False Alarms in Intrusion Detection
If you thought that once you have determined that an alarm is false, you can breathe a sigh of relief, think again. Even without a real threat, every false alarm is a source of frustration, costs for the user and the authorities, as well as damage to the reputation of the manufacturer.
By: Mirza Bahić; E-mail: email@example.com
Everyone is familiar with the old fable of the shepherd boy who constantly warned others about non-existent wolves so that no one believed him when real beasts arrived. False alarms in anti-intrusion systems work on the same principle and have been following the security industry since its earliest days. However, the fable of the boy who cried wolf differs from reality in that ignoring recurring false alarms could cost you dearly because every unnecessary alarm comes with a price tag. In the following text, we present new approaches to unraveling the eternal Gordian knot of the industry – false alarms in anti-intrusion systems.
Moody but Essential Systems
Both users and security experts constantly emphasize the importance of anti-intrusion alarms in protecting organizations and homes from potential dangers. Electronic security systems have proven to be very effective in identifying threats and alerting owners and users of facilities to various incidents.
“Unfortunately, the main problem with all anti-intrusion systems remains the occurrence of false alarms. False alarms can be not only annoying and frustrating, but can also bring additional costs to the system user. False alarms cannot be completely eliminated, but we can take several steps to minimize their number,” says Aleksandar Dobnikar, Sales Distribution Manager for Southeast Europe at Bosch Building Technologies. His opinion is shared by Ketrin Stepančić-Kontošić, Sales Manager at Vlado Elektronika. “We often hear about security systems that create problems. False alarms are often mentioned as the first cause of user dissatisfaction,” says Stepančić-Kontošić.
In anti-intrusion, connecting these complex and highly reactive systems and their oft-changing settings with human interactions and the environment increases the likelihood of false alarms. Although these security systems offer enormous advantages in terms of protecting lives and property, false alarms are a nuisance for both organizations and emergency services that must respond to them by going out into the field.
How Common Are False Alarms?
In anti-intrusion systems, the frequency of false alarms can vary depending on the specific installation and its configuration, as well as on the factors such as the operational environment. Generally speaking, false alarms can occur for various reasons, including accidental triggers, equipment malfunctions, and human errors.
Regardless of the reasons, an illustrative statistic is that 98% of calls for police intervention in the United States are attributed to false alarms, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
“When it comes to anti-intrusion alarm systems, it is estimated that more than 90% of all anti-intrusion alarms turn out to be false,” says Marco Zittino, International Sales Area Manager at AVS Electronics. According to the Security Industry Alarm Coalition’s report, the average false alarm rate for residential properties in the United States in 2018 was 0.8 false alarms per system per year. On the other hand, Reolink states that between 94% and 98% of all anti-intrusion system activations in America are false alarms, resulting in costs of $1.5 billion.
A survey conducted by Parks Associates asked participants to describe their experiences with surveillance and alarm systems in their households, and the results show that the users are not satisfied. Nearly half (48%) of security system owners reported that their system triggers too many false alarms. At the same time, at least 62% of respondents confirmed the activation of at least one false alarm in the past year.
But is the situation better for security systems equipped with video analytics? That was the focus of a study by the NW Systems Group, which showed that 93% of medium and large businesses in England reported a high number of false alarms in CCTV systems with video analytics features. According to the same report, 27% of decision-makers among respondents say that their CCTV systems generate excess false alarms due to incorrect specifications or configuration of video analytics software.
The report states that suppliers of video analytics systems tend to make excessive promises and use confusing phrases about preventing false alarms in their sales and marketing documents. As a result, at least 33% of respondents reported being confused with the feature descriptions, while 28% believed they were misled by them. Sales and marketing materials usually included popular phrases such as “AI-based analytics,” “deep learning,” and “smart motion detection.”
Consequences Are Underestimated
False alarms not only cause inconvenience to building owners and damage the reputation of alarm companies but can also lead to significant costs for local communities in terms of unnecessary deployment of the first respondent services in the event of a false alarm.
