alarm system

Richmond fixes bad connection with local alarm companies

Many people don’t realize this, but because many alarm and contract security companies aren’t located in the same jurisdiction as the businesses and homes they are protecting, they can't just call 911 when a customer's system reports an emergency. 

Project At A Glance

Name: Automated Secure Alarm Protocol (ASAP)

Office: Public Safety Team, City of Richmond, Virginia Department of Information Technology

Technology: XML data template, GJXDM, NIEM open standards, ANSI standard, PERL, International Justice and Public Safety Network

Time to implementation: Two years

Before: Alarm companies trying to notify 911 emergency centers would often be put on hold because they could not use priority 911 lines. Calls would be delayed, up to 15 minutes in some cases, resulting in property damage and possible loss of life.

After: Most emergency calls from alarm companies get immediate response, with the correct emergency services crews starting out within 15 seconds of the initial notification. High-priority events such as hold-up alarms are also instantly sent to police mobile computers. Over 20,000 calls have been placed using the ASAP system with no errors or dispatch delays.

Instead, they have to call a standard seven digit number to talk to emergency dispatchers in their customer’s area. However, because 911 operators are required to prioritize calls coming into 911 lines, alarm companies can sometimes be put on hold — for a long time. 

Even once the call is answered, differences in regional dialects and unfamiliarity with the area can delay response times even more as the alarm company operator and the 911 dispatcher confer about the nature and location of the emergency.

The Public Safety Team in  Richmond, Va., wanted to fix this problem, and set about on a two-year quest to better link alarm companies with emergency services. Part of the fix, as they initially envisioned it, would have alarm companies send a notice using standard XML that conformed to the National Information Exchange Model standards. But that was only the start of a solution. Richmond wanted to simply have alarm messages sent through the International Justice and Public Safety Network (Nlets), which links emergency dispatchers in all 50 states using state-based control points. However, this was found to be impractical because Nlets couldn't handle an estimated 300 to 600 new connections from alarm companies that would be necessary. Also, FBI regulations require that each site that wants to connect to Nlets needs to be inspected for physical security and have other policies in place to keep the network secure. The estimated cost of each inspection? $3,000.

Richmond instead developed its own system called Message Broker, a combination of hardware and software  that would act as middleware between Nlets and alarm monitoring companies.

Using the resulting Automated Secure Alarm Protocol (ASAP), alarm companies can now connect to Message Broker, and the city is responsible for making sure each new connection is secure and that messages are sent to it in the proper format. When an alarm company sends an alert, Message Broker checks for errors and then forwards the message to the appropriate emergency response center. In addition, high-priority alarms such has hold-ups and burglary signals can be sent directly to mobile computers inside police cars.

The system went live in April of 2012. Since then, it has handled more than 20,000 alarm notifications most of which are responded to within 15 seconds. The  automated process now frees up 911 operators who can instead concentrate on calls coming in to the 911 lines from citizens. 

According to the city of Richmond, all electronic exchanges delivered through the system have been free from error. There have been no mistaken dispatches for any alarm received via the data exchange. And the information hand-off works so quickly that there are at least four documented cases when police arrived on the scene of a burglar alarm, only to find the perpetrator still on the premises, leading to an arrest.

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