Tales From The Alarm Industry, Part Eleven

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Stories from my time spent working for an alarm company.

This Time: Things aren’t what they used to be, a mad Sunday and a rough part of Leicester.

It was Monday morning and Stevie and I sat in the café on our own. From the six engineers that had been there when I started, there were only the two of us left now. The others had left and the replacements had come and gone, the camaraderie that had once been there had been lost. The new engineers weren’t interested in heading to the café for a bacon roll and a coffee, maybe they were worried about being caught, maybe they just didn’t like us. I was in my forties and Stevie was well into his fifties and we both had family. Mostly the new guys were in there early twenties. At one time the unwritten policy had been to employ people with family as they were less likely to leave due to the financial commitments they may have. However it was now anyone who applied, like myself when I started I had very little knowledge but I picked it up quickly. Pay had lagged behind the rates that the big national companies were able to offer. During the last pay increase on being told what my new rate would be I said that it wasn’t enough and if they wanted to keep me then there would need to be a substantial increase. I knew I must be good as they had asked me if I wanted to apply for the position of senior engineer at another branch. I had declined having thought about the hassle that goes with it and having to relocate. A week later, they came back with a better offer which I accepted and life carried on as normal, except that it had changed. Having now spent several years on my area I had all the sites the way I wanted them. It had been hard work that took about eighteen months to get right. The wiring in the panels was all now tidy, the log books were written up and the zones correctly labelled. I was a familiar person on many of the sites, and never short of a drink. The main issue now was that both Stevie and I were being pulled off our areas to sort out faults on the newcomers’ sites. So from what should have been a routine of commercial servicing in the morning and domestics in the afternoon with an early finish, we were constantly being pulled off to sort out issues elsewhere. There was no point in complaining as that was how it was and until they paid better, they weren’t going to get any experienced engineers.

I was on call on a Sunday and was in the shower at 08.30, I didn’t hear the pager or the phone when it rang. Mrs 10210 got the phone, it was the control room and they wanted me. “Where’s he got to go,” she asked. “There’s five for him, I don’t think he will be back for Sunday lunch today,” the voice said. She said I would phone back when out of the shower. “There are five jobs waiting for you,” she said. “How the hell can there be five jobs,” I thought. I hoped the Saturday engineer hadn’t passed them back. Dressed and downstairs, I now had a coffee and sat down with my pad by the phone ready to make a list. “You’re going to be busy, it’s been manic in here since around 04.00 this morning. Last night’s engineer is still out.” “What’s happened, “I wanted to know. “No idea but there are five jobs for you.” “OK, let’s go, give me the list.” Burton upon Trent, Melton Mowbray, Uppingham and then two in Leicester. Two are break ins, two more are false alarms and the fifth is a cannot set. The jobs have to be done in the order in which they come in. One of the break ins is a supermarket in Leicester and I decide to leave that one as there will be no time pressure.  Fortunately the Burton job came in first, a break in at a petrol station overnight. A hole had been cut in the back door and the alarm had gone off when they got into the shop. All the cigarettes had gone along with the thieves. I reset the panel and told them that when the new door is fitted to make sure the joiner moves over the door contact onto the new one.

