Tales From The Alarm Industry, Part Three

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Stories from my time spent working for an alarm company.

This time: Fire alarms, posh houses and the directors.

Getting well into my list of service calls to be made during the month, some of them have “FA” after the address. On checking with another engineer he told me that this was a fire alarm system. I had done a couple of them when I was training with Stevie but didn’t pay very much attention and he didn’t elaborate too much. I spoke to Melanie in the office, saying I wasn’t too confident with fire alarms. She paired me up with Animal who had the area next to mine. The plan was to spend a morning doing fire alarms, two on his area and two on mine. With the jobs set up and Melanie passing any callouts to other engineers we set off on Friday morning to do four fire alarm services. On the first one Animal explained that fire alarms were 24volt systems, with two 12volt batteries in the panel linked together to create 24 volts. They were tested in the same way that the alarm panel batteries were done. Fire alarms are tested four times a year whereas intruder alarm systems are done either once or twice depending on the contract. He said that the policy was to test a third of the system on each visit and the complete system once a year. The issue was that it was difficult to remember which detectors had been tested on a previous test so on every visit, everything was tested. That way nothing got missed. With an intruder alarm if something is missed then there could be a break in, whereas with a fire alarm, if something is missed then someone may die. Fire alarms are best tested by two people, one stands by the panel while the other goes round activating the call points and detectors. Whoever is standing at the panel shuts the sounders down as soon as the detector activates. If you are on your own, you have to disable the sounders and go back to check the panel after every activation. On the first one, I man the panel while Animal goes round the site setting each detector off. He has with him, an aerosol can of smoke, test keys to activate the call points and scarily a blow torch. “What’s the blow torch for,” I ask curiously. “To activate the heat detectors.”  We are on one of his sites so he knows the location of all the points, my job is to silence the bells and keep disturbance to a minimum. The locations of all the points are listed in the log book and within an hour, everything has been tested. Animal then takes me round, showing me the different types of detectors, smoke, heat and rate of rise. He also shows me how to test the call points (break glass units) and explains that the sounder wiring is done in such a way that the two sounder circuits are wired so that in each area there will be sounders from both circuits. This ensures that if there is a fault on one circuit, the sounders will still be heard throughout the building. We move on to another site in his area and this time the rolls are reversed, I am doing the walking round testing the system. In the log book are listed all the zones, and armed with the test equipment and a set of steps I set off trying to find the detectors and then activating them. The log book is used to fan the smoke detectors after the fake smoke has been sprayed round it. On the first couple, I spray far too much and end up having to fan the detectors for about five minutes to clear the air. Any call point I see on my way round, I activate. In the kitchen area is a heat detector, “just light the blow torch and hold it about twelve inches under the detector, as soon as the red light comes on, pull it away and turn it off,” were my instructions. With all the detectors checked, Animal and I walk round the building to see if I have missed any, I had, two more needed to be tested and this was soon done.

We were on to my area now, we had done two office buildings on Animal’s area, on mine, Melanie had selected and booked in a school and a care home. We got to the school at playtime and once signed in, we had to wait until the classes were back in the school and all of the teachers informed about what was happening before we could start. This gave us a chance to test the batteries and walk round to see all the points. Animal would be manning the panel on both of the remaining jobs. With the OK from the school office, I set off, it only took around twenty minutes and with a second walk round with Animal to see if anything was missed, nothing had been, we were soon out of there. We were looked on more as an inconvenience rather than a service which could save their lives one day. Alarm engineers, I discovered, are sometimes looked on as a pain in the arse, especially when they make a lot of noise. At first I took it personally but soon realised it wasn’t me, it was the job I was doing. We moved on to the care home, the front door was locked, and we had to ring the bell and wait. The bell was answered by a young girl in an overall, she told us to wait, the door was shut and we could hear it being locked. The door was unlocked and opened once more, this time an older woman with a different coloured overall opened the door. Again we said we had come to test the fire alarm. The door was swung open and we entered. The smell of stale urine as we stepped inside together with the heat was overpowering, I gagged and Animal automatically put his sleeve over his nose to block out the smell. “Sorry about that,” the woman said, “we have to keep the door locked to stop anyone wandering off.” She was obviously used to the smell, we were shown to a desk where on the wall behind it was the fire alarm panel. Another lady was pushing a trolley round with a tea urn and biscuits, she asked us if we wanted a drink. We must have looked a bit concerned as she leant over and said, “we have different cups”. We both nodded and said two teas please. It was about ten minutes later and we were well into the battery testing, when the tea arrived. Two mugs and a plate of biscuits. Our nostrils were getting used to the smell, but the heat was intense. I said to the tea lady that it was very warm, “the old ones feel the cold more, their skin is a lot thinner.” The residents were milling about, going from room to room, some shuffling along, others with the aid of a walking frame. There was TV on in a room off from where we were, a few were sitting watching TV, some of those had a vacant faraway look. Occasionally shouting could be heard but no one appeared to be bothered by it. One old lady came up to the desk where we were working, “what ya doing,” she asked, “testing the fire alarm,” I replied. She repeated her question, I gave the same reply.  She asked again, I was rescued by one of the staff who led her away towards the TV. This was my first encounter of elderly people for whom the brain was no longer working properly. It was long before the terms dementia and Alzheimer’s were widely known or talked about. It was a sad, sad place, there weren’t many smiling people, a few did have happy faces, but a lot just looked sad and confused. Over the next few years, I went there many times, it never got any easier.

