Tales From The Alarm Industry, Part Two

Image by tonodiaz on Freepik

Stories from my time spent working for an alarm company.

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

Following the call from Melanie to head to a school where there had been a fire and the alarm system was showing a fault and unable to set, I arrived at the school mid-morning. Getting out the van, the smell of smoke hung in the air, entering through the main door the smell grew stronger. I announced my arrival, signed in and one of the premises officers showed me the panel, the front was open and the display was show faults, one after another. I asked where the other engineer was, “he’s parked up near the damaged part of the school, I’ll take you there.” “What happened” I asked. He looked round to make sure there was no one else about, “f*cking little shits set it on fire two nights ago.” We carried on down corridors, my eyes stung a bit with the smoke still in the air. There was the sound of banging which we were getting nearer to. We turned a corridor and two men were creating a frame across the corridor to board off the fire damage from the rest of the school. There was no sign of Martin the installation engineer who had been sent out earlier. “He must be outside” the premises officer said pushing open a nearby fire door. Seeing his van, I headed over, the premises officer went off to do what he had been doing before I arrived. I said hello to Martin and introduced myself. “Hope you have more of a f*cking clue about this system than I do.” Was his reply, “It f*cking stinks in there,” he carried on. “I’ve never seen one of these panels before, I’m a f*cking house basher, not a f*cking electronic engineer.” I said that I hadn’t worked on one before but I had the manual. The panel was a Scantronic 9500, it could have up to 320 zones using remote modules and local power supplies. The remote modules had five alarm zones and required only a six core cable from the main panel. This made large complex installations easy to wire. I asked Martin if he had made a start. “Don’t know where to f*cking start,” this was going to be hard work. “Do you know which zones have been damaged.” He shook his head. I didn’t have much of a clue either but knew we had to make a start. “Right, let’s find the log book, then the premises officer and find out which zones have been damaged.” Off we set, the log book was easy, finding the premises officer proved more difficult. We eventually found him in a little store room where he was making tea, no offer to make us a cup. I asked him to identify which zones had been affected by the fire. He looked down the list and put an asterisk at the side of all the zones he thought were within the area damaged by the fire. There were eight, spread across two remote modules. I said to Martin that we needed to find the wiring leading to the two modules. We looked round the corridors near the fire for any alarm power supplies, about thirty metres away Martin spotted one high up on the wall. He went to get his steps, I tried to follow the cabling to see if one went towards the now half partitioned corridor. The cables had been painted over many times and were hard to follow, but I think I managed to find the right one, it disappeared down the corridor towards the fire damaged area. “It f*cking stinks more, the higher up you are,” was Martins comment as he opened up the power supply. “Can you see the number on the LIM” I asked. “There’s nothing written on the cover,” “open it up then to see if there is anything inside”. He unscrewed the cover and read out the numbers on the inside “1041, 1042 and 1043.” That meant that we were on the right track. They corresponded to the ones marked by the premises officer. One was the branch number, 04 was the remote module number and 1, 2 and 3 were the zone numbers.  The remote modules in the fire area were 05 and 06. I got the manual out to find out which wires to disconnect to isolate the fire damage. “The head want to know if you can put up a detector to cover the boarding.” It was the premises officer. Martin said he would put one up if I did the connections and the programming. He went off out to the van, I climbed the steps to disconnect the wiring that was no longer to be used. Martin returned with a detector, a roll of cable and his tool box. When I had finished he took the steps and set to work. It took him about twenty minutes to install the detector and clip the wiring back to the power supply. “Your job now” he said. I wired the PIR into one of the spare zones on the remote module, wrote details of the zone inside the lid and screwed the unit shut, did the same with the power supply. “We need to go to the panel now and try to sort out the zones.” Martin said he didn’t have a clue. “I’m sure we will work it out between us,” I said in reply.