“The burden of false alarms falls on first responders. Every false alarm in anti-intrusion implies that the police department or monitoring station sends an officer or operator to investigate the case, and it usually takes 20-30 minutes to resolve the situation,” says Zittino. False alarms cost US police departments around $1.8 billion and 64,000 working hours per year, according to a study by the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing and Security Sales & Integration. In the UK, these costs are estimated to be around £1 billion per year.
The reason for this high cost is that patrol vehicles and personnel are sent to the alarm call location because all alarms are treated as high-priority events. These interventions now not only cost police departments but can also result in fines paid by companies and users. Therefore, the issue of false alarms goes beyond an individual source of frustration and includes a concrete cost borne by the user on behalf of the entire community.
Therefore, a solution that can mitigate this problem not only saves time for emergency services but also saves money for security system users, with resources redirected to authentic alarm events that require genuine attention.
That’s why many cities around the world have been forced to implement false alarm reduction programs in their communities. For example, in Los Angeles, the police have been imposing fines for responding to false alarms for years. For licensed alarm users, the first false alarm will result in a fine of $267, with an increase of $50 for each subsequent one.
In addition to the frustrations, false alarms have become a real source of financial loss for their users due to fines imposed in some communities, which only increases the total cost of ownership of these security systems. In addition, harmless occurrences such as children playing or pets moving about can render the security system useless in multiple ways as an equally dangerous phenomenon can occur – ignoring a real alarm or disabling the system due to false triggers to avoid fines or disturbances.
Due to the trend of penalizing false alarms, the security industry has faced a unique challenge that requires both technological and legal solutions. Lobbyists have taken care of the latter by securing bans on local authorities punishing security service providers in several US states. However, this legal battle is still ongoing, and its outcomes will largely determine the industry’s approach to the problem of false alarms and their impact on local communities.
Penalizing Service Providers Instead of Users for False Alarms
Some states and local communities are taking initiatives to penalize anti-intrusion service providers for false alarms instead of the owners of the properties where the equipment is used. A similar system is also being applied in the city of Seattle in the United States, where the community has already recorded a significant decrease in the rate of false alarms based on the collection of these fines (from 25,000 false alarms to 11,000 after the introduction of the program). In this case, the fines are directed towards the alarm companies themselves, which are required to be licensed and provide advanced alarm verification before requesting police response. Specifically, the local police require physical evidence before intervening, and the mere activation of the alarm, the opening of doors or windows, etc. is not considered adequate proof.
Causes of False Alarms
“False alarms are common in burglar alarm systems, but the causes of their occurrence are unique,” says Zittino. His colleague Dobnikar from Bosch states that errors mostly occur when the existing system is outdated or old. “These are force majeure factors (power surge, lightning) in inadequate grounding or wiring, but the most common cause of all false alarms is a human error,” he says. Ultimately, the causes of false alarms in burglar alarm systems can be collectively described as factors of a technical, human, and natural character.
User errors account for about 50% of all false alarms in anti-intrusion, according to AVS Electronics. The most common causes are insufficient training of staff or users handling the system. Additionally, cleaning crews, maintenance personnel, or contractors often do not receive proper instructions on how to use the burglar alarm system. As a result, they may accidentally activate it while trying to enter or exit the building. The same applies to users who perform routine maintenance activities on the system, such as replacing security device batteries. They may accidentally trigger a tampering alarm if they are not instructed to call the control center before such activities.
How to Prevent False Alarms Due to Incorrect Installation?
