Security Counsel

What it costs to buy a top home protection system

The equation is simple: The more you have, the bigger a target you make. However, the more deterrence you can muster, the better your chances of not getting hit. That's one conclusion that comes out of a Temple University study based on statistics gathered in Greenwich, Connecticut. Researchers found that the chance of a burglary attempt occurring in a $60,000 home with a security system is 2.3 times less than in one without it; in a $900,000 to $1.2 million home, the odds jump to 5.6 times less. As James C. Wisener, president of Westec Security's West Coast Residential Division, says, "If you have a nice home in an affluent area, you're a target— and you'd better have a security system."

Statistics like this make it easy to understand why residential security is a multibillion-dollar industry, one growing at a healthy clip. Annual sales of systems costing $15,000 (the low end of the "custom" market) are growing 15 to 20 percent annually, says Terry Fredrickson, a consultant and vice president of sales at Knight Security Systems in Dallas. In the United States, systems are now in place in approximately 30 percent of homes where household income exceeds $100,000, according to Wisener. Wisener estimates that 90 percent or more of what he calls "the top of the top households" have some sort of security system. "That's a little deceiving, though," he adds, "because some people will define a dead-bolt lock as security."

According to William J. Daly, managing director of Kroll Associates, perhaps the most renowned threat assessment and risk mitigation firm in the world, "Our business is really an outgrowth of the perceived lack of protection that government and law enforcement can provide. Whether it's terrorist acts or crimes against individuals, there's a perception that we're in a risky world— that if we don't do these things and somebody down the street does, it increases our vulnerability. It's kind of like a miniarms race." According to Brian Jenkins, internationally recognized security expert and ex-chairman of RAND Corporation's political science department, Americans spend more on private security per capita than citizens of any other country in the world. "We're experiencing a neomedievalization of society," he says. "Instead of moats and guys standing on parapets with crossbows we have gated, guarded communities and signs on lawns warning of armed response."

At the same time, technology has revolutionized the home security systems themselves. "Systems are more effective, cheaper, and easier to install," Jenkins explains. "The trend toward 'bundling' is also a factor, grouping together phone, Internet, paging, and home security into one system." Wisener concurs: "What happened in the last five years with the technology is just phenomenal. We have systems that tell you when somebody walks on the grounds and that will follow the intruder on the property." Says Steven Kaufer of InterAction/Associates, "The variety of sensor devices available today is astonishing."

A few national and regional mass-market alarm companies— ADT, Ameritech, Honeywell, Brink's, and Westec, among others— have custom divisions that serve the lower end of the upscale range. But most simply don't handle systems costing more than $5,000 or $10,000. "I've seen companies at trade shows that talk about a six-thousand-dollar system," says Fredrickson, "but that's just the wire cost for us."

To get a top system, you must enlist the services of a security consulting/installation firm. It will tailor the system to your security requirements, but also make sure it fits your habits and temperament. The system must be transparent— so inconspicuous and easy to use that it fades into the background— otherwise you may end up not using it at all. "The whole idea is to allow people to move freely through their home while they're there," Daly says.

The design process is based upon a risk analysis (also referred to as a vulnerability assessment, security audit, or threat assessment). This consists of a lengthy interview and follow-up research on subjects such as family visibility and local crime demographics. "A security consultant will sit down with you and find out your travel habits, the type of business you're in, and the risks you may face," Kaufer explains. "At certain levels of visibility, a person is more prone to being targeted, even if he hasn't had any burglaries or received threats." Wisener agrees: "At a higher level, you have privacy as well as peace-of-mind issues."

Often the consultant will suggest a menu of choices. "After you've analyzed the potential risks, you provide a spectrum of solutions and try to figure out how to balance them against the level of security and potential intrusions into your client's lifestyle," says Kaufer. The key, says Jenkins, is avoiding overkill. "My philosophy is, let's not get carried away with gadgetry here. We want something basic, simple, and reliable. The adversary doesn't have unlimited resources, unless we're dealing with an obsessed, irrational person. You don't want to create a bunker, bastion, or prison for yourself. The trick is designing something that meets the prudence test but does not reflect paranoia."

