Guide to monitored alarms

Guide to monitored alarmsHow to choose a monitored alarm system

A guide to choosing the best monitored alarm system: an introduction to the different types of alarm monitoring technologies

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The world of monitored alarms and alarm monitoring has become increasingly complicated over the years, as technology advances.  The following is a good guide to how to choose the best monitored alarm for your circumstances, and a guide to different alarm monitoring options on the market in the UK . . .

What is alarm monitoring?

Alarm monitoring is a 3rd party service attached to a traditional burglar alarm system that is automatically connected to the alarm when an alarm signal is received, remotely alerting a 3rd party of the alarm activation.
There are several different types of alarm monitoring, providing different levels of security to the end user.  The most common type of ‘auto-dialler response’, where the alarm automatically calls / sends an SMS to you or a key-holder – this provides limited but useful levels of response.  The most sophisticated type is ‘immediate audio-response’ where a speaker/microphone installed the property allows a human controller in the monitoring station to immediately listen and talk into the property and respond appropriately (e.g. call the emergency services if necessary).
The main differences in the different alarm monitoring services are:
  • Communication type: how the alarm communicates to the 3rd party monitoring service i.e. via the telephone line, GSM mobile phone line or via the internet (commonly known as IP monitoring)
  • Response method: how the monitoring service reacts in an alarm activation situation i.e. does it simply automatically call or SMS you, does a human controller call you, is there anything more sophisticated like the ability for immediate two-way communication between the controller and your house (via a speaker / microphone device in the property)

How does alarm monitoring work?

Alarm monitoring works by adding a ‘digital communicator’ device (also known as a ‘digicom’)  to traditional burglar alarm equipment, enabling the burglar alarm to communicate to a 3rd party when an activation occurs.
How alarm monitoring works

The 3 different alarm communication channels type

As noted above there are typically x3 ways a digital communicator connects to the alarm monitoring service.  These are:
  • Fixed-line telephone (also known as PSDN): communication via a traditional telephone line
  • Mobile phone (also known as GSM): communication via a GSM channel, in the same way a mobile phone communicates
  • Internet (also known as IP): communication over IP (internet protocol)
The different benefits / challenges to each of these different communication channels:
Fixed-line telephone
  • Benefits: reliable and secure.  Fixed-line telephones have a 99.9% up time (i.e. fixed-line telephones rarely fail)
  • Challenges:  fixed-line telephones are becoming less popular as more people use a mix of mobile phones and the internet.  Telephone lines can also be cut by burglars in extreme circumstances.
Mobile phone
  • Benefits: flexible, as doesn’t rely on a fixed-line telephone.  Also less susceptible to ‘line cut’, as operate wirelessly.
  • Challenges: comparatively unreliable as relies on reliable mobile phone signal, which can be patchy (have comparatively low ‘up-time’ compared to fixed-line telephones).
Internet / IP
  • Benefits: easy-to-implement, as can be implemented both via wifi and also via wired-internet
  • Challenges: probably the most unreliable communication channel with internet drop-out being comparatively high (especially compared to fixed-line telephones).  Reliability is definitely on the up, but today it’s still a question in the context of security.  It’s OK if the internet drops out and you can’t access your favourite website, but not so great if the internet drops out when your property’s broken into.
One important note is that you can opt to connect your digital communicator to more than one channel at once e.g. you could add GSM-back to a standard fixed telephone monitoring service.

The 3 different Alarm monitoring response types

There are in general x3 typical types of alarm monitoring response you can choose in a system.  These are:
  • Auto-dialler: the most common type of monitoring is ‘auto-dialler response’, where the alarm automatically calls / sends an SMS to you or a key-holder – this provides limited but useful level of response.
  • Telephone call-back response: this is a slightly more robust version of monitoring than ‘auto-dialler’ as instead of a bot automatically calling a series of pre-programmed telephone numbers (as in the auto-dialler instance), ‘call back’ monitoring involves a human controller in a monitoring station calling your key contacts in the occurrence of an alarm activation.
  • Immediate audio-response: the most sophisticated type is ‘immediate audio-response’ where a speaker/microphone installed the property allows a human controller in the monitoring station to immediately listen and talk into the property and respond appropriately (e.g. call the emergency services if necessary).  This is typical in LiveTalk monitoring.
Additional to these types of alarm monitoring are brand-specific monitoring services, like ‘Redcare’.  Redcare is a service from BT which  has ‘line-cut’ functionality.
Here’s an example of Auto-dialler alarm monitoring in action:

