Tales From The Alarm Industry, Part Five

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Stories from my time spent working for an alarm company.

This time: I’m asked to do some work on the side, key holder calls, and I buy a phone.

On a wet afternoon, I am looking down my list of service calls, I want ones that that are going to be fairly easy and not require me to have to get my ladders off the van. I spot an off licence on the list, It’s in a suburb in the north of the city. I decide that that’s my next job. When I get there, it’s in a parade of shops, great, I think to myself, front door, back door and a few detectors in between. Should be an easy job. I head in with my tool box, it’s a rectangular box with a thin tin covering on the outside and foam inserts inside to stop everything moving about. The best thing about it is that it can be used as a step, a bit precarious but saves going back out to the van in the rain. There is an Asian lady on the phone behind the counter, she pauses and I introduce myself. “Vikram come here,” she shouts and then carries on her phone call. Vikram appears from behind a rack of wine. I repeat what I have just said to the lady who could be either his wife or mother. He examines my ID, hands it back to me and tells me to follow him. It is an old five zone key operated panel, it has another box beside it that has a communicator inside. “Can I have the key to the panel please,” he hands me a bunch of keys with the one to the panel sticking up. “Would you like a drink,” politely I decline his request. Indian tea is usually served very sweet and having made the mistake of saying, “yes” in other calls I won’t be doing it any more. The other reason for not accepting a drink is that I am never sure how hygienic they may be. Years before, a friend who was a milkman was on his Friday round collecting money. Desperate for the toilet, he asked one of his customers if he could use theirs. Having finished, he looked round for the toilet paper, all he could see was one of his milk bottles sitting on the floor full of water. He ended up ripping unused pages out of his milk round book. So no drinks in Asian premises for me. I looked through the log book to see what was on the system and the previous entries to see if there was anything out the ordinary. Nothing since the previous service carried out by my predecessor. I put the system on test and worked my way through the checks. Everything was old, the detectors in the shop which had originally been an off white were now yellow with age. There were two PIR detectors, one in the shop and one in the back room. The back door and then the front door and the roller shutter. There was also a panic button under the front counter. I went through everything, I borrowed the steps in the shop to reach the PIR’s and cleaned them as best I could. I checked the door contacts , everything was OK. I closed up the panel and turned the key to put the system back into day mode. Checking I had a reset key, I pressed the panic button under the counter, as hoped for, all hell broke loose. The sounders in the shop and the store went off along with the outside bell. I quickly silenced everything and reset the system. I then set the full system asking Vikram and his mother/wife to stay still while I set the alarm. Once set, I moved in front of the PIR in the store room, I could hear the panel “click” as the alarm activated and the signal sent to the control room. Success, I said they could now move again. The woman was still on the phone, only stopping now and again to serve a customer. With the signals checked and the log book written up, I was doing the paperwork when Vikram asked if I would be interested in a bit of work on the side. “What did you have in mind,” I asked. “I have some CCTV equipment I would like putting up in the shop, I got it from a friend who upgraded the system in his shop.” “Let me have a look at it,” I’m no expert in CCTV however the installation of it is fairly easy and I had all the tools I needed to do the work. The only problem I had was that I would be doing it in a site which already has company equipment installed. I should be saying no and referring the customer to the office for a quote to install new kit. There was no way he was ever going to pay the company prices so I thought, “why not”. Vikram returned with a large cardboard box which he was struggling to carry. He set it down on the floor and opened it up. There were four old black and white cameras, a cctv video recorder and a few tapes and a cctv monitor that had been on that long, the images from the shop where it had been installed were burnt on to the screen. I didn’t like to tell him that is was old and probably well past its best. “How much to install all this,” he asked. “On a Saturday, I want £50.00 for the morning and £100.00 for the afternoon.” I plucked the figures out of nowhere but thought they were about right for the job. Having seen the kit, I really  didn’t want to do the job. Vikram’s face dropped when I said how much. “I thought about £10.00 to £15.00, £20.00 tops.” “I’m sorry, after a week at work, I won’t be getting out my bed on a Saturday morning for £20.00.” “Do you know anyone who might want to do it if you don’t.” I said I would ask round some of the other engineers and if they did, I would send them round to see you. He signed the paperwork and I was gone. I never mentioned it to anyone else, nobody I thought would do it for that price. However I was wrong, the next time I went there the cctv had been installed. The images on the monitor looked really poor and the installation was rough. I said to him that I was glad he found someone to put it up. “They charged me £30.00, it was more than I wanted to pay. They started at £50.00 but we did a deal at £30.00.” It certainly looked about £30.00 worth of installation.

