Secure windows and doors come before burglar alarms, experts caution


When homeowners think about burglar-proofing their house, they often first consider installing burglar alarms.

But professional home-security experts offer different advice: "Secure windows and doors are the first line of defense to deter intruders. An alarm is a supplement to good security," said Sgt. Robert Lassahn, of the Crime Resistance Unit of the Baltimore City Police.

Other area police departments offer security-minded homeowners encouragement by giving free home security reviews with recommendations for improvements. But they also are quick to point out that homeowners must regularly maintain burglar-alarm systems to prevent false alarms.

During the past legislative session, the General Assembly passed a bill which was signed into law that allows police departments to fine homeowners $30 if officers respond to three false alarms within a month.

Once the decision is made to invest in a system, consider the following factors: should neighbors or a monitoring company respond to the alarm, how much maintenance will be required and find out if there are any savings available from the homeowners insurance policy for installing a system.

Baltimore County had 5,355 false alarms from January through the end of April. The Garrison Precinct, which covers the Pikesville, Stevenson and Greenspring Valley areas, topped the list with 2,485 false alarms. "People have to understand that there is some maintenance on whatever system you use," said Sgt. Charles Jones of the Crime Reduction Division of the Baltimore County Police.

In an effort to avoid being listed among the more than 4,791,000 household burglaries in the United States this year, the Security Industry Association, a Santa Monica, Calif., trade association, estimated that seven percent of U.S. households had a security system, and said the average cost is $1,672 for home installation.

"The type of alarm you choose should be dependent on what you have to protect," said Sgt. Lassahn. "A monitored system is definitely desirable," he said, referring to systems that are watched at a central office 24 hours a day.

"A local alarm or a bell is ignored by many people and there is often a delay in reporting it. You get immediate reaction from an alarm company," he added.

As a general guideline, Sgt. Lassahn said it is a good idea to choose a security system that protects the perimeter, and has an interior trap such as a rug pressure pad, light beam, heat sensor or a motion detecting device in case an intruder gets past the exterior system.

When shopping for a security system, Sergeant Lassahn suggests that buyers beware. He said they should ask for a demonstration, check the guarantee, find out what the monthly rTC monitoring charges are. He also recommended getting a few references from the company, and to consult the Better Business Bureau on the company.

Among the most popular systems are local alarms, bells, sirens or lights that come on when a connection is broken. Some are used in conjunction with other systems. Central station alarms, for example, transmit a signal to an office via telephone, and that office will alert law enforcement authorities. Direct-connect alarms are signals are sent directly to the police or fire department.

The following are used as alarm triggers:

* Magnetic contacts, which can be attached to anything that opens, such as a door, window or skylight.

* Metallic tape, glued to glass and activated when the glass is broken.

* Custom-made screens that are woven with special wires that, when broken, set off an alarm.

* Pressure mats, flat switches embedded in plastic that fit under carpets and are triggered when stepped on.

* Photoelectric beams or "electric eyes" project a light beam that sets off a signal when its path is crossed.

* Ultrasonic motion detectors distribute high-frequency sounds that are inaudible to humans and bounce around a room until an intruder enters the protected room and alters the waves.

* Microwave detectors are similar to the ultrasonic, but use a higher frequency radio wave.

* Passive infrared detectors that sense changes in energy levels when a person moves around a protected area.

Choosing from all the options can be confusing, and Sergeant Lassahn said the hard-wire system tends to be the most reliable because it requires the least upkeep. The wireless systems that use radio sensors require regular battery changes and are most susceptible to human failings, he said.

He also recommended dividing the home security system into two or more zones, so parts of the system can also be activated independently.

Police departments in Baltimore and in Baltimore, Howard and Anne Arundel counties all offer their own security surveys. The Maryland State Police Crime Prevention Unit work with police departments in Carroll, Frederick and Harford counties to offer security surveys.

Many insurance companies offer discounts on homeowners' policies for houses equipped with security systems, saying they support any actions their customers take to protect their property.

A short review of some of the large insurance companies showed the following discounts: State Farm Fire and Casualty Co. offers 2 percent for a simple system that sounds an alarm, 5 percent for wired doors and windows and 10 percent for a system linked to a police station or security agency.

Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. allows an average of 15 percent for a commercial alarm system, and Aetna Life & Casualty gives 5 percent for a combination of a dead bolt locks, fire extinguisher and smoke detectors, and 10% for an alarm that reports directly to a police or security station.

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