In general, there are three major criteria that determine how much you'll have to spend.

How Public You Are Again, the equation is simple: The more visible you are, the more you are at risk. This doesn't mean you have to be a celebrity. Persons with high visibility include members of the Forbes 400 list; people quoted or pictured often; CEOs of companies whose business is considered controversial, such as cigarette manufacturers or those using animals for testing; even an entrepreneur who's had a financial windfall. Manhattan-based security consultant Gerald O'Rourke recalls a "software mogul" who received "a humongous amount of money" in a buyout. He began building a $3 million house on an East Coast lake and "went to great lengths to conceal his situation and make sure that his employees were happy." O'Rourke ended up designing two separate alarm systems for his home, including numerous zones of coverage, panic buttons scattered throughout, and a soundproofed "safe" room impossible to detect from the outside.

The Area In Which You Live If your home is located in a high-profile neighborhood, it blends in— provided it isn't adjacent to pockets of crime. In less affluent areas, Daly says, "everybody knows you're the man." But even living in a protected community is no assurance that you're safe. "Burglars can be smart people, and some even specialize in gated communities."

The Look and Layout of Your Home Security consultants dislike detached garages, for instance, because they are difficult to protect: To get from the garage to the house, you have to cross open (read: hazardous) ground. Similarly, upper-floor windows, balconies, and skylights are of great concern. "Burglars know that second stories usually aren't wired," says O'Rourke, who recalls the time the late Flying Tigers chairman Bob Prescott showed off the security system in his new Holmby Hills, Los Angeles, home. O'Rourke glanced around, walked outside to the garage, put a ladder up against the side of the house, and climbed through an upstairs window. "Bob was standing inside the front door waiting for me and I came down the stairs behind him," says O'Rourke. "He was astonished."

Then there are the common errors of owners, such as publishing the home in an architectural magazine. "Your home may be gorgeous," Jenkins says, "but do you really have to show off your vast collection of Fabergé eggs or Rembrandt drawings?" Another common mistake is turning off the system while at home and leaving it off until bedtime. "People are sometimes a threat to themselves and don't recognize it," Fredrickson concludes. "They don't want to have to change their lifestyle."

Finally, there are pitfalls owners never think of— for example, the fact that house architectural plans are public record. Fredrickson says that plans are frequently filed showing the location of safe rooms, hidden stairways, and vaults. "I always make sure such features are identified by code," he notes.

Addressing the Threat

"Most people can get to ninety percent residential security through things they can easily do," states Jenkins. That includes installing good locks, having bright outdoor lighting, and making sure staff and children don't open doors to strangers. But 90 percent security still leaves 10 percent vulnerability. "Nobody can have one hundred percent security," Wisener says. "You can walk into a multimillion-dollar home and find only the front and back doors protected, and just one infrared motion detector. We do a lot of business upgrading people who finally realize they're exposed. It's a matter of balancing the risks against what it will take to mitigate them and what you can afford to pay."

A comprehensive system costs $10,000 to $50,000 for minimal-risk homes, $75,000 to $150,000 for moderate-risk homes, and $200,000 to $500,000 or more for high-risk homes, such as the 34,000-square-foot house Fredrickson's company recently outfitted with more than 40 video cameras. That price can escalate to more than $1 million for estates with extensive outdoor security, such as "electronic" fences and full-time, 24-hour security guards (the latter cost as much as $80,000 to $100,000 annually; part-time guards normally cost $25,000 to $50,000).

Such a system consists of a main system and various fail-safe subsystems that remain active even when the main system is disabled. The goal is to alarm every possible entry point, to protect valuables, and to provide you with enough protection while you wait for help to arrive. According to Kaufer, the more subsystems you have, the more duress signals you can activate. Most of all, says security consultant Edward Engert of Security Systems Designs, "A security system buys you time. You can spend a hundred thousand dollars on it, but if it buys you only a minute and a half, and it takes twenty minutes to respond to your call, you've thrown your money out the window." But, adds ADT vice president of residential sales Tim McKinney, the main system is what costs the most. "Once you have the front-end hardware, adding devices isn't that complicated or expensive."