Also on my area I had some of the largest and most expensive houses in Leicestershire. My three bed semi could fit in the kitchen of many of these houses. Appointments were made for service calls to these houses. Usually first thing in the morning or towards the end of the afternoon, these times could usually be guaranteed and not have to be cancelled by a callout. It was mostly the lady of the house who was at home, the man having gone out to work to keep her in the manner she had become used to. I found they fell into three categories, Those that were friendly and helpful, those that were business like and those that looked down their noses at you as if you were lowest of the low. Types one and two I was fine with, Type three pissed me off. The money to buy the houses had come from business, there was no or very little inherited wealth in these houses.

Usually once I was admitted, I would take of my shoes at the door and then pad round in my socks so as not to mess up the polished floors or light coloured carpets. Occasionally there would be a maid or a cleaner around as well. I think some of the type one ladies were pleased to see a different person and would talk endlessly while you were working, make drinks for you and follow you round the house. Type two’s would leave you to get on with it. “I’ll be in the sun room if you need me,” type comment and walk off. The type three’s, if they were arrogant, ignorant or unhelpful would pay for it. I would charge them for every little thing I could find that needed to be replaced on the service call. It certainly wouldn’t dent their bank balance but it gave me a little sense of getting my own back. Many months later, towards the end of an afternoon during a hot summer day, I had arrived at a type three house. A huge house in its own grounds out in the country. The drive must have been about half a mile long. There was a stable block and inside a swimming pool and gym complex had been built on to one side of the house. The cleaner had let me in, I had been there several times before and was known to the lady of the house and the cleaner. Having been given permission to start I went off to the alarm panel and got to work. During the walk test I passed through the kitchen. The cleaner who in the past had always made me a drink was sitting there with a coffee. “No drink for you today,” she whispered. “She’s got it on her today, her f*cking majesty said that the alarm engineer is not to get a drink. We pay him to do a job not drink our coffee.” “That’s OK” I said and carried on. That day, she had a new battery, a faulty door contact and PIR were replaced. Just a small victory. I later looked up in the Times rich list how much her husband was worth, over £100m.

I mentioned in the first part, that the business was privately owned. The head office was also in the same building where the Leicester office was. The head office part occupied the top three floors of the building. There were four directors, the main man, who owned most of the company, a financial director, an operations director, and another whose responsibilities I never did find out. There was also the main man’s son, he wasn’t a director but swanned around the place dishing out orders that were ignored by everyone. The only thing I can say about the directors was that they were loathed. No one liked them. They were from an era where they thought that ruling by fear was how you ran a business. There was never a kind word from any of them in all the time I was there. Fortunately I had very little to do with them. The home of one of the directors was on my patch, however I was never allowed in the house. There were only two engineers who were trusted. Both had been with the company since its early years. They carried out all the servicing and repairs at the director’s houses.

The following week I was on call on Tuesday night. Over the weekend I found a piece of 2 X 2 wood in the shed, I cut it to about two feet long, stuck it in the vice and started rounding off one end into a handle shape, I kept at it until it was round enough for me to get a good grip. My hand went round it in a firm grasp, I tried whacking it into my other hand, It felt good. I put it behind the driver’s seat of my van. I would be prepared now if I ever encountered any trouble.

Part of my area covered Belgrave in Leicester. This is predominately an Asian area. Apart from street upon street of terraced housing there are lots of small hosiery factories and Leicester’s own “Golden Mile”, a road full of Asian eateries, clothes shops and jewellers. On my list was a jeweller’s shop just of Belgrave Rd. It looks a little run down from the outside, paint peeling off the façade and the step into the shop well worn. The door was locked but there were a couple of people inside behind the counter. They looked up when I tried the door. One came round to the door but didn’t unlock it. We had a conversation through the locked door, I passed my ID through the letterbox. Once examined, the man then picked up the phone and I guessed he was calling the office. When the conversation ended, he came back and unlocked the door to let me in. As soon as I was in, he locked the door again. “I haven’t seen you before and I wanted to make sure you were genuine,” he said as he handed me back my ID. “No problem, I’m new so it’s best to make sure. Can you show me where the alarm panel is please?” He led the way into the back and pointed to a hole in a partition wall that was about two foot by two foot and around four feet off the ground. Behind the partition wall was another Asian man who was making jewellery. As far as I could see he was filing a gold ring. To the left of him and on a solid wall was the alarm panel. An old 4 zone panel with a communicator in a separate box. There was a conversation between the two in an Asian language and the jewellery maker started to stand to leave the bench he was working at. The whole area he was in was about four feet by three feet, with a workbench on one side. An angle poise lamp with a magnifying glass was screwed to the wall and hung over the workbench. He opened the door but didn’t leave, he just stood there. I could hear a vacuum cleaner starting up, I looked round to see the first man running the nozzle all over the jeweller. He was vacuuming his clothes, back and front, he went over the front several times. Even doing the soles of the socks he was wearing. I must have looked puzzled as when the man moved out his little room and the vacuum was switched off he told me that he was collecting any gold dust that might have been on his clothes. “We take the bag to Birmingham once a month and it is put in a furnace to recover all the gold dust. I moved to go in to the alarm panel. “No no, you must work from outside,” and pointed to the hatch through which I had seen all this happen. “I’ve got to lean in through this hatch to work on the alarm panel.” He nodded. It wasn’t easy but I managed to do it. When I had finished, I also had the vacuum treatment but only on my arms. It was the same ritual every time I went after that. Despite me asking on later visits, they never would tell me how much they recovered in the vacuum.

Next time: I make a friend, a ram raid and I’m asked to do work on the side.

© 10210ken 2023