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Alarming Trend

Private Security Companies' Popularity Grows as Police Response Times Rise


When Jacquie and Oren Michels were building a home in Hollywood in 1991, Jacquie issued an ultimatum to her husband: "No alarm system, no wife."

While it may have been a joking threat, there was no argument. Today, the couple have two young children and the peace of mind that comes with knowing that their home security company--which installed and monitors their system, patrols their street and responds within minutes to an alarm or a call for help--is there when needed.

Jacquie Michels is convinced that the company's sign on her front lawn, with its pledge of "Armed Response," serves as a deterrent.

"Our neighbor didn't have [a security system] and his home was broken into," she said. "Two days later, the sign went up."

The Greenfelds--Tina, Peter and their two young children--chose a company that regularly patrols their West Los Angeles neighborhood, quickly responds to alarms and will even, upon request, send its officers to meet them in front of their house and escort them inside when they're arriving home after dark.

"I feel comfortable knowing that if my husband is working late and I hear a strange noise, I can call and someone will meet me in five minutes to check it out," Tina Greenfeld said.

The Michels and the Greenfelds represent a growing number of Southland families who are turning to private security companies, knowing that law enforcement officers are increasingly hard-pressed to provide routine neighborhood patrol and timely response to burglar alarm calls.

Residential alarms have proliferated in recent years. In some Southern California neighborhoods, it's difficult to find a house without a home security sign in the frontyard.

In the city of Los Angeles alone, there are 120,000 licensed home security systems, but officials believe there are many more homeowners whose systems are unlicensed.

More than 1,100 alarm companies are based in Southern California, nearly half in L.A. County, according to the state Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the home security industry.

Alarm companies employ nearly 6,000 people in the Southland, the majority of whom are licensed and trained to respond to alarms.

Nationally, 20% of single-family homes are equipped with security systems, according to a survey published in Security Sales, a Torrance-based trade magazine. That's nearly double the percentage found by the same survey in 1987.

Fueling the increase in home security systems are both the public's perception of crime and personal safety and declining cost of security technology.

Although crime statistics may be going down in some areas, many homeowners feel a greater need for protection.

And today it's not uncommon for companies to charge $99 or less to install a basic system, along with a monthly fee of about $20 to monitor it, said George Gunning, president of the California Alarm Assn.

For that, the homeowner typically gets a microprocessor that serves as a control panel, a keypad for turning the system on, a motion detector and magnetic sensors on two or three doors and windows.

Most security experts advise going beyond the basic package. And add-ons--everything from wiring additional doors and windows to installing detectors sensitive to pets, broken glass, heat and smoke--raise the price.

The typical installation cost for a residential burglar alarm system in 1997 was $1,200, with a $20 monthly monitoring fee, according to a Security Sales survey of dealers. But the sky's the limit--an alarm company owner says he once installed a $450,000 residential system.

Virtually all systems operate the same way:

* When the alarm is on and a point of entry equipped with magnetic sensors is breached, digital signals are sent to the alarm company's central monitoring station.

* A company operator then calls the homeowner to determine whether there is an emergency or a crime occurring.

* If the homeowner responds with a predetermined password, the alarm is canceled.

* If there is no answer or the wrong password is given, most companies will contact the police.

But as many as 96% of these alarms are false, caused by either a system malfunction or, more commonly, user error. And so, when an unverified alarm is referred to the police, it is likely to go to the bottom of the priority list.

"For years, the alarm companies have marketed the police department as their response tool," said Richard Rudell, who heads the enforcement section of the Los Angeles Police Commission, which oversees alarm companies and other businesses that require police permits to operate in the city.

"People think that when their alarm goes off, they're going to have a police officer respond to their call," Rudell said. "And that's not necessarily the case."

The average police response time to an unverified alarm is 55 minutes, according to the LAPD.

"That's tantamount to no response at all, quite frankly," said Earle Graham, vice president of patrol and central station services for the Westec Security Group.

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