Rising crime puts alarm systems on wanted list AN ALARMING TREND

October 02, 1994|By Patricia Horn | Patricia Horn,Sun Staff Writer The New York Times News Service contributed to this article.

The growing belief that today no one is safe, even in the suburbs, has fueled an explosive rise in the number of home security alarms over the last 20 years. Today, 1 in 6 homes has such a system, with 1 million new homeowners coming on line each year.

And more and more builders are installing them in new homes. A survey of 428 builders in February by the National Association of Home Builders, a trade group in Washington, found that alarm systems were offered as standard features in 13 percent of new homes and as options in 63 percent of new homes.

"Some people predict that someday there will be as many home security systems as there are telephones in America," said Joseph Freeman, founder and owner of J. P. Freeman and Co., a security consulting firm in Newtown, Conn.

Installing an alarm system used to be an admission of vulnerability, he said, now it's like buying a video recorder. During the 1980s building boom, for example, home security systems and Jacuzzis were the two most popular home accessories, he said.

But is all the money spent on alarm systems and monitoring services worth it?

Experts in crime prevention say alarm systems are only one way to prevent burglaries -- and not necessarily the most important one.

"People may not realize that an alarm system is actually the last line of defense when it comes to home security," said Georgette Bennett, a New York criminologist who has written widely on this topic. "If your alarm goes off, someone has already gotten into your home. Yet, quite often, people think of alarms as their only line of defense against burglars."

A study by two Temple University economists of three Pennsylvania suburbs found that home alarms help to combat thieves. (The study was partially funded by the Alarm Industry Research and Education Foundation.) Homes without security systems were about three times as likely to be broken into as homes with security systems.

But of the homes with alarms, those that were robbed relied solely on an alarm and did not take other precautions.

The professors, Andrew Buck and Simon Hakim, recommend combining measures that prevent, deter and detect burglars. Burglar alarms, said Mr. Hakim, serve only to detect thieves.

Capt. James Yeasted, of the crime prevention unit in Baltimore County, said the first step his office recommends is to improve a home's visibility through landscaping and lighting; the next step is to improve locks and windows; then consider buying a home security system.

"We talk about electronic security systems as the Cadillacs of things people can do to reduce vulnerability," he said.

The Temple study also found that home alarms worked best when owners put up yard signs and hooked their homes into a monitoring service. "Burglars know that neighbors now ignore audible alarms," Mr. Hakim said.

The growth in the alarm industry has been fueled by lower prices for alarm systems and the general perception, even in the suburbs, that no one is safe from crime, according to Linda S. Gimbel, director of communications at the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, a trade group in Bethesda.

Crime and health care topped the American public's list of important national problems, according to the most recent New York Times/CBS News Poll, taken in mid-July. Of 1,339 respondents in the nationwide telephone poll, 19 percent cited crime as "the most important problem facing this country today," replacing unemployment and the economy, while another 19 percent nominated health care.

Residential burglaries nationwide have decreased, from 7.4 percent of all American homes in 1981 to 4.2 percent in 1992, according to the Justice Department.

And Mr. Freeman attributes the decrease partly to an increase in home security installations. The company predicts that by 1997, 1 in 5 homes in the United States will be protected electronically, compared with the 1 in 6 homes now covered.

But others say studies are inconclusive.

In a 1988 survey, Figgie International, a security firm based in Willoughby, Ohio, asked 589 people imprisoned for property crimes to rate the effectiveness of various security measures. The prisoners' responses were tabulated on a scale of 0 (not effective) to 2 (very effective).

Most effective methods

Alarm systems linked directly to police stations ranked highest, at 1.5. (Most alarm systems are now linked to central monitoring stations. If the alarm company sends a car to respond to each alarm, that is probably just as effective as a hookup to the police station, Dr. Bennett said.).

Electronic sensors in windows ranked second, at 1.35. Exterior lights were rated at 1.2, and barking dogs, 1.1. Burglar alarms that function like car alarms -- simply creating a lot of noise -- were rated at 0.83, while deadbolt locks were rated near the bottom, at 0.78.

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