I sat on a bench near the school office reading through the manual to try to find out how to delete and add zones from the system. Eventually I found the paragraph that dealt with it and having read it several times I went to the panel to have a go. There is a flow chart in the manual that leads to the part of the memory I need to get to. I follow the instructions answering yes or no as required until I get to the zone programming part. I have to scroll through the remote modules until I get to the two that need deleting. That done, I then have to add the new zone Martin had just installed. With all this done, I phoned the central station to check whether Martin had put the system on test. He hadn’t so I asked for an hour’s test to let me set the system and see if it would signal through. I returned the panel to “day” mode to see if there were any faults showing. Surprisingly it was clear. Back into engineering and I set it into walk test. There is no way I am going to be able to set the alarm with all the people walking around. In walk test when a zone is activated it shows up on the panel, my aim is to watch it to see if there is just a few seconds when everything is inactive. It takes about five minutes of just standing watching before the system goes clear for a few seconds. To test the communicator, I short out a couple of terminals which send a signal to central station. I give them a call to check if they got the signal, they did, and I take the system off test. I rang the office to let them know that the job was done. With the panel back in day mode, I sit down to write up the log book and then the paperwork. I list everything I have disconnected so that there is no comeback on me. I put down the parts used and the time spent on site. Finally I head off to find the premises officer to get a signature and to show him what we have done. With a signature and my copies of the paperwork, I head back outside to find Martin. He is sitting in his van eating his lunch. I suddenly realise that I am starving, it’s now 14.30 and I haven’t stopped or eaten anything since 09.30. “Job done” I said to him. “Thank f*ck for that,” was all he said. We parted, him back to the installation he had been on, me back to the next service call.

Several days later, I was back in the office and down in the stores to collect some parts. Animal, one of the other engineers was also there. We were talking as another much older man came in, he was probably well into his sixties. He had the look of a kindly old grandad. “My name is Colin” he said, “some call me that, some call me Geezer, as in old geezer,” he looked directly at Animal. He was the father of one of the sub-contractors. The company used “subbies” to help out when it was busy on the installation side. Colin was always smiling, seemingly happy with life. His job was to pick up service visits for domestic alarms that had been missed during the month, either because no one was in or the engineer ran out of time to get all his service calls done. Colin was also in demand as a second pair of hands on jobs that required two people. He used his own car which had a pair of steps across the seats, he didn’t carry ladders, anything above steps height, he passed back to the office for someone else to do.

As it was nearing the end of the month and a new rota was about to be issued with me included on it for the first time. Engineers were on call every sixth day. During the week, it was from 17.30 until 08.30 the following morning. Saturday and Sunday were 24 hour shifts from 08.30 until 08.30 the following day. Once the rota was released, the horse trading started. Engineers were swapping shifts amongst themselves for dates that they had something planned. Billy didn’t mind the shift changing and gave everyone 24 hours to sort it out before he issued a revised final rota. I was on Wednesday, Tuesday, Monday and Sunday. No one had swapped with me, and I didn’t need to change any of my days. As the following Wednesday approached I was getting more and more nervous, Billy the chief engineer was available if required for backup but I has been told by Stevie only to call him something serious happens that I can’t resolve or won’t wait until morning. Another piece of advice I was given was to get street maps of Leicester and all the surrounding towns and villages and keep them with you at all times. I already had one for Leicester so only needed to get the county ones. Another engineer had said to keep something in the van in case there was any “trouble” when you are on call. “Trouble, what kind of trouble,” I wanted to know. “Just in case you go into a building and there is still someone inside.” “I’m not telling Mrs 10210 about this” I thought to myself.

The routine for callouts was that you finished you normal day at 17.30 and you were then on call, you were paid a small amount for that. Normal pay up until midnight and then time and a half from then on for all the time you were out. The control room would activate your pager, you would then phone in to get the address, contact name and phone number of the customer. With that information, the customer is then phoned, a few questions about the activation and then advise them of the ETA. Any alarm system that activates and is connected to a control room who then inform the police has to have an engineer reset the system after an alarm. This ensures that the cause is investigated and rectified. It annoys the customer as he has to wait around for an engineer and he will get a bill at the end of it.

I now had a couple of weeks working on my own and was getting to grips with the servicing, the faults were a bit more difficult and I had to ring for advice a couple of times. I thought I was doing OK, I hadn’t been pulled up for anything I’d done wrong, perhaps I was a bit slower and took longer on each job, but I thought I would speed up as time went on.