The Technology Arsenal

Certain possessions demand subsystems of their own. Live-monitored, closed-circuit television cameras and contact, motion, and radio frequency sensors are often dedicated to paintings, sculptures, and display cases. Coins, stamps, baseball cards, and even hobby train collections fall into the same category. "We have a client who owns an HO train collection, and he's got cameras on it so we can do live video surveillance," says Wisener. Gun cabinets, which are especially sensitive, require particular alarms and monitoring, such as bullet-proof, armor-type glass that can absorb repeated blows.

For jewelry, cash, and important documents, experts agree that there's still no substitute for an alarmed safe or vault, which cost $200 to $1,000 each and are equipped with motion, vibration, heat, contact, and/or audio sensors. Some people create what Fredrickson calls "a cat-and-mouse game" with burglars by having two or three safes, limiting the chance that the thieves will guess the correct one before police arrive. As for jewelry, Wisener says, the key is to lock it up the moment you take it off. "Most people lose jewelry because they come home from a party and leave it on the dresser. Even with a security system on, a thief can smash a window, grab exposed jewelry, and be gone before any help gets there."

Ultimately, protecting your home comes down to choosing technology well. Aside from sensors and alarms for fire, smoke, and carbon monoxide— which are commonly part of any comprehensive security system— here are the top 10 cutting-edge devices on the market.

Video motion detectors, or exterior, closed-circuit television Exterior closed-circuit television (which costs $750 to $1,000 per color camera), says Daly, is useful for seeing who's at the front door, what the household staff is doing, and whether an intruder is trying to break in. "There's also another plus: You can connect the surveillance system to the house's cable TV system. And that means you can watch the events right on your television screen."

But though this is potentially the best detection device of all, it has a major flaw: "Let's face it, no one sits and watches the monitors," O'Rourke explains. One solution is to purchase a computer programmed to process the video signal and sound an alert when it detects movement.

Thermal field cameras Designed by the military, and extremely expensive ($25,000 apiece), these pick up the movement of living things through the heat they emit. "You can look around your property in total darkness and see someone moving around," says Daly. "But this is typically used only in commercial environments."

Panic/duress/medical-emergency buttons Among the most asked-for devices, panic buttons set off on-site alarms and send an instantaneous alert to a monitoring station. They are designed to function even when the main system is disabled, come in hard-wired versions and as portable remote-control devices ($300 to $500 each), and can be hidden around the house.

"We consider this an essential component of a high-end system," Daly says, "especially for larger properties, since you can't summon the security system by phone from outside. They're the same size as a car-alarm button, and you can fit them on your key ring. But if you're the type of person who forgets your keys, or if you'd never carry a pager, this isn't right for you."

Duress, or "antiambush," codes These are designed for a specific situation— if an intruder forces you to deactivate your security system. Instead of entering your regular PIN code, you can enter a duress code— one digit above or below the PIN— thereby activating a silent alarm to your security company or the police. Since coercion might be involved, a duress code cannot be "unrung" once activated. "The duress code is normally included in high-end systems," Daly says.

Wireless or radio-frequency backup According to McKinney, the telephone line is typically the weakest link of any security system, since it can go down or can be severed by an intruder. With wireless or radio backups (which run $500 to $1,000, plus monthly charges), your security system is always live. They're especially important in remote areas where phone lines may not reach. Radio frequency backups are recommended for homes in areas where wireless-network coverage is spotty, such as in Montana ranch country.

Biometric stations Magnetically activated cards and PIN codes can be stolen, lost, or given away. A biometric station ($1,000 to $2,000 for the central processor; $1,000 to $1,500 per sensor), which scans for voice, iris, or hand and finger geometry, eliminates those possibilities. "But biometric stations are extremely expensive and really used only in commercial settings," Daly says. "You could install one in a home, but I never have."

