Worried about crime? Recent Deseret News polls indicate you are, but what can you do about it?
Many Utahns are deciding to stop fretting and take action, thus the success of the Salt Lake City Mobile Watch program that now has some 1,000 volunteers patrolling neighborhoods.Others have decided that if they can't personally make their neighborhoods safer they can at least take measures to safeguard their own property and families by installing home security systems.
"We're signing people up at a rate of about 100 per month," said David Paul, director of marketing for Questar HomeWorks, which offers home security systems through an agreement with Salt Lake City-based Armed Alert Security System.
Questar Gas customers in Utah received a $1,000 voucher in their April gas bills good for free installation of a security system in their home. The catch? They must sign up for three years of monitored service at $24.99 per month.
Utah Power is offering a similar service in its monthly electricity bills under an agreement with another security firm, Protection One.
Home security has become big business in Utah. The National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association has 15 members in Utah and that doesn't include non-NBFAA members such as the two affiliated with Questar and Utah Power.
Do security systems do any good? Salt Lake Police Lt. Phil Kirk avoids any blanket endorsements of the security alarm industry but allows that the department is in favor of crime prevention measures.
"We'd rather have crime prevented than to try and find and arrest a criminal afterward," said Kirk. "Rather than a victim, we'd rather have preventive measures in place."
If Kirk seems less than totally committed to the idea of security alarms, it's not hard to see why. Police officers waste a lot of their time responding to false alarms.
"Ninety-eight percent of all alarms are false alarms," said Shanna Werner, the police department's alarm coordinator. That leaves only a minuscule 2 percent as the real thing. Who could blame police for not putting much credence in an alarm drop when faced with those statistics?
Too many false alarms can get expensive for home owners. City code allows four false alarms in any 365-day period. After that, it's a $100 fine every time the police respond. The department offers a two-hour class on avoiding false drops that includes a $100 certificate toward the bill.
Werner says 78 percent of false alarms are caused by "user error." The rest are "environmental" problems, such as ceiling fans, flapping curtains or those Mylar balloons that tend to move about, tripping the alarm.
"I've even had people say that a spider crawled over the sensor, tripping the alarm," said Werner. "At that distance, a spider looks like a freight train coming through the house."
Despite the problems, alarms remain the department's third officer-response priority, says Werner, behind homicide and domestic violence. Typical response time on weekdays is 5-6 minutes, which she says "isn't bad." But she notes that response time can fall to 20-30 minutes on weekends when backlogs build up. That's plenty of time for the bad guys to do their dirty work and get out.
But the theory is that simply by having an alarm your home may be a less tempting target than your neighbor's if it doesn't have one. It's sort of a reverse take on the Golden Rule: Give the burglar a reason to do unto others rather than unto you.
There are studies claiming that while one out of every four homes will be burglarized, an alarm system reduces that figure to one out of every 100. But with mass marketing of alarm systems increasing the numbers of homes that have them, will police be able to keep up with all the calls? That remains to be seen, says Werner, but reducing the percentage of false alarms would help.
The security alarm business has changed a lot in recent years, following a path somewhat similar to that of cellular phones. The hardware - the equipment installed in your home - is generally free. The companies make their money via monthly monitoring charges.
Also, the burglar alarm is only part of the package in a modern system. Many setups also include "panic" alarms for use when intruders enter a residence while someone is home. And if a resident has a medical emergency, it will call the paramedics. Another feature is a fire alarm that senses a fire and then automatically calls the fire department.
The latter may be the most valuable of all, says Questar's Paul. "A regular smoke detector only works when someone is home. If no one is there, it just burns up with the house."
Many people already have a good burglar alarm, says Kirk: "A dog, preferably one that barks loudly." Of course that type of alarm can generate a visit from the police for another reason - unhappy neighbors.
Why are utility companies such as Questar and Utah Power getting into the security alarm business? It's a national trend, said Paul. As deregulation hits the utilities industry, local companies are scrambling for ways to diversify their sources of income.
"We're trying to leverage customer loyalty and broaden our base of services," said Paul, noting that Questar is offering a broad range of home services, including carbon monoxide monitors, earthquake and water monitors, water heater braces, emergency power generators and various fire safety products. Questar even offers a home maintenance and improvement plan under its HomeWorks umbrella.
With hundreds of thousands of ready-made customers in Utah, the utilities clearly have a big edge in the marketing arena.
The most basic home security system consists of no system at all; simply signs in the yard and perhaps a bogus "detector" or two.
A very basic wired system involves placing electronic circuit breakers on the doors and windows that lead to a breaker box. If someone opens a door or window, an alarm or siren goes off. The theory is it scares the burglar away and maybe one of the neighbors calls the cops. Or perhaps they just ignore it because it's gone off so many times before and they find it annoying.
The more sophisticated systems automatically place a call to the central switchboard of the monitoring company when the alarm is tripped, and they may or may not also issue an audible alarm. The company then calls the home. If no one answers, or if someone answers but they don't know the proper code word, then the company sends for the cavalry.
The central station may also call a family member or neighbor in a medical emergency. The people monitoring the system know which alarm went off so they know if it's a break-in, a medical emergency or a fire. (Those most at risk of a medical emergency usually carry the panic button on their person).
Along with the door and window breakers, some systems also include motion detectors, monitors that react to the sound of breaking glass, and video cameras. Some even have cellular phone backup in case the thieves try to defeat the system by cutting the outside phone lines.
The most convenient systems for existing homes (rather than new construction) are completely wireless.
Whatever kind you choose, a home security system requires some lifestyle changes and everyone in the family has to get on board. Police are forever investigating burglaries at homes where the owners didn't bother to turn it on - or even lock the doors - before going out.