In the café on Monday morning I was getting a lot of mickey taking about being on call on Wednesday. Horror stories of previous callouts were being discussed, I hoped they were being exaggerated for my benefit.

At just after 17.00 on Wednesday, I was in the office to pick up some replacement parts I had used from my van stock. Melanie came and found me to tell me that the first callout I had was a job that Ben had not got to. “He got stuck on a job and won’t make it to his last call.” I later found out that this was common practice for him, if there was the slightest chance that he would have to work past 17.30 then he would find an excuse to hand the job back to the office. It was a community centre on one of Leicester’s many housing estates. The alarm was showing a fault and wouldn’t set. It was in the south of the city and I fought my way through the rush hour traffic to get there. “I’ve been waiting for you for hours, I reported the fault at 14.00 this afternoon.” This was the greeting from one of the managers. “What’s the problem?” “The alarm has a fault on it.” “Let’s have a look,” I said trying to sound friendly, “where’s the alarm panel.” I was led into the office, I could see the panel on the wall. Looking at the screen, it had a zone number and fault flashing. Taking out the log book from behind the panel, I opened it and scanned down the list of zones. “It’s the detector in the sports hall corridor, can you show me where it is.” Off we went, I could tell we were nearing the sports hall as the smell of feet and sweat was getting stronger. “That’s the detector….” His voice tailed off and he never finished the sentence. The detector had been smashed off the wall and was hanging by its wire connections. The screws were still in the wall, someone must have used a lot of force to wrench it off the wall. “I think that needs to be replaced, I will get one from the van.” I returned with tools, steps and a replacement detector. “Can we go back to the office to put the system into engineering so I can get started.” I asked for the alarm code to be entered, I took over and scrolled down to engineering and put in the engineers code. I went back to replace the detector, careful not to short out the power wires as I hadn’t disconnected the power to speed things up. It was any easy introduction to callout and I was all done by 18.30.

I headed for home hoping I would get some tea before I was called out again. Our son was already in his cot asleep and I ate alone, my dinner sitting in the oven for two hours, getting cooler all the time. I quick thirty seconds in the microwave reheated everything, but turned the peas into shotgun pellets. I sat watching the TV disinterestedly waiting for the pager to go off. Around 23.00 I went to bed. I left the pager out on the landing, sitting on top of the bannister. Hopefully I would hear and it wouldn’t disturb Mrs 10210 and the baby.

Around 03.30, I was aware of a noise getting louder, the pager was going off, I slid out of bed and turned it off. With a towel wrapped round me I headed downstairs to the phone. I rang in, a shop in the city centre had been broken into and the window smashed. With the details, I phoned the customer and said I would be there in around forty five minutes. Back upstairs, I had left my clothes ready on the landing and got dressed in the dark. I was out the house within ten minutes of the phone call and on my way. When I got there, the window was in the process of being boarded up. The alarm had activated when a break glass detector had been set off. These detectors are acoustic and are set off with the sound of glass breaking. With the panel reset, the customer wanted to know how I am going to protect the boarding up. The boarding up guys know their job and it is not easy to remove boarding from the outside. However the guy is a bit paranoid. (Who wouldn’t be after a break in). In the van, I locate some lace wire. This is wire with a very low breaking strain. I disconnect the contact on the front door and take out the tamper wires. The tamper circuit is live whether the alarm is set or not. I fit a small junction box on the door frame and staple gun the lace wire from the door on to the boarding. I staple it in a diamond shape and then back to the junction box, so that if the boards are pulled off, it will break the wire and set the alarm off. I tell the customer that when the window is replaced he will need to call us out again to disconnect the wire. I’m back home by 06.00. Alert but tired, I am faced with a dilemma, do I go to bed for an hour and a half or do I sleep in a chair. Bed wins, I lie there going over everything that happened, wondering if I did everything correctly. I drift in and out of sleep until 07.30 when the alarm goes off.

First of many nights on call completed.

Next time: Fire alarms, posh houses and company directors

© 10210ken 2023