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Alarm company aims remote-video arrow at false alarms, but also hits business-management target

Alarm Verifier or Remote Business Manager?

BY LAURA E. STEPANEKSenior Editor, SDM

The efforts that a commercial alarm company took to reduce false alarms led to its use of a new technology - remote video - and the discovery that there were other applications besides alarm verification and potentially a whole new market to pursue.

"We were looking for ways to help combat false alarms and one of the ways we thought we could do that was to only dispatch on verified alarms," says Scott Elkins, president of Universal Atlantic Systems (UAS), Broomall, Pa. "We began to market alarm verification as a false alarm reduction tool."

But trying to sell false-alarm-delinquent customers a $10,000 system that would allow them to clean up their act through video verification of alarms wasn't a "comfortable sale," Elkins says.

"Although customers identified that there was a need for alarm verification, most were not willing to spend capital dollars to fix the false alarm problem, because they were throwing new money at an old problem and weren't happy about it….The customer wasn't in a buying mode."

Additionally, Elkins thought remote video technology, at the time, wasn't as good as it could have been. It was the early 1990s and the transmission speed was relatively slow, image quality relatively poor, and features limited. While this portion of the business grew "very, very slowly," Elkins says UAS began to examine other applications for remote, phone-line video technology. Simultaneously, the technology was improved.

UAS found that there was an even bigger market for remote video technology in businesses that have multiple locations in multiple markets. The company also realized that the potential applications were driven more by effective business operations than by security.

For example, a manager of a fast-food restaurant can use remote video technology to see if the restaurant is clean, if staff levels are sufficient to handle customer load, and if the staff is in proper uniform. The manager also can watch employees' habits and customers' behavior.

"It's hard to manage a lot of people. One manager can't be on site 24 hours a day," Elkins says, offering a reason for interest in this service as a business-management tool.
UAS offers three tiers of remote-video surveillance service. The UAS brand is called Raven Remote Video, although Elkins declined to say who makes the product for UAS.
Most popular form of the service is straight remote video, where customers' camera images can be viewed remotely on a desktop or laptop computer by dialing into the site. Recording is optional.

Whether it's used for alarm verification or remote business management, Ron Schwartz (left), chairman, and Scott Elkins, president, of Universal Atlantic Systems, have built a growing business with remote video surveillance technology.

Second, alarms are monitored through traditional digital communications. During an alarm condition, cameras can pan, tilt, and zoom to alarm points and images are automatically transmitted to the central station for verification. Customers (business managers) also can dial in to the remote site for surveillance on their PC, but if an alarm occurs while someone else is online, the system automatically disconnects anyone online, so central station transmission of images takes priority.

Third, UAS dials in at specific times for certain customers and does an audio and visual security check.

"We can dial in, speak to the people at the site and say, 'This is security checking in' and we can see what's happening. Employees can also push a disturbance alarm and we can come online with both audio and video."

"Although we believe that somewhere down the line - whether it's five, 10 or 15 years - alarm verification may be required prior to dispatch, we believe that there are many other uses today for this technology from an operations standpoint, not a security standpoint."

In fact, one aspect of this market that Elkins enjoys is selling to people who have operational responsibility.

"A security manager is likely to look at this technology and say, 'I can't catch anybody stealing (by dialing in randomly)', but operations people look at it and say, 'I can run my business more effectively.'"

Remote video comprised 2 percent of the firm's revenue in 1998. This year Elkins expects it to be about 15 percent.

"We anticipate tremendous growth, tremendous changes in technology and a tremendous amount of interest from customers who have not shown interest previously," he says.

What does Elkins think of today's technology?

"I think it's a natural that we'll see faster rates of transmission…as the telecommunications industry continues to provide larger amounts of bandwidth at more reasonable rates."

As for the future of remote video surveillance as an alarm verification took, UAS chairman Ron Schwartz believes its future is imminent, especially if the security industry can gather the backing of law enforcement.

As a member of the private sector liaison committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Schwartz would like to see video and audio verification become mandatory for businesses with chronic false alarms. In fact, Schwartz helped write a standard for verification for the Central Station Alarm Association, which he plans to soon present to the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association and the Security Industry Association.

"If the (industry) could get together and agree on an answer to the (false alarm) problem, I feel certain that video and audio would be at the top of the list…for the commercial establishments," Schwartz says.

Schwartz believes video alarm verification can be a cost effective solution to false alarms for some customers, "depending on how much it costs in false alarm charges a year," he says. "Many businesses that have numerous false alarms have literally budgeted money for false alarm costs. They could probably save that money plus have the additional protection."

However, until police require it, Schwartz believes video alarm verification will be a slow-moving market.