Next stop Melton Mowbray for a false alarm, going to and from Burton is a nightmare, there are speed cameras all along the route and you have to stick to the 30mph limit no matter how quiet the roads are. In Melton, it was an old house with an old alarm system. Under the carpets are pressure mats that activate when they are stood on. The cabling is usually run under the floorboards or just inside the griper rods. Pressure mats work by having two very thin sheets of foil separated by a perforated foam sheet. When the mat is stood on the sheets touch together activating the alarm. The problem is that the foam sheet disintegrates with age and use. They are a pain to replace as the connections are usually soldered plus the carpet has to be lifted. It takes me an hour to replace the mat and check the system before I am out on the road again. It’s after 12.00 and I have only done two of the five. Down to Uppingham which takes about forty five minutes. It’s another domestic where they couldn’t set the alarm last night. There is a broken door contact on the front door which is quickly replaced. Back towards Leicester now for the last two jobs. I head to the supermarket where there had been a break in, or attempted break in as it turned out to be. It was a large Asian supermarket and someone had tried to lever up the roller shutter setting off the alarm. There was no damage to the alarm contact on the shutter so like the last job it was an easy fix. The final job is at the university. I head to the porters lodge to get more information and then taken to where the false alarm was. The porters are a bit reluctant to give me too much information. All I am told is that it happened in a laboratory on the seventh floor of the science building. A porter and I head over towards the building. He’s not very talkative, his only comment was that he didn’t like the building we were going to. He unlocked the main door and relocked it once we were inside. In the lift, he pressed the top button for the sixth floor, there was no button for the seventh. “Doesn’t the lift go to the seventh floor.” “No,” was all he said. On the sixth floor we went out into the stairwell, to my left were the stairs that would lead down to the other floors and to outside. To my right was a locked door with an intercom and keypad. “This way.” He punched in a code and opened the door, the smell hit you as soon as the door opened, “small animals,” I thought. As we climbed the stairs to the seventh floor I asked if we were going up to animal testing labs, he nodded and said he hated the place. There was another locked door at the top of the stairs that led into a small reception area. This was where the alarm panel was and I checked it to see what had caused the alarm to go off. “Lab 6” it says. He unlocked another door which led into a long corridor, the smell was now so strong, I could taste it in my mouth. I prayed that there wouldn’t be any animals in the lab we were going to. Much to my surprise, there was a girl, probably in her mid-twenties wearing a white coat and walking about. “Hello she called smiling at us as she walked past. “She cares for the animals,” the porter said. “What a shit job,” I thought as we walked on. Lab 6 thankfully was empty, there were stainless steel tables, empty cages stacked up along one wall, everything was clean, “ready for the next lot” I thought. There was a detector up in the corner of the room and a window that had been left open. Seven floors up, the wind blowing through the window caused a change in temperature that set the alarm off. I closed the window saying that was the cause. “Good,” said the porter, “can we get out of here now.” I said I had to check the alarm before we went. The porter went to get the girl and we all stood in the little reception while I checked that Lab 6 was now clear, it was, and with the panel reset and in ‘day’ mode we were out of there and back down the stairs to the sixth floor. The porter sighed, “thank f*ck we’re out of there.” He was more chatty on his way back to the lodge. He said that no one other than students who were on a particular course, lecturers and the animal carers were meant to know that the labs were there.