And here’s a video showing how Immediate-audio response monitoring works:

 How monitored alarm systems compare

 Bells only
  • Positive: low-cost, no on-going monthly monitoring fee
  • Negative: low impact / ineffective as people ignore alarm bells ringing in the street
Auto-dialler monitoring
  • Positive: low-cost, no on-going monthly monitoring fee
  • Negative: limited effectiveness, as the system by its very nature is ‘automatic’ calling a set number of key-holders without any indication whether there could be a false alarm or not (which is very common)
Call-back monitoring 
  • Positive: provides some level of verification (as involves a real person in a monitoring station)
  • Negative: doesn’t provide hugely useful levels of verification, can be be expensive for the service provided
Immediate audio-response monitoring
  • Positive: provides high-levels of verification and quick response to real emergencies (as the monitoring station can actively listen in and talk into the property)
  • Negative: requires a monthly monitoring fee

 Benefits of monitored alarms over bells only

Historically most burglar alarms have been ‘bells only’ systems i.e. when the alarm is activated, a bell is activated outside the property to bring attention to the burglary.  Due to the relatively high occurrence of false-alarms, and the annoying nature of a bell ringing on a street, bells-only systems have become less effective and increasingly less popular.
Alarm systems with alarm monitoring have started to become the norm, largely due to the increase in use of IoT-stype devices and the increasing sophistication of consumers.  With the recent innovation by Google and their Google Home device, along with Amazon and their Alexa service, the idea of installing ‘speaker microphones’ in your property is no longer an alien concept, meaning that services like AMCO’s ‘immediate audio-response’ alarm monitoring has now the potential to become more mainstream.

What to ask when buying a monitored alarm

Monitored alarms are becoming more prevalent, and less of a niche product.  That said there are still multiple different monitored alarm products on the market, so you should always make sure you’re asking the right questions.  Here are a few to get you started:
  • What type of alarm monitoring service it is from a ‘communication perspective’? (i.e. does it work over telephone line, mobile or internet – or all?!)
  • How does the alarm monitoring ‘response’ work? (i.e. is it just an auto-dial system, is it a call-back system linked to a monitoring station, or does it have immediate audio-response via a speaker / microphone)
  • Is the monitoring system compatible with my existing alarm system? (i.e. can I take my existing alarm system and plug-in a more advanced form of alarm monitoring easily?)
  • What work is involved in installing the monitoring equipment? (i.e. does it require wiring into a telephone line or internet cable?)
  • How much does the installation cost and what is the monthly ongoing monitoring cost?
  • What is the minimum contractual period for the monitoring contract?  (N.B. a lot of alarm companies e.g. ADT require a minimum 36 month (3 year) contract.  Make sure you know what you’re signing up to)
  • Are there any other hidden costs (e.g. premium line call costs for whenever the monitoring system dials out)
  • What is the typical response times for the monitoring?

Examples of companies in the UK who sell monitored alarms

AMCO (Alarm Monitoring Company): specialists in ‘immediate audio response’ monitored alarms, providing the highest security of all alarm systems.
ADT: biggest alarm company in the UK by volume (they’re actually a US company, owned by Tyco).  Largely specialise in auto-dialler systems.
Banham: London-based security company.  Mostly famous for their patented lock systems, but installing an increasing number of monitored alarm systems.
Secom: global Japanese HQ’s security company.  Mostly specialise in commercial alarm systems.

Glossary of terminology

  • Monitored alarm: an intruder alarm that has ‘alarm monitoring’ integrated in it, allowing the alarm to directly communicate to the outside world via some form of telecommunication device (e.g. telephone line, internet line or mobile phone).
  • Digicom: short of ‘digital communicator’ a digicom is the piece of technology that actively dials out to the monitoring station.
  • Monitoring station / Monitoring centre: the place in which ‘controllers’ (specially trained people) sit and respond to incoming alarm activations – either calling key holders or emergency services depending on the situation.  Monitoring stations are used in the context of ‘call-back’ and ‘immediate audio-response’ monitoring.
  • Auto-dialler: the most simple form of ‘digicom’ technology that is connected to an alarm, allowing the alarm to automatically dial out to a number of key holders when the alarm is activated.

Links to other useful resources linked to alarm monitoring

– Alarm monitoring cost comparison >>