Each detector should be set up and tested before the system is put into operation. Special care is required when setting up detectors with anti-masking protection and those that use radar for detection. Newer systems can be controlled remotely and, if needed, manually or automatically “bypass” or disable a zone or detector that generates false alarms. This is a quick and effective solution, but also very dangerous if there is no appropriate verification of the cause of the alarm,” says Dobnikar from Bosch. “The most common mistakes are improper positioning (angle and height) of the detector, improper use of detector brackets, and incorrect system programming. A mistake can occur when selecting zone resistors (or EOL resistors). Connections are often made by simply twisting the ends due to small terminals and limited space inside the detector, which can lead to a connection interruption during operation. Newer detectors have microprocessors or components that are sensitive to electrostatic electricity, so direct contact with the printed circuit board (PCB) should be avoided,” says Dobnikar.
Alarm systems are precise instruments that require routine maintenance. Maintenance includes, among other things, testing the system and all peripheral modules, replacing depleted batteries (backup power) and detectors, and cleaning and inspecting cables.
Otherwise, if the alarm system is damaged or neglected, its installed motion detectors, sensors on windows and doors, and other field devices may detect threats where there are none. “Sometimes, in the absence of appropriate tools, the installer drills a larger hole in the detector for cable placement. Small animals (spiders, ants, bugs) can enter through this opening which often generates false alarms. I suggest that each user should schedule regular service and inspection of the alarm systems at least once every two years,” says Dobnikar.
Even seemingly harmless ambient factors such as thick cobwebs on a motion detector can trigger an alarm in an otherwise safe situation. Other environmental false alarm triggers include storms, the passage of animals in front of sensors, and the movement of vegetation.
Unlike wild animals, pets are a more common trigger of recurring alarms. That’s why companies like Bosch and Venitem offer detectors that are immune to alarm activation due to the detection of moving objects of a predefined mass. To its solution, Venitem adds software that analyzes the type of animal based on its size, with two levels of differentiation and an antimasking function that makes outdoor sensors resistant to insect-related triggers.
Power outages and battery drain are also one of the causes of false alarms. That’s why some anti-intrusion devices, like Venitem’s, are equipped with a system that allows constant monitoring of the status of all installations.
Poor Engineering and Installation
Some companies neglect the quality factor of alarm system installation, which contributes to the frequency of false alarms. If door and window sensors are not properly placed or a motion sensor is used with incorrect settings, false alarms may be triggered more often. Also, poorly installed and designed systems may include devices that are not intended for specific environments. Finally, there is also a risk of installing cheaper components with a security system that simply cannot withstand constant use compared to more robust and standardized materials.
The reliability of a burglar alarm is directly related to the quality of its components, their installation, and maintenance. Therefore, when selecting and installing these systems, it is important to rely on qualified installers and certified products. This is the card to play in a situation where no one can offer you 100% protection against false alarms.
“Manufacturer recommendations regarding the equipment in use must be respected and tailored to the user’s requirements. One-size-fits-all solutions are rare and should not be used. This primarily refers to the location where the alarm detector is mounted, proper detector selection, connection to the alarm system, cable placement, dimensioning of the backup power supply, and the system’s mode of operation,” says Dobnikar.
ANPR Cameras Also Trigger False Alarms
False alarms are triggered not only by standard sensors but also by specialized devices such as ANPR cameras. Since these devices must grant access only to specific vehicles, false alarms are usually caused by incorrect reading of symbols on the license plates e.g. if the camera captures the reflection of the plate in a puddle instead of the physical markings on the vehicle and sends a wrong message to the alarm system. Therefore, these devices must be installed at an appropriate height, angle, and proper distance from the vehicles. Weather conditions such as rain or snow, as well as recording performance, should also be taken into account to avoid false alarms caused by strong headlights and reflections from nearby objects.
Visual Verification as a Solution?
Over time, another ‘school of thought’ emerged within the industry according to which false alarms should primarily be dealt with on a technological rather than a legal battlefield. “The installation of video surveillance or the option of video alarm verification can temporarily and partially solve this problem,” says Dobnikar.