It was now well after 15.00 and as Mrs 10210 was told first thing this morning, I wasn’t going to be getting my Sunday lunch. I rang the control room to see if there were any more jobs, an alarm had gone off in Coalville, the key holder had been informed but so far there hadn’t been a request for an engineer. I drove home, my Sunday lunch was in the oven, and a quick blast in the microwave brought it back to life. I was just finishing off when the call for the Coalville job came in. Another break in, thieves had kicked in the back door, gone into the offices and stolen all the computers. When I got there, the back door was being boarded up and I lace wired the boarding to make it secure. There wasn’t anything else I could do so with the alarm reset, I headed back home. It all went quiet until around 22.00, a call came in for a secondary school, the alarm had gone off and they wanted an engineer out. I knew the school, it was on my area and just outside Leicester. I didn’t know if it was a false alarm or a break in but on arrival there were three police cars on the drive. One of them was a dog van, the other two were patrol cars. There was a police woman standing beside one of the patrol cars, she was watching me as I drove up. As I got out of the van the piece of wood I kept behind my seat just in case, fell out. She looked at it and then me as I bent down to pick it up. “What’s that,” she demanded, “It’s a piece of wood,” I replied and put it back behind the seat. I think she wanted to pursue it, but I shut the door and went round the back to get my tools. “You can’t go in there, the dog is inside.” “I’ve got no intention of going in until you have all finished and are on your way.” A lot of the police I met were friendly, but the younger ones always seemed to have a bit of attitude. I walked off and found the premises officer, “What’s happened then,” “The f*cking kids have got in again, no doubt they have been wrecking the place.” “Where did they get in,” I asked. “In through the sports hall doors, the locks on them are f*cked, if you pull them hard enough from the outside, they spring open. The little bastards will be long gone, I don’t know why they are bothering with the dog.” A few minutes later the police dog and handler came out the front door, following behind were two policemen each with a lad about fourteen or fifteen firmly in their grip. “I know these little f*ckers, there brothers, always causing trouble.” The lads were smiling as if nothing had happened. They were put in the back of one of the police cars and driven off. The police dog ran around for a few minutes on a long lead before being put back in the van and the lone woman PC disappeared in the third car. The two of us were left on our own. We headed in together, he had already been in once to silence the alarm and see which zone went off. We went off round the school together to see what damage had been done. Sure enough, the sports hall doors were open, He pulled them closed and went off into a store room and came back with a skipping rope. He tied the rope round the crash bars on the door to stop them being pulled back open again. “They’ll have to fix them now.” Everything looked OK until we got to the library. Every freestanding bookcase had been pushed over and the books strewn across the floor. Bookcases that were fixed to the wall had been cleared of all the books which were now also lying on the floor. “What a bloody mess,” I said. The premises officer just nodded. “Well I’m not clearing up this mess,” and he turned and walked back out. I followed and we walked round the rest of the school but found no other damage. “It’s not the kids, it’s their parents and some of the woolly teachers here. Some of these kids have never had any discipline.” He then went off on a rant about kids needing there arses kicked when they did something wrong rather than a telling off. “These two lads will be back home in their beds tonight, nothing will happen to them nothing will be said to them. I’d have them back in the library picking up every single book and putting them back on the shelves in the correct order, but that isn’t going to happen.”

It was well after midnight when I got back home, fortunately there was nothing else that night.

There are certain parts of every city that are more socially challenged (rougher) than the rest. Leicester has several of these areas. Calls during the day are OK, but at night, it’s a different matter. Most of the sites we looked after were council depots, community centres and housing offices. They were all usually the most secure places, not because of any valuables inside, but because they were council premises.

I was passed a job one afternoon to go to a housing office, the phone line had been cut and the bell box smashed off the wall. I parked up next to the BT engineers van and went inside to sign in and start work. The BT man was up the nearest pole running a new cable. I got my ladders off and soon had what was left of the old bell box off the wall, I was back up the ladder fixing the back plate on the wall when two lads probably around sixteen to eighteen arrived at the bottom of the ladder. “Is that your van,” one of them asked pointing to my van. “Yes, why?” “We’re going to nick everything that’s in the back.” I didn’t doubt for one minute that they wouldn’t. I climbed back down the ladders. “Look lads,” I said in my friendliest voice, “I don’t give a f*ck what you nick out the van, but let me get my own tools out first. The company won’t pay for any replacements.” They said nothing, I went and got my tools out and put them inside the housing office. “Oi you up the ladder,” they were now shouting at the BT engineer, “we’re gonna do your van over.”  “F*ck off you little b*stards,” he shouted back. Not the best thing to reply, I thought. I carried on keeping an eye on the van while I finished off the bell box. I then went back inside to check the connections and test the bell. An ashen faced BT engineer came in, “there’s half a paving slab stuck in my windscreen.” I went out to look followed by the BT engineer, sure enough there was half a slab stuck part the way through his windscreen. They must have thrown it with some force to do that, I looked at my van to make sure it was OK and nothing had been stolen. It was as I had left it. I don’t think the two lads liked the reply from BT engineer. When I had finished, I drove off, the two lads were sitting on a wall only a few yards from the housing office. I gave them a wave as I drove past.

