Mixed signals

15 February 2017

Andy Fyvie looks at the changing face of criminality and how security technology has advanced to try to stay one step ahead.

HAS MONITORED alarm signalling changed the very nature of criminal activity in the UK? After more than 20 years in the security business, I’m convinced it has. It’s just one of the huge shifts that are affecting our sector today. And as the pace of change accelerates, I believe our industry will need to put on its creative thinking cap if it wants to keep up.

When I joined the alarm business in 1993, the world was a very different place. Crime against property was the chief concern of insurers; ram raiders were smashing diggers into stores and making off with thousands of pounds’ worth of stock before the Police were even aware.

Then along came alarm signalling, with 24-hour monitoring by alarm-receiving centres (ARCs) and, gradually, crime against property stopped paying. Police were turning up while perpetrators were still in the building, so there was no getting away from being caught red-handed.

Two decades ago, my company, BT Redcare, was the only guy on the block doing this type of monitored alarm transmission. Naturally, further competition came along over the years, and the value of thefts from property went down and down.

Criminality in certain fields was being curtailed by effective alarm installations and monitoring – a win for society, there’s no doubt about it. And as the consequences of crime against property became less severe, the insurance companies were quick to notice. In the nineties, they considered property security their first priority but today, it’s in third place, behind arson and flood.

Let’s follow insurers’ thinking about these values. Fire, naturally, carries the greatest risk, because not only does it potentially involve loss of life it can also destroy a business completely, from premises to stock to data. It’s costly to come back from that; 85% of small-to-medium-sized businesses that suffer a major fire never recover, or cease trading within 18 months.

Flood danger has been on the increase in recent years because of extreme weather conditions. Again, this can cause long-term, or even terminal damage to a business, or home.

And crime against property? Well, there’s always going to be the sort of Hatton Garden break-in we saw recently, but such events are increasingly rare. In short, alarm providers and installers are giving their customers a great service but, in the process, reducing one area of our own business. And that shift in risk is just one of the factors that is creating future challenges for our industry.

Crime reduction

So, crimes against property have decreased because it’s now much harder to rob places undetected. But there are now also fewer places that need a top level of protection. For instance, the recession hit the high street hard. Where we were once protecting customers ranging from banks to big retailers, many of these have since closed and been replaced by charity shops, or budget retailers, who simply do not need security services.

Supermarkets, too, are changing: the discounted brands, with their no-frills, cost-conscious approach often apply the same ethos to their security and protection. Premium retailers, however, are likely to go for more robust, secure and costly systems and processes.

The alarm industry is also facing some worrying challenges from global giants in the technology field. For example, in 2014, Google’s Nest Labs decided it needed wi-fi video-streaming security cameras and so snapped up Dropcam for $555m. It’s hard to combat that level of investment capability.

Alarm signalling

The internet has certainly improved alarm-signalling services, as there’s no longer complete reliance on landlines or mobile channels, but it has also created challenges. When I started in the industry in the nineties, around 1% of people had internet access; by 2007, this had risen to 97%. Now, the internet is ubiquitous and, in recent years, apps have appeared and been offered with system packages so that people can check the security of their premises remotely, from their mobile phones.

Apple Home Kit is one example (another huge investment into improving security by a global tech giant). The Home Kit brings together all the smart devices in a home, or other premises, into a single ecosystem that can be accessed via a smartphone or watch. It includes security facilities, as well as fire detection.

So, have we in the alarm industry done so well – and yet been so overtaken – that there actually is no future? Will we go the way of Betamax and the fax machine? I firmly believe not, and I base that conviction on three very solid factors:

  • • Capability and experience;
  • • Innovation;
  • • Trust.

The first factor, and it’s a big one, is capability and experience. Our industry has a game-changing level of both, as I’ve already shown, and it extends from the designers and manufacturers of alarm equipment to the installers and those who provide services on a daily basis. That body of knowledge cannot be overlooked.

The second factor is innovation, and this is where we need to get our industry thinking caps on. Over the two decades since BT Redcare created a step-change in alarm signalling and monitoring, the whole industry has come a long way. First came signalling to an ARC via a landline, followed by the extremely effective dual path, using mobile as an alternative if the landline was snipped. Then came motion sensors ‒ from simple PIR large grey lumps of plastic to the small, sleek and modern video cameras of today.

Our industry is used to innovating and I think we have the capacity to do more. Even rethinking the latent capability of what we already have could produce great opportunities. For instance, alarm systems that are currently used only when a building is locked and empty could be put to good use when the building is full.

Sensors could provide important business information and premises monitoring, such as customer footfall, staff presence, energy usage, building health and environmental monitoring.

Developments in society also offer opportunities. As the population ages, the use of health telecare will help protect the older generation by monitoring their homes to make sure they are moving around normally. This offers potential opportunities to our industry.

Even the rise in home deliveries is interesting, creating the possibility of remote-controlled door-entry systems that allow a delivery driver into a secure area and make sure he has left. 

Extending our own capabilities and services is also very much an option. At the moment, only 10% of fire alarm systems include signalling capability. That’s because the prime purpose is to alert occupants of the building and get them out safely, while someone calls 999 for the fire brigade. But what about when the building is empty? It can burn to the ground.

A staggering 46% of the UK’s annual total of 3000 fires are caused deliberately. Our industry could help put paid to that, just as we helped drive down crimes against property.

Gaining trust

The third factor in our favour, trust, simply cannot be underestimated. The industry has built up a level of trust with both the public and the Police that is a significant factor when customers are making decisions about their security.

Insurers trust us too, or at least those of us who have gained valuable third-party certification, which proves the merits of our services and products. And while they are in a competitive market of their own, and try not to burden potential customers with too many requirements, accredited alarm suppliers will always be an attractive proposition. That rings true for the customer who genuinely wants to protect their property, too. An app might be easy or cheap, but will it eventually cost you dearly?

There’s one further challenge that affects every person and every business in the world, the implications of which for our industry are vast: cyber-crime. Where once a thief crept into our premises, they can now be anywhere on the planet, sat at a computer stealing not only your wealth but damaging your reputation.

The rise in cyber-crime is reflected in the growth of Redcare’s sister organisation, BT Security. Once BT’s own internal IT security force, it is now a multi-million-pound business selling its invaluable services to companies all over the world.

As the power of the internet and the scope of our use continue to grow, it seems likely that physical security and cyber safety will move closer and closer together. Again, this will present enormous opportunities for our industry to extend our services further, offering customers protection in an increasingly threatening environment. Do we have the skills now? Possibly not, but 20 years ago we didn’t have dual-path signalling, either.

This is an industry in which professionalism has grown and grown over the past two decades, and which has developed sophisticated devices and practices to meet stringent, highly-tested standards.

We have loyal customers and the trust of the Police and the insurers. Our achievements have been concrete and benefit both the economy and wider society. We now need to apply an extra dash of innovative thinking and open our eyes to developing trends that can open up new fields of opportunity for our businesses. And if that’s not a solid base for future success, I don’t know what is.

Andy Fyvie is head of BT Redcare. For more information, visit