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Alarm System Basics: False Alarm Prevention

Updated on August 14, 2011
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Whether you have just installed your alarm system, or you have had an alarm system for decades, false alarms are important to understand and prevent. According to the Kansas City Police Department, about 97% of alarm calls they respond to are considered false alarms (Source). These false alarms are not only costly due to fines, but they can also cause you to lose faith in your alarm system, making it nothing more than a very expensive wall decoration. By taking proactive steps to prevent false alarms, you can ensure that you get the most out of your alarm system!

Identifying the Cause of a False Alarm

False alarms can be tricky to identify the cause of, mainly because if the alarm is going off, usually it is because the owner is not inside, however, the majority of false alarms are caused by human error according to ADT. Some examples of these situations would include:

  • Forgotten or wrong code
  • Opening or closing a business outside of schedule without proper authorization
  • After hours personnel entering the facility (janitorial, vendors, etc...)
  • Baby-sitter or house-sitter who is not familiar with the alarm system
  • Arming the system incorrectly

Another common cause of false alarms are pets! Those cute four (to eight?) legged creatures that we hold so dear are notorious for setting off alarms from anything from motion detectors to door sensors to glass break detectors! While many alarm system salespeople will tell customers that their system is pet-friendly, most pet owners are aware that their animals can be quite resourceful and creative when it comes to getting into places they are not supposed to!

Other less common causes of false alarms include:

  • Construction in the area
  • Power problems (surges or outages)
  • Very strong storms or wind
  • Changes in the environment (New appliances, fans, balloons, etc...)
  • Malfunctioning sensors
  • Dirty, dusty, cobwebby, or otherwise non-maintained sensors

The first step to preventing false alarms is to identify the cause or potential causes for them, and take steps to eliminate them. If a false alarm is occurring, and a cause cannot be found, a few questions may help to narrow it down.

  • Does the alarm occur at a certain time during the day? If so, what is going on during that time?
  • Is there a certain person that seems to be messing with the alarm system when it goes off?
  • Have there been any changes at all to the room or area where the alarm device is located?

If a cause cannot be identified, and the system you have is monitored, the alarm company will usually work with you to help identify causes and remedy them. False alarms cost your alarm company money too! Maintaining a good relationship with the authorities in your area is important to most alarm companies, because this relationship is part of the reason police take alarm calls seriously. Some companies will even send a technician out to survey the system and find causes of false alarms for free, especially if there have been multiple or regular false alarms from the home or office.

That isn't glare from the flash, that is mischief in his eyes.
That isn't glare from the flash, that is mischief in his eyes. | Source

Simple Steps to Prevent False Alarms

1. Reduce the Chance of Human Error
Since human error is the cause of the majority of false alarms, this is a very important step to take. It is also the easiest!

  • Make sure that everyone who will use the alarm system knows their code and how to arm and disarm the system correctly.
  • It is also a good idea to give anyone that should have the authority to cancel police response to an alarm authorization to do so! Most commonly, this means making a call to your alarm company and setting them up with a password. With a little patience, you can set up each person with their own individual password, and set rules for what each password is allowed to do (For example, a password might only be valid to stop police response, but not to make work orders or change information on the account.)
  • Know your system! There are many ways you can use your own system to reduce the risk of human error without having to spend time on the phone with the alarm company. Depending on what type of system you have, you might be able to make new codes and delete old codes right from your keypad, which is perfect for temporary visitors, such as a baby-sitter. There are also different ways to arm your system, such as arming the perimeter only (no motion detectors).
  • If the alarm system is in a business, it is a good idea to keep the schedule for your alarm system up to date, either at the keypad, with the alarm company, or both. This way, if someone is working late one night, they will not have to deal with police thinking they are a burglar. This also works the other way around too! If your business is closed for a holiday, it is a good idea to make sure that no one is opening the business without authorization.
  • If you have a key-chain remote for your alarm system (referred to as a keyfob) make sure that you know where it is at all times. Sending your key-chain through the wash, or forgetting about it under a pile of groceries on the table can lead to false alarms, both from the panic button and by inadvertently arming the system without you realizing it.