Development and integration of AI-based solutions and visual verification have emerged as important technological trends aimed at reducing false alarms in anti-intrusion and eliminating the need for regulatory frameworks that penalize users or companies. In this case, a “verified” alarm event is defined as a situation that the security system first registers as such, after which the operator determines the presence of individuals and a high probability that an attack is underway according to a standardized protocol.
Video verification is used to verify the authenticity of the threat before personnel or material resources are deployed in response. At Ajax Systems, they say that photographic verification, or the ability to visualize the event that triggered the alarm before the intervention, is sufficient to reduce the number of false alarms. For example, their MotionCam series does not require additional system settings for this type of feature and brings it closer to less technically proficient users.
“With video surveillance, more people are now using video technology for alarming, so we pay special attention to the development of video analytics based on special algorithms for classifying potential intruders,” say Andrej Češek and Elvis Ferhatović, pre-sales engineers at Hikvision Adriatic. Hikvision’s AcuSense technology relies on classifying vehicles and people, with all information being filtered to cancel out false alarms with a high degree of efficiency. This technology works based on deep learning and machine learning algorithms.
“For reducing the number of false alarms, we have another option – the use of thermal cameras for perimeter protection. In this case, the image remains the same day and night because weather and lighting conditions cannot cause false alarms, so detection is highly reliable,” say Češek and Ferhatović.
On the other hand, Ajax treats false alarms as a systemic rather than solely hardware-related problem. Therefore, this company offers its advanced users to manually adjust the features to reduce false alarms. Installers can limit the conditions for activating alarms to the activation of multiple systems simultaneously or separate the activation of alarms into two phases – initial and final.
In this case, the alarm is only activated when the second device is turned on, while accidental activation is prevented by requiring the alarm to be triggered by pressing two panic buttons. Finally, false alarms due to malfunctions are prevented by the system ignoring damaged or improperly placed sensors if they do not return to their initial state within a specified period.
The Role of Artificial Intelligence
At Vlado Elektronika, a distributor of the Italian company EL.MO., the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) in the security sector is seen as the beginning of the end of the dominance of false alarms as a key drawback of anti-intrusion systems. “Through these new technologies, it is possible to provide end-users and security professionals with the tools needed to strengthen the performance of anti-intrusion systems, while significantly reducing many of the problems that can occur after the installation of such systems,” says Stepančić-Kontošić.
In collaboration with EL.MO., Vlado Elektronika treats artificial intelligence as a tool to reduce false alarms and as a part of a broader integrated ecosystem. In practice, this means that the e-Vision video surveillance systems with AI capabilities offered by EL.MO. are integrated with the PROXIMA and PREGIO series of intrusion control panels. The interface called D-PULSE serves as a bridge between them, through which alarm events generated by the analysis of video data streams (such as intrusion, line crossing, or abandoned objects) activate the intrusion detection alarm panel in the same way as a sensor.
In this way, artificial intelligence can accurately “interpret” the monitored scene and dissect its elements. This significantly reduces the risk of false alarms in anti-intrusion because AI will recognize phenomena such as the movement of leaves, weather conditions, and animal movements. “The insightfulness of these systems allows for advanced recognition of human shapes and behaviors, types of animals, and vehicles,” says Stepančić-Kontošić, adding that this “supports the activation of predefined automation scenarios to achieve maximum adaptability and protection against false alarms.”
The Role of Sound in Reducing False Alarms
The use of video for verifying alarm events before alerting first responders can significantly reduce the number of false alarms. However, video is just one piece of the puzzle in the fight against false alarms. Important evidence needed for verification is also collected when the audio component of the security system is involved, for example, if glass breaking, gunshots, or attackers’ conversation during an attempted break-in can be heard. Incorporating audio surveillance technology into the security system can help first responders confirm whether the alarm event is authentic and thus ensure that the police respond only to real threats. Sound monitors can stream and record audio content live after an alarm is triggered, allowing the user to more easily determine what is happening and why. Finally, there is additional information about the location of the event and the level of threat, allowing law enforcement to prepare an appropriate response based on the situation on the ground.