Not far from there is a large park with a parks department depot right in the middle in what was originally an old house. I was called out one winter afternoon to accompany another engineer into the park as he wouldn’t go in on his own. I was first to arrive at the gates, a key holder from the parks department was due to arrive as well. The other engineer was next and as we waited for the council worker, the police stopped by the side of the road. One of them got out and came across and asked us what we were doing. I explained that we were waiting to go into the park. “Rather you than me,” came the reply, “we won’t go in there after dark unless it’s absolutely necessary.” With that he got back in the patrol car and drove off. When the council person arrived, we followed him down through the park. Most of the lighting on the driveway had been smashed, I suspect the council had given up repairing them. The depot was also in darkness, the strobe underneath the bell box was still flashing. There was no one about, and the place was eerily quiet. The three of us were standing outside. I had my torch and was looking round for any broken windows or open doors, all the windows were covered in thick steel mesh, the doors also had steel sheets on them. There were two padlocks on the door, Round at the side of the building was a steel gate that led into the courtyard at the back of the building. This also had a big padlock on it. The front door was now open and I followed in the other two, the internal siren was still going off. Once it was silenced the panel was checked, it was the outdoor storage sheds that had set the alarm off. We were led out through the building to the courtyard. The lights were switched on and the courtyard lit up, one of the doors to what were once stables was wide open. Inside the room was empty save for a couple of petrol cans. Looking round the courtyard, there was a ladder leaning against the wall and a tarpaulin across the barb wire on the top. “What had been in here,” I asked. “Chain saws, hedge trimmers and petrol leaf blowers.” “All gone over the wall now,” I remarked. The padlock on the outside of the door had been smashed off, the man from the council had gone back into the building a returned with a tool box. With a hammer and some four inch nails, he nailed the door shut. “All we’ll get is a crime number, there’s no point in reporting it tonight, they won’t come out. It’s probably the gypo’s, we’ll never see the stuff again.” With the alarm reset, we retraced our steps back out through park and into the light.

One summer evening around 22.30 I had a callout to a ‘neighbourhood centre’ in the middle of the estate. I was told the key holder would meet me on site. As I arrived there were blue lights flashing everywhere. Outside the neighbourhood centre was a police car with every window smashed. Police cars were everywhere and I couldn’t get anywhere near to the job. “What’s going on I ask one of the police, “some kids set the alarm off, when a patrol arrived, they were hiding behind a wall with loads of rocks and stones, as soon as the police got out the car, they pelted it, breaking the windows.” It was hard not to laugh, the car was a mess, as well as the windows smashed, I don’t think there was a panel on the car, that hadn’t been hit. They had chased some of the kids, but had no chance of catching them. I asked if they could move one of their cars so I could get nearer the centre. There was a lady chatting to two of the police and I guessed she must be the key holder. As I approached, she came towards me. She thanked me for coming so quickly and we went up to the door of the centre. Lying on the ground was a scaffold pole, I looked up to where the bell box should have been and it was missing. Inside and with the alarm silenced I checked the system to see what had happened. All it said was ‘bell tamper’, this meant that there was a tamper fault on the bell, I’ll say there was, the bell box has two tampers, one on the back in case it is levered off and one on the screw that secures the cover. With the bell box being knocked off, the alarm had activated. I said to the lady that it was going to take me about thirty minutes to sort it out. She made coffee for us both and I set to work. It had obviously all been well planned, knock off the bell box, the alarm goes off, the police arrive and the kids are lying in wait. I was amazed at their ingenuity and also at the loathing they must have for the police. With the job done, I’m drinking the remains of the now cold coffee and I ask her what it’s like working here. “Like any council place, you see good and bad, some people appreciate what we do for them, others, are never happy. The people round here are fiercely loyal to one another and are very wary of anyone new.” Outside, a breakdown lorry had come to take the police car away, with it gone, the rest of the police follow. With the street now empty, I ask her if she wants me to walk with her to her car, she set the alarm and locked up. As we are walking youths start to appear in the street, they are laughing and joking, thankfully they ignore us. As she drove off, I walked back to my van, a couple of the lads in the middle of the road shout over to me, “we might do that again tomorrow night.” I don’t care, just please don’t do it again tonight.”

Next time: Titanic, a regular visit to the convent and a bit of trouble.

© 10210ken 2023