2. Be Aware of Pets
As mentioned above, pets can wreak havoc on an alarm system when it is armed. Even small dogs and cats can set off alarms!

  • Understand how your motion detectors work. Motion detectors do just that- detect motion! They do not have scales to weigh if your dog is under fifty pounds. Some motion detectors have a field of vision that has "rays" like bike spokes. When an object passes through so many rays, the motion detector is activated. Most "pet-friendly" motion detectors will make the field of vision higher, allowing clearance for your furry buddy to walk under the rays, and not through them. All of this is useless if you have an animal that jumps up on furniture, runs around and plays, or is just a plain trouble-maker.
  • If possible, limit pets to rooms where they will not set off the alarm accidentally (or on purpose).
  • If limiting pet movement is not a possibility because there is no place to put them or they destroy any kind of barricade you put up, you might consider leaving your motion detectors unarmed (which is commonly called "Stay" mode)
  • Other devices that animals can set off can include glass break detectors, if they have a bark that is similar to the pitch of breaking glass, or door and window sensors if they tend to jump up on them. Usually, if the doors and windows are secure, and the sensor itself is not being bumped, the alarm should not go off.

3. Take Precautions if Power Problems, Bad Weather, Construction, or Other Circumstances Might Cause a False Alarm.
While these situations are some of the least common causes for false alarms, they are still very easy to avoid.

  • Put your alarm system on disregard with your monitoring company. You can usually do this for a single signal (for example, a burglar alarm that is coming from the same door sensor every time the wind blows) or for the entire system. You can also set an expiration time and date for the disregard. Keep in mind that when the disregard expires, the company will respond to alarms as usual, so if the situation takes longer to resolve, you will want to call them again and put it back on disregard.
  • Take precautions to make sure that sensors will not be damaged during bad weather. Leaky doors and windows can get water onto sensors and cause them to send all kinds of strange signals, and may cause them to need replacement, which can be costly as well.
  • If there are people renovating or remodeling, make sure that they know where alarm system sensors and devices are if they are working in the same area. If they are not aware that you have an alarm system, they may set it off accidentally. Even if the burglar system is not armed at the time, the smoke detectors might go off or they might break a sensor causing it to send out a tamper alarm.

4. Other Easy Steps to Take

  • Be aware of any changes in the environment where the alarm system is located. If a new appliance, animal, or other change seems to be a cause for the false alarm, it will be a lot easier to identify it and stop further false alarms from occurring.
  • Maintain your alarm system properly, including keeping the sensors clean and dust or cobweb free and changing batteries if needed. If you do open a sensor to change a battery, it's a good idea to call your alarm company first to put that sensor on disregard so that they do not receive tamper or alarm signals from it when it is opened.
  • If there are any changes to the system, including code or password, make sure that everyone that uses the system is aware of the changes.
  • If there are locked gates or other obstacles that would stop police from getting a good look at the house in the event of an alarm, make sure that the alarm company or someone else can tell them how to get through them. Sometimes, a false alarm is not a false alarm, the police just were unable to actually see the break-in

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Summary

While a majority of alarms that are sent to the authorities are false, it is easy to prevent them from occurring in most cases. Following simple steps and becoming more aware of your alarm system can save you unnecessary headaches, fines, and help you to know that you can depend on your alarm system.

If you have any questions regarding your system or any of the functions described in this article, the best place to find answers are from the manual that came with  your system or the alarm company that installed it. Do not be afraid to reach out to your company for advice or troubleshooting, either! By putting a stop to false alarms, each responsible alarm system owner is helping himself, the authorities in the area, and the alarm company too!

If you found this article helpful, you may also like to read:

Alarm System Basics: Before Buying

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