Tales From The Alarm Industry, Part One

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Stories from my time spent working for an alarm company.

In March 1994, I found myself working for one of the UK’s leading privately owned alarm companies. I had secured a job as an alarm engineer. Prior to this I had been working servicing and repairing video recorders with a company in Leicestershire. They had around a thousand units, TV’s and videos, out on rent in the north west of the county. I was working in the workshop as well as out in customers houses. Occasionally when work was slack, I was roped in to help on the electrical side of the company where they spent some of the time installing alarms. The job was good, but the pay was poor. With high mortgage rates and a six month old son money was tight. So with a little bit of knowledge, I blagged my way into the alarm industry.

The alarm company at that time had two divisions, installation and service. I was to be on the service side. There were six engineers who covered Leicestershire and just into the neighbouring counties. Each engineer had their own area, one covered the centre of the city and the other five radiated out from the edge of his area. The job entailed regular servicing of alarm systems, attending to faults and every six days, spend the night on callout duty. The basic pay was way above what I had been earning and there was plenty of scope for overtime when on call.

I spent the first four weeks working with “Stevie” the engineer who looked after the centre of Leicester. He had been an engineer, then chief engineer, but he struggled with being a leader, and then went back to being an engineer. He was also the trainer for anyone new starting. There was a lot to learn, firstly there were all the codes the engineers used to access the back end of the alarm systems. The company used four different codes and I had to learn them all. You never knew which code was being used when you first accessed a system. There was one code which was predominately used, the other three were used when a customer may have found out the engineers code. Each panel manufacturer had a different way of programming and that needed to be learned as well. I gathered as many different manuals as I could from a filing cabinet in the office. The wiring for the alarm systems was the only constant. The same colour code was used throughout the company. Most detectors were wired with a six core cable, two for power, two for the alarm contact and two for the tamper circuit. The variety of alarm panels ranged from the latest on the market, back to panels that were twenty years old.

Stevie was a good trainer and explained things well, and by the end of the first week, I was getting the hang of what a service entailed and was able to carry out most of the basic checks.

Whether the system was a small domestic or a large commercial the servicing was always the same.

There should always be a log book with the installation. This gives a list of all the zone locations and any additional power supplies. Every visit is noted, whether it is a routine service or a call out, details should be written in the log book.

Once access to the panel was achieved, the first thing that had to be done was to check the battery or batteries depending on the size of the system. The battery was disconnected and a load was applied across the terminals. Using a digital meter the voltage was checked to see if there was any loss of power. If the voltage stayed above ten volts after fifteen minutes then the battery was good. The date of testing was added onto the label on the side of the battery under the previous service. Every five years the battery would be replaced.

Next test was the external bell/siren battery. This was tested by disconnecting the power to the outside sounder, if the bell rang, then that battery was OK.

The wiring connections inside the panel were next on the list. The terminals were tightened and a tug on the wires to make sure nothing was loose.

With that all done the panel could then be closed up and a walk test done. Nearly all panels have this function. It allows the engineer to walk round the site activating all the detectors without setting off the alarm. Once completed, he can then check to see if any haven’t triggered. If there is a problem then further investigation is required.

A second walk round the site is now carried out where the detectors are checked and physically examined to ensure they are free of obstruction and in the case of door contacts, that they are secure and not damaged.

Finally, the alarm system was set and activated. If it was connected to a central station for monitoring then they had to be informed beforehand so as not to pass on the alarm to the police. With the alarm going off, the outside and any internal sounders were checked to make sure they worked. A call to the central station to make sure they got an alarm signal and to tell them the test was over was the final part.

The log book could now be written up and a copy of the paperwork listing everything that had been done was given to the customer.

That was an alarm service, we were expected to do up to six of these every day. In reality this seldom happened.

I spent three weeks servicing alarms with Stevie, during this time, as well as the manuals I was collecting, I was also starting to fill my van up with spares I would need when I was out on my own. There were batteries, alarm contacts, various types of detectors, door contacts, cable, panel pcb’s and sounders.