Is It Possible to Reconcile Sensitivity and Resistance to False Alarms?
“The component most involved in causing false alarm problems in an anti-intrusion system is the sensor, especially the outdoor one because, unlike the internal detector, it is exposed to weather conditions and external factors,” says Barbara Lomartire, Marketing and Communication Manager at Venitem.
At Venitem, atmospheric conditions have been recognized as an important cause of false alarms, which primarily refer to rain, fog, and even sunlight. This is particularly relevant in situations where PIR detectors are used, as they are much more sensitive to temperature and atmospheric variations, such as sunlight, that can trigger a false alarm. Venitem’s detectors have a temperature compensation technology in which algorithms automatically optimize the detection level based on the external temperature.
Other providers of anti-intrusion solutions see the development of sensor technology as a response to the problem of false alarms since this technology constitutes the first line of communication between the alarm system and the outside world. “At Optex, we offer a wide range of products and technologies for detecting false alarms that fit different types of locations, needs, and security levels,” says Jacek Wójcik, Customer Care Director of CEE at Optex.
Optex’s PIR sensors are equipped with an SMDA multidimensional analysis system which allows the detector to analyze passive infrared signals and ambient information to differentiate genuine break-in attempts from false alarms caused, for example, by temperature changes. “Anti-intrusion systems often have an external component, which is why false alarms are caused by ambient phenomena such as wind. Optex offers optical sensors that are resistant to electromagnetic and radio interference, humidity, salt, UV radiation, and lightning strikes, which minimizes the chance of any environmental factor triggering an alarm instead of an authentic threat,” says Wójcik.
Information about detected objects is sent in real-time, with the ability to adjust detection to only track targets larger than a predefined size or only those that stay in the detection field longer than a defined time. Other detection parameters can be adjusted for maximum flexibility in adapting to the installation site and thus preventing false alarms. AVS Electronics relies on a similar approach. “We offer the ability to customize detectors to the user’s needs, which means that you can adapt them to the environment and installation location standards,” says Zittino.
Analytics as a Response to False Alarms
According to a study by NW Security, users’ faith in video analytics as a solution to reducing the frequency of false alarms remains unshaken. At least 30% of companies believe that the video analytics software they use helps to reduce the number of false alarms.
At Optex, they also believe that an additional reduction in false alarms will come from analytics. They see the solution in introducing external PIR sensors with intelligent visual verification and video content analysis (VCA) technology in the camera itself. These sensors will be able to learn to ignore the effects of light, wind, rain, or snow, with a tolerance for detected animals to effectively reduce the number of false detections.
The representatives of AVS Electronics claim that detection based on multiple technologies will be important in the fight against false alarms. “We already use technologies based on PIR and microwave sensors. Any suspicion of false alarms will be eliminated by video verification and detectors with built-in cameras and microphones that will communicate with the user or control room,” says Zittino.
Although most people trust analytics as a universal cure for false alarms, there are still many who say they won’t invest in analytics even at the cost of dealing with false alarms. The main reasons for the lack of investments are related to the lack of funds for investing in video analytics and the need to hire system integrators to help them choose and configure analytics.
For now, it can be said that there are two opposite trends in the anti-intrusion sector when it comes to preventing false alarms. One is the awareness of the role of analytics and proper installation and configuration of systems in relation to environmental factors, while the other is the reluctance to invest due to a lack of resources and the fact that equipment manufacturers do not use clear and concise language or offer unrealistic promises.
The Detector is a Key Component
There are several types of detectors, and their proper selection is crucial for the functioning of the alarm system. These include motion detectors, PIR, microwave detectors (MW), dual detectors (PIR+MW), glass break detectors, seismic detectors, vibration detectors, and others.
“The detector is a fundamental element of every alarm system that collects data from the protected area. It is precisely this part of the alarm system that generates false alarms, excluding system sabotage,” says Dobnikar. That is why his company, Bosch, focuses on the detector component in the fight against false alarms i.e. on its functions that include response time, sensitivity, coverage area, resistance to interference, etc.
