Magazine Articles

A New Day for 911 Monitoring

By Lisa Korklan
Emergency, Fire/Rescue and Police Magazine
Feburary 2005

Mrs. O’Leary’s cow began a fire protection legacy in the Chicago metropolitan area that is perhaps the most comprehensive in the country. To enable the fastest, most accurate response to their fire alarms, most fire departments in the northern Illinois area demand that NFPA code-required buildings connect their fire alarm systems to a fire alarm monitoring facility in the municipal 911 center.

The challenge
For the last 20 years, the City of Naperville, Ill., connected its fire alarm subscribers to its on-site central dispatch station using signal-grade, direct connection telephone lines provided by the local telephone company. However, inherent in the use of telephone lines to monitor fire alarms is a variety of problems. Failures can occur when sending signals through telephone lines due to complications such as inclement weather, vandalism, inconsistent connections in old cables or inadvertent signal interruption by telephone company repair personnel working on the wrong wires.

Of Naperville’s 1,300 subscribers connected to the city’s 911 center by telephone lines in those 20 years, an average of 4 to 6 percent—or 65 to 95 subscribers—were out of service at any given time because of some form of complication. Occasionally, outages lasted for more than 30 days, compromising the fire department’s ability to maintain effective support services. In addition, false alarms caused by system failures required a manned response—including fire apparatus—costing the city tens of thousands of dollars annually in false alarm servicing. Although fines to subscribers offset some of the costs for false alarms, the city was absorbing the bulk of the expenses.

The alarm companies that owned and maintained the alarm equipment paid Naperville an average of $5.25 per month per subscriber to offset the costs for dispatching and responding to alarms as well as for administering the relationship between the city and the alarm service vendor, but fire and city officials knew they needed to make some changes.

The solution
In late 1999, the city’s officials decided to explore alternatives to their 20-year-old alarm-monitoring program.

“We were looking for a solution that would provide reliability and high performance and would also offset some of our expense for monitoring and responding to the alarms reported by the monitoring system,” says Daniel J. Voiland, assistant chief of the Naperville Fire Department.

Over the next two years, the department issued exploratory requests for proposals to the fire safety market and received a wide range of suggested solutions from dealers and manufacturers with varied abilities and qualifications. This research supplied the Naperville officials with the information they needed to make a qualified decision on a variety of options, approaches and concepts.

In 2001, having considered numerous solutions and technologies, Naperville’s officials chose an active network radio system manufactured by Keltron Corp. This active network radio system, based on Keltron’s proven, reliable alarm-monitoring systems, featured UL-listed radio transceivers that replaced conventional telephone lines. Its unique store-and-forward multipath capability alleviates the need for towers and expensive repeater sites, because each subscriber radio transceiver functions as a repeater.

Distributed intelligence and dynamically evaluated transmission paths ensure that the system always uses the most reliable path to the central receiver. Each added subscriber transceiver strengthens the network and can provide another transmission path to the central receiver for the other subscribers. Network monitoring software enables a computer to display and record all network activity. This software provides vital network status information required to effectively operate, troubleshoot and maintain the network.

The wireless network system is owned and maintained by the City of Naperville. By leasing their network with a turnkey approach that includes installation and ongoing maintenance, the city avoids any potential conflict with taxpayers who do not use the city’s alarm services. The leasing program covers the hardware and labor costs for all of the equipment installed in the Naperville 911 center, as well as all hardware and labor to install equipment at the subscriber’s premises. Because proceeds from subscriber alarm monitoring fees cover 100 percent of the equipment, installation and ongoing maintenance costs, the city was able to purchase and implement the entire system with no upfront costs.

Subscribers connected to the municipality’s 911 center by telephone lines incurred a monthly cost for service that they paid to the local phone company. This cost varied from subscriber to subscriber, but it averaged more than $40 per month. By redirecting this monthly fee from the phone company to a leasing company, the subscriber’s cost for wireless equipment, installation and ongoing maintenance was paid with no upfront or added cost to the subscriber for less than $35 per month—an amount that was locked in for five years. In Naperville, a portion of the revenue from fees charged to subscribers is used by the city to offset the costs of purchasing, installing, monitoring and maintaining the network. The remaining collected fees generate approximately $130,000 per year in additional revenue, which the city uses to offset costs for 911 center dispatchers, administrative and billing costs, and alarm response services.

Adopting the Keltron wireless system using a leased, turnkey approach also helped to solve another problem that Naperville’s subscribers had been experiencing—lack of coordination among the telephone company, the alarm company and the subscriber. The new program allows the city to coordinate all installation and service-related issues among subscribers, alarm companies and the city.

“In this win-win situation,” says Voiland, “the municipality maintains control of the network, and the subscriber receives dependable alarm monitoring services at no upfront or ongoing extra cost. We knew that we had to keep costs under control, and this is a totally self-funding program.”

Currently, Naperville’s wireless technology system services 1,000 of its 1,300 subscribers and is on a steady course of converting the balance of the subscribers who are still on the old phone line system to radio. When all 1,300 subscribers are converted to radio, revenue that can be used to offset response costs will exceed $250,000 per year.

“We’re not here to make money, and we’re not here to generate revenue,” says Voiland. “I’d rather pay to have properly functioning alarms that are always working. It’s tough for me to put a dollar savings on it, but what I can say is that we now have our EMS and firetrucks available more often because they’re not out responding to false alarms all the time.

“That speaks for itself.”

Lisa Korklan is the director of marketing for Keltron Corp.