My final week before going out on my own was spent with different engineers going to faults, false alarms and break-ins that had been reported. This is where the engineers earned their money.  The ability to find and repair faults is what set them apart from the installation engineers. The log on the alarm panel would tell you what zone was faulty or had activated, but it was the engineer’s knowledge that would find and fix the system. This would only come through experience so once we were on site I had to find and fix any fault with the engineer watching over me. It was daunting, the first thing to do was to find out which alarm zone was faulty or activated. Having found that out, a check on the log book to see what type of alarm zone it was (door contact or a detector) and its location. The resistance of the alarm circuit was then checked. Normally it would be a closed circuit, if it was a door contact and the door was open it would read an open circuit. A quick physical check on the door to make sure it was closed and then back to the panel to check again. If it still reads “open circuit” then it is off to the door with tools and my meter to carry out further checks. Door contacts are made out of plastic unless they are heavy duty types and are easily damaged, checking at the door will prove if it is a faulty contact which can be easily replaced. PIR’s and similar type detectors that are showing a fault need to be opened up to check that there is power getting to the unit, with a meter connected directly to it the motion detection can be checked. If it’s faulty then it is replaced.

Having repaired or replaced the detector and checked it is working then the zone is then tested back at the panel. With everything sorted the system is reset, the log book written up and the paperwork, which included the invoice done and handed to the customer.

The company had three different hourly rates it charged for callouts. 08.30 -12.00 was the medium rate, 12.00 until 17.30 the lowest rate and 17.30 – 08.30 the highest rate. There was also a charge for the mileage from the last job. For 17.30- 08.30 callouts, attendance had to be within two – three hours.

On the morning of the my fifth week, I was given a pager, mobile phones were only just taking off, the company had one per branch which was used by the duty engineer if he could be bothered to go into the office at 17.30 to collect it and return it at 08.30 the following morning. I was also handed a computer printout of all the premises in my area that needed to be serviced that month. The chief engineer, (Billy the fish), wished me good luck, looked down the list and ticked off certain locations for me to service first. “These are ones that you can do without much difficulty, if you have any issues, use the “Butt Phone” to call in to the office. A “Butt Phone” was a BT engineer’s phone, bright yellow, with extra buttons for testing the line. It could be connected in to any alarm system that used a phone line to signal through to the central monitoring station. Billy had picked out systems that had phone lines connected to the alarm system.

My area started just off the centre of Leicester and fanned out through Belgrave, Birstall, Rothley, Loughborough and up to Junction 24 on the M1. It was a mixture of residential, small businesses and some large factories.

Speaking to some of the other engineers, they had given me some advice, “work your bollocks off during your first year getting all the systems on your area up to a good standard, tidy up all the wiring, label up everything that hasn’t already been done and check that the log book is written up and correct. That way after the first year, unless someone has been onsite for a callout you will know that everything should be as it was the last time you visited. It will make life easier for yourself in the long run.”

Sound advice that I stuck to and it served me well.

Leaving the office on that first morning, one of the engineers said to follow him when we left the car park. “Why,” “just follow me.” I did as I was told and we hadn’t driven more than a couple of minutes when we parked up. I got out seeing a line of company vans parked outside a café, we were in a small industrial area full of units built under the old Great Central Railway arches. Inside were all the service engineers, the windows were steamed up with condensation, it was small inside, there were two bar stools against a wall, a shelf around twelve inches wide ran all the way round the inside, with empty coffee and tea mugs from earlier visitors. The smell of bacon cooking in the background was overpowering and the temptation was too great to resist. I ordered a tea and a bacon cob, liberally squirted with tomato sauce. “Shouldn’t we all be working,” I asked. “Staff meeting” shouted a long haired lad in his early twenties. Someone spoke to him calling him “Animal”, his proper name I found out later was Pete, as far as I am aware, no one, not even the office staff called him by his name. There appeared to be names for everyone, another was Ben the Bodger, Mad Mick, Stevie who had done my training was known as Stevie Shitehouse, a play on his surname. I was asked what my nickname was. In my last job I used to get back and forward to work on an old MZ125. Invariably it was unreliable and I was late more times than I was early. One very late morning I was around an hour late, “here he is at last,” one of the electricians called out “10 to 10 Ken”, and it stuck from there.

