trimmed the products down to bare minimum! Control panels came with a "slightly more than a tin can cabinet."  There were fewer and fewer components on the circuit boards and processors became more powerful.  Software development became the order of the day to build in more features rather than dependability! The consumer loved the "Bells, toys and whistles" and said, "Give us more, give us more!"


Then, it happened! Some bean counter decided to analyze, categorize, over simplify and assign the length of time a job should take and then said; "If we sell this and it only takes that, we can install hundreds of these systems for $99.00.  We can get our money back in just two years if we charge this amount and all will be good in the world! We will be rich because we will have thousands and thousands of accounts!" And the CEO listened and said "Let's do it!  We will make all of the other alarm companies suffer because we will be getting all of the installations and all of the money because we can afford to carry the client for a few years and they will stay with us forever and ever and we will be rich! Pass the HP sauce."


And so it began. The small alarm companies tried to compete and could not.  They gave estimate after estimate and always came out more expensive than the big companies and would lose the job. In order for the salesperson to make a sale, they quoted fewer and fewer hours for labour, and when the installer said it couldn't be done in just two hours he was fired!  So the installer said," Next job I get I won't give a damn what it looks like! I'll do the job in two hours even though it should take a whole day to do it right." And so it continued.  This new attitude is passed to the new installer he trains and he doesn't know any better.  He thinks this is normal.  The company he works for now thinks this is normal and maybe the job should take even less time!


Then the bean counter is called into the CEO's office and he says, "This was a good idea, but people aren't paying their bills! We can't have this! What is wrong?". So the bean counter thinks for a moment, (just a moment mind you) and says, "People don't appreciate getting something for next to nothing and the only ones who can't afford anything are signing the contracts, so we'll raise the price to $299.00 and the monthly fee to $35.00 or more, that way we will attract a better class of client.  If they have some investment in the system maybe they will pay their bills." and the CEO said "Make it so.....I'll have some more of that lovely Bordeaux with this prime rib."


And some of the people said; "Wait a minute, that's too much money!" and the CEO said, "Tough, you signed a contract! Your butt is ours for the next three to five years!" and the people said; "Fine, when the contract is up I'll take my business elsewhere!" and the Service Manager said; "Good luck with that because we use proprietary equipment that nobody else can program so your next alarm company will have to replace that piece of junk and you will have to buy a whole new alarm system!". So some of the clients decided to leave the gluttonous multi-national alarm company before the contract was up and ended up reciting the phrase; "I swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God." in Provincial court.


And some of the people said; "Now that my contract is up, I'm switching!". So they call another alarm company and the technician says, "What a mess! I'm sorry sir, but we will have to re-do everything because someone just threw this system in.  You will need a new control panel and keypad and we will have to rewire everything because most of it doesn't even meet the electrical code! This is going to cost you $1500.00 to do this properly." And ALL of the people grumbled and complained, but soon realized that if they had a system installed properly and paid for what the system was really worth, they wouldn't be in this position now.


And so you can see over the course of just a couple of decades how this industry has changed. It was and still can be an honorable profession, but unfortunately attitudes must change! The major alarm companies must stop "giving away" alarm systems and charge accordingly for the value of the services and systems that they provide, and they must provide better systems! In doing this, installers will be more inclined to do a better job and clients will perceive that their system has some value and respect what it can and will do given the opportunity.


The end result will produce fewer false alarms through better quality installations and client respect for the system that protects them.

On the other hand, clients must learn that the $299 alarm system is not a reflection of the true value or cost of the alarm system.  We often hear complaints that our prices are too high, and yes there will always be some trunk slammer out there that will put the system in for less.  We are not one of those companies!


Installing an alarm system is no less labour intensive or demanding than having an electrician wire all of the receptacles, light switches and breaker panel in your home. Would you ask your electrician to do all of that for just $299.00 and supply the materials? I somehow rather doubt that, but over the last twenty years or so people have become so accustomed to hearing about the $99, $199, and $299 installation that they think that this is the normal price of an alarm system. It is not! Some companies base their packages on a portion of the labour or materials, which ever way they are only recovering a small portion up front.  The rest you pay for over the lifetime of the contract (with interest). Once the contract is completed, these companies rarely notify you and offer to reduce your monthly rate to a normal monthly monitoring fee because by now, you are so used to paying that $35 + per month, that you think that is normal! They are just banking that you won't notice and you keep subscribing to their service at the inflated price.


I'll have a little ketchup with these fries.