Presidential Alert Brings Unintended Consequences To Alarm Monitoring

Justin Bailey
Oct 4, 2018 9:24:58 AM

During the October 3rd test of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), the alarm monitoring industry saw an unprecedented influx of inbound signals from both security and PERS device users. An unintended consequence of the Presidential alert system which was designed to provide national alerts in the event of a terror attack or widespread disaster.

The well-publicized test of the Presidential Alert functionality was intended to merely demonstrate the system’s ability to notify most wireless phone users, as well as a parallel message through broadcast radio and television.

Colliding Signal Tones

The alert included a special tone (reportedly quite loud) and a vibration repeated twice. This loud tone coincidentally matched the frequencies monitored by some security glass-break sensors. And in a number of homes, the tones occurred loudly enough to cause the glass-break sensors to trigger alarms that were reported to monitoring centers.

This unforeseen collision created a sudden influx of signals into monitoring centers, highlighting an unusual, and unintended consequence. Many alarm customers were alerted of the glass-break alarm and were contacted to determine whether emergency response was required. Most customers were confused about why their systems reported this anomalous event.

PERS Subscriber Confusion

Additional confusion occurred to a different group of alarm customers. The tones generated by both cell phones as well as television and radio broadcasts caused an unusually high number of PERS and mPERS subscribers to push their buttons. Some reported hearing the unusual tones and becoming worried. The worry prompted the users to push their buttons to receive assurance that everything was fine. Others believed the tones were coming from their PERS device and pushed the button to discover the cause of the unexpected tone.

Signal Influx

The volume of alarm traffic received by monitoring centers was similar to that received when area-wide storms impact a region of the country. Generally with storms, however, monitoring centers are able to prepare in advance to appropriately handle the influx of alarms. No one in the alarm industry could have predicted a similar influx of traffic from the test of the Wireless Emergency Alert system (WEA). Well-functioning monitoring centers properly identified the trend responded appropriately.

Driving New Innovation

As technology advances and new capabilities are pioneered, unexpected interactions with existing sensors and technologies will increase. At times these interactions will be beneficial and create new opportunities to protect lives and property. Other times these unintended outcomes will create confusion and challenges for subscribers as well as those providing service. The security and alarm industry needs to take the lead on pioneering new solutions as well as preventing confusion.

New sensor technologies are becoming available with increasing frequency. Many of these options offer low-cost options to replace more traditional products. And some of these sensors provide significantly improved performance over their predecessors. Other options are poor replacements and result in additional alarm traffic and ultimately cost more in poor customer experience than is saved in product cost. As an industry, we need to be responsible in the devices we choose to sell and install in consumer homes and businesses.

Lessons Learned

Overall, the unanticipated consequences of the WEA test serves to illustrate the benefit the monitored security and alarm industry provides to society as a whole. To those PERS subscribers, peace of mind was one button push away. For the security customers, countless false dispatches were prevented through the wise actions of many monitoring center teams who recognized the unusual traffic and were able to properly prevent emergency personnel from being sent to respond to a false alarm.

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