We stayed in the café for about half an hour, the talk was about callout, customers, and moans saying the office wanted too much done every day. We all left to go our separate ways. I headed for the first one on the list that Billy had ticked. It was a small warehouse that dealt in fabrics. At reception, I said I had come to service the alarm system and handed over my ID. “Wait please” and the receptionist disappeared, she returned with a man nearing his sixties. “Not seen you before,” “I’m new, been with them a couple of months”, I lied. There was no way I wanted to say that this was the first one I was doing on my own. “This way” he said, I followed, into a room off reception, near the front door. “Could you put in your code please,” I asked. He punched in the four digits, as he was doing this, I turned away so that there was no way I would or could see the code he was using. The system then started trying to set, I then had to punch in the engineers code to stop it setting and enter “engineering”, with four codes to choose from, I went for the one I knew was used most. Bingo, I was in, the man then left and I was on my own. The system had only five zones, the panel was in an area where there was very little footfall so there was no one watching me. I looked at the log book to see if there had been any entries since the last time it was serviced. Nothing, so that was good. I unscrewed the front of the panel and set it on the floor. I clipped the engineer’s phone on to the phone line and dialled the number for the control room. I gave them my ID number and the site reference number and said I wanted to put the system on test. “How long” they asked. “Ninety minutes” I said, more time than I needed but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t setting the alarm off when the time had run out. I then started on the service as I had been doing all the previous times. Everything went well, I then headed out into the warehouse to check the zones.

Zone 1, was the front door, it had a plastic door contact on it. I tightened up the screws on it and checked the alignment with the magnet fixed to the door.

Zone 2, was a PIR set to the side of reception looking across to the door and the reception desk. I moved about all over the area to make sure it was detecting me.

Zone 3, Another PIR, this time in the room that the alarm panel was fitted. Again tested by walking all round the room checking the field of detection.

Zone 4, in the warehouse set high on the wall looking across the roller shutter door and the loading area was a huge detector, known colloquially as an elephant catcher, it is a dualtec, a detector that has two different technologies built into the same detector. Microwave and PIR. It is much more reliable as both parts have to go off at the same time to activate the alarm signal. The microwave part detects motion and the PIR part detects changes in temperature.

It’s called an “elephant catcher” due to its size and the vast range that it can detect over. It was very dusty and was going to need a clean.

Zone 5, is all the external doors in the warehouse, there are two fire exits, the roller shutter door and a side door adjacent to the roller shutter. Again I check these contacts, the roller shutter contact is aluminium and the part fixed to the floor is loose. Another job that needs to be done.

With the steps off the van I clean the elephant catcher and then check that the range has been set correctly. Next I took off the roller shutter contact and drill out the rawlplugs from the concrete. The battery drill issued is about as much good as trying to drill a hole with a custard mixer. Eventually I get the remains of the red plugs out and hammer in brown plugs. These are slightly larger and fit tightly in the hole. I used longer screws this time to get a better fix and the contact is back in place securely.

I then set the panel into “walk test” and as I go round opening doors and activating detectors, I can hear a “bing bong” from the panel.

The final step was to set the alarm and then activate it and check the signal went through to the control room. My problem was that that there were people moving around the building making it impossible to set the alarm. Fortunately on this panel, there is the facility to reduce the number of zones to one. With that done and only the front door active I set the alarm. Once set, I then opened the door. The alarm started to beep as it would do on entry. The entry time was set to twenty seconds, as soon as that time ran out, the outside bell and the internal sounder went off. I punched in the code to shut it off. I reset the alarm, adjusted the system back to five zones and then called in to see if they had received the alarm signal. With that confirmed, I asked them to take the system off test and put it back live. I screwed the front back on the panel, returned it back into “day mode” and sat down to write up the maintenance report. Earlier in the café, I was told to put down the time I would have got there had I not gone to the café. “No one will notice” I was told. No one ever did. I asked the girl on reception if she could sign but she shook her head and went off again. The man came out from an office behind, “everything alright” he asked. I told him about the roller shutter contact and he just nodded. He signed the paperwork, I gave him his copy. As I was doing this I felt a strange sensation on my side, my pager was vibrating. I asked if I could use their phone and the receptionist pointed to one further along the counter. “Dial 9 for an outside line”,

I rang the office and spoke to Melanie, She was the person who gave out all the jobs and organised all the maintenance visits. The only other people in the office that looked after this area were George, the branch manager, Irene his assistant, who also looked after the accounts and Matt the surveyor/salesman.

“I have a job for you, I need you to go to a school where they have had a fire, the alarm needs to be sorted to isolate the fire damaged area and allow them to still set the rest of the building. There is an installation engineer, Martin, already on site but he is struggling.” “You think I’ll do any better” I asked back. “I’m sure you will” she said. She gave me the address and off I went.

Next time: Fire damage, I meet Geezer and being on call.

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