Part of the job when being on call was attending sites that the company acted as key holders for. These were places where it would be impossible for anyone from their company to get there within twenty minutes as requested by the police, or customers who didn’t want the hassle of having to get up at night to respond to an alarm call. It then became the engineer’s job to pick up the keys and be the first response to an alarm activation. There was no way we would ever get there within the twenty minutes. For me anyway it took that time just to get to the control room. The keys needed to be signed for and collected, then I had to get to site. It was usually an hour before I got there. These types of calls were few and far between, in all the time I was there, I think I only did four or five. They were very scary calls. If the police did attend, they would be long gone, as soon as they had looked round the outside, they would be off. You were then left to attend an alarm activation on your own at a location you had probably never been to before, to then go inside and find out what had happened. That’s when my piece of “2 X 2” came in handy. On arrival I would walk round the outside of the building, torch in one hand and “2 X 2” in the other. Once I was sure the outside was OK I would open up the key box. Inside would be keys to get me to all parts of the building and the alarm code on a keyring. Unlocking the door and going in, the first thing you have to do is find a light switch. Hopefully it is just inside the door. With the lights on finding the alarm panel was the next task. Once found, it could then be checked to find out what zone had activated the alarm. Some engineers would just reset the panel at this point and get out as quick as possible and I didn’t blame them. I was either conscientious or foolish. I always tried to find the cause of the activation so I didn’t have to come back again if it re-activated. Walking through a building, trying to find lights while thinking there could be someone there as well as you is very squeaky bum time. Buildings seem to make noises that are never heard during the day, however at night, every noise adds to the heart rate. Once everything has been checked all you want to do is get out as quick as you can, but you still have to write up the log book. The paperwork you can do in the van and post it through the letterbox. Outside with the door locked, you have to wait, listening for the alarm to set before you can escape back into the security of the van.

Before my time with the company there were two events relating to key holder calls that were told to me. One I certainly believe to be true, the other is believable, but I know only what I have been told.

The true one relates to an engineer who was attending a key holder call to a warehouse. He had picked up the keys and having checked round the outside entered the building and switched off the alarm. He had put the lights on in the corridor where the alarm panel was and was then on his way to check out the warehouse where the activation had been. He couldn’t find any lights in the warehouse and was relying on his torch. The corridor light behind him was the only illumination other than his torch. Searching for the lights he was walking down the side of the warehouse with pallet racking to the right of him. He heard what he thought were voices behind, he froze momentarily then spun round, in the light of his torch he say two figures running towards the corridor light. He didn’t hang about and followed them out the door, not in pursuit but in some sort of instinctive reaction. He ran past his van and stopped at the roadside. He was trembling. He had said afterwards that he had no idea how long he stood there for but eventually he plucked up enough courage to go back inside. He found a phone in reception and guessing it would be “9” for a line phoned the police and reported what had happened. The police arrived, blue lights but no sirens. There were two cars, one went off looking for the two people, the police in the other car went into the building. The engineer followed and showed them to where it had all occurred. They carried on the search, found the lights and with them now on a better look round could be had. Near the rear fire exit were boxes piled up ready to go. They were full of Hornby train sets and Scalextric. A toilet window had been broken and they had used this as a means of entry. The stolen goods were ready to go out the back door. The control was informed and the owners of the warehouse had to then be called to attend and liaise with the police. The engineer had to wait for him to arrive and then show him what had happened before he could leave the site and get back to his bed.

The second incident is one I was told on two different occasions by two different people. The story goes that there was an employee in the central station, who “borrowed” the keys to a shop that were held for key holder calls. He took them and had copies made of the front door key and the key to set and unset the alarm system. There was no code for the system as it was key operated. The shop in question was a high end tailors shop located in the centre of town. The keys were returned and nobody knew they had been gone during the day. He was now free to come and go as he liked. Every month or so, he would sneak into the shop, help himself to whatever he fancied and then set the alarm and lock up again. Apparently this went on for months, it was only when the shop had CCTV installed did they discover what was happening. The police were involved, however the quality of the camera images at night were not enough to identify the culprit. It was thought that it may have been a former shop employee. The locks on the front door were changed and the incidents stopped. However back at work, people were starting to figure out that the smartly dressed worker in the central station may have been the fuzzy image on the CCTV. Nothing could be proved but suspicions had been raised. The employee was offered a different position within the company in the stores, before he was eventually dispensed with. The logical thing would have been for the company to go to the police and prosecute the thief. However the publicity would have been bad news for the company hence the cover up.

With more money now in my pocket I decided that I needed to buy a mobile phone. Phones had advanced on from the “bricks” to be smaller and more compact but still large by today’s standard. I had done my research on the best phone to have and the best tariff to be on. There was no Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or internet. All you got was a phone that could make calls and send text messages. There were no free calls or texts, everything was charged for. The only place in Leicester at the time was Carphone Warehouse, so on a Saturday I was in their shop and came out with a Nokia 2110. The phone if I remember correctly was free and I signed up for a year’s contract. It wasn’t connected until the following day as nothing happened immediately then. By the Monday, I was up and running. I gave the number to the office. I was told that they may call me on it, but under no circumstances would they pay for any of the calls I made. This issue was one that all the engineers who had a phone,( four out of the six of us) encountered. It wasn’t resolved until one afternoon when the county was hit by a massive thunderstorm that required all the engineers to carry on working until almost 22.00. Alarms were going off everywhere, The office was inundated with calls, I think by the time we finished, we had done almost eighty calls between us. Mad Mick rang the office and said to Melanie that a lot of the phone lines were down and he couldn’t always find a phone to call in. He said that if you want the jobs doing tonight then he would have to use his mobile phone to call in to get the next job. She said she would have to phone him back, ironically on his mobile, when she had an answer. He was told that the company would reimburse calls made from mobiles into the office. We had to provide a copy of our bill with the calls highlighted. Mick then rang all of us to let us know. It was a grudging victory for us that we later found out had gone to the directors for them to make a decision.

After that, communications became a lot easier. The pager would still go off, but if there was no BT line available then out came the phone.

Next time: Rats, Christmas decorations and a very unhappy customer.

© 10210ken 2023