One of the main causes of false alarms in anti-intrusion systems is temperature compensation since most high-quality detectors on the market offer the feature of linear temperature compensation. This means that the detector’s sensitivity increases as the temperature rises. This solution leads to false alarms if the ambient temperature continues to rise and exceeds the body temperature.
Instead of this, Bosch uses dynamic temperature compensation technology. In practice, this means that the detector sensitivity increases only within the range of 32.2°C – 37.7°C, which corresponds to the temperature of the human body. If the temperature continues to rise, the detector sensitivity decreases, while Bosch’s detector will detect the temperature difference between the body and the environment.
“Our TriTech detector performs self-calibration in the first ten seconds after activation, adjusting the operating parameters according to the environment. This not only applies to temperature and light but also to all objects (moving and stationary ones) that the detector ‘sees’. If there is any source of interference in the room, such as temperature, the detector will remember it and adjust the sensitivity relative to the signal level to detect intruders,” says Dobnikar.
Finally, Bosch also relies on MEMS (Micro Electric Mechanical System) sensors, which many people know from mobile phones or cars. They are now part of the company’s latest Commercial Series Gen2 detectors. They serve to increase the detector’s resistance to false alarms when it comes to sabotage (movement, hitting, and sudden vibrations) and to recognize such activities much faster.
The Education Is a Significant Factor
In addition to all of the above, is there a third “X factor” in the false alarm equation that is not related to finances, marketing, or technology? Our interlocutors also see the problem in the insufficient education of users about the prevention and consequences of false alarms.
“The main cause of errors is the insufficient training of end-users. Most often, it is due to incorrectly entered or forgotten codes, failure to comply with instructions or protocols for using the system (temperature in the facility, open window, AC, heating, pets),” says Dobnikar, adding that system sabotage sometimes looks like a false alarm. This situation should be given enough attention, especially if it happens when the alarm system is not activated.
At Ajax Systems, the response to this challenge is seen in strengthening communication with the users through a dedicated application. “Data clearly show that users themselves are the biggest generators of false alarms. Although it is easy to train a security professional who earns a living from these skills, the same does not apply to the user. At Ajax Systems, we believe that the more interaction we have with our users through our application and the more value we can offer them, the more comfortable they will feel. Positive user experience and training will help reduce the number of false alarms more than training alone. That has been my experience so far,” says Ilia Yashmakov, Sales Director for the Balkans and Adriatic Region at Ajax Systems.
AVS Electronics conducts education with a focus on local partnerships. “Knowing how to use an alarm system is not knowledge people are born with. That’s where the second step comes in: partnering with a supplier of commercial alarm systems with decades of experience in designing, installing, and maintaining top-notch business alarm systems. An important factor is careful customization of each commercial burglar alarm system, as well as a commitment to using only the highest quality suppliers and devices,” says Zittino. Finally, there are also service contracts and preventive maintenance plans to maintain the health and functionality of these systems.
Bosch also sees the solution in reducing the impact of human factors on false alarms, which is why they offer training to distributors and not just to equipment users. “Our customers have access to two types of training – commercial and technological certification. In this way, we ensure that all of our partners are timely familiarized with the latest technological solutions and that they can provide complete support to end users of our equipment at any time,” says Dobnikar.
Hikvision also puts hope in education, especially through regular professional workshops at the local level. They offer access to Hikvision Academy and training programs that take place in the premises of distributors and cover training on false alarms for partners, installers, and other interested professionals. “The development of technological solutions without the proper education of users and installers is meaningless and is doomed to failure and difficulties in everyday work. The prerequisite for proper operation and use of technology is certainly quality education of all participants in the chain – from sellers, through installers to end users. They must know how to properly configure and install our systems,” conclude Češek and Ferhatović.