Magnetic-field sensors/leaky hose coaxial cable/ported coaxial cable Originally developed to protect nuclear reactors, these cables ($7,500 for the control mechanism; $2,500 per 25 feet of wiring), buried six to eight inches underground, produce an electromagnetic field six feet high and nine feet wide. The field is calibrated to react to large moving masses with a high water content, and thereby very effective for detecting humans.

Seismic sensors These vibration-sensitive devices ($6,500 for the control mechanism; $1,500 per 25 feet of wiring), buried several inches below the surface, are also designed to detect intrusions at far corners of a large property. "They're a bit less expensive than magnetic-field sensors," Daly states, "but they're expensive nonetheless. Again, the advantage is aesthetic, since seismic sensors are invisible."

Dual technology motion detectors These two-and-a-half to three-foot-tall posts ($150 to $300 each) shoot infrared and microwave beams into a device that "looks" for both movement and heat. "Essentially, you build an invisible electronic fence around your property," Daly says. "We often disguise them as pedestals or bird-feeder posts. We recently outfitted a Connecticut farm with a fenced-in horse pasture, and painted the motion detectors the same color as the fence to hide them." Because they require no excavation, they're less expensive than magnetic-field sensors and seismic sensors.

Sound discriminators Priced at $50 to $100 each, these are programmed to detect specific levels and types of sound, such as a door being broken down, a window being smashed, or someone screaming. "Break-glass sensors are very common," Daly says, "but scream sensors are used mainly in commercial areas, such as office-building stairwells and parking lots."

Security screens When these screens— normal door and window screens interwoven with a sensing filament— are removed or cut, an alert is sent to you and your security company. They cost $150 each for standard models; $200 or more for custom ones. "It's not too expensive and very common for beachfront property, where clients want to keep windows open to smell the ocean air," Daly says. "Personally, I prefer it when clients leave windows shut and turn on the air-conditioning."

Safe, or hard, rooms These are the ultimate defense against intruders, designed to be reached and secured in two minutes or less. "Everybody can have a safe room," says Jenkins. "It can be a converted closet or even the master bedroom with solid doors and a bolt inside." (Cost: $8,000 to $10,000.) Or it can be a hidden room, protected by bullet-resistant materials and containing communications equipment and a separate ventilation system. (This can cost up to $100,000.) "When you get down to it, the hard room is the most critical part of a high-dollar system," Edward Engert says. "It delays the time it takes for anyone to get to you." Not exactly a moat, but close enough.

False Alarm

Caused by system malfunction or owner error, false alarms are now so common that many police departments have resorted to charging fines for them. SDM (Security Distributing & Marketing), a security system industry trade magazine, recently reported that the police department in Polk County, Florida, had "close to 24,000 false activations" and just 69 genuine ones in 1997. In New York City, says consultant Gerald O'Rourke, "they issue a summons and it costs you a hundred bucks a pop." Other departments allow one or two false alarms per home, then charge $20 to $100 for each one. But the real problem with false alarms is that they may prove dangerous. "People react to the first false alarm, they react to the second one, but on the third they turn the thing off," says consultant Brian Jenkins.

Blueprint for Security

Even the most protected high-rise apartment building isn't 100 percent burglar-proof. The security you install is largely determined by the layout of your apartment. According to Kroll Associates, a high-end apartment security system should include the following elements.

1. Closed-circuit television in elevators, monitored by concierge.
2. Motion detector in outer foyer, connected to chime inside apartment.
3. Video intercom at main entrance; alarm switch on front door.
4. Main alarm panel, including cellular backup and voice-driver circuits, which provide an alert tone and a verbal warning when intrusion occurs.
5. Portable panic buttons.
6. Intruder-resistant door, which serves as entry to "safe" room.
7. Cellular backup emergency equipment.
8. Video intercom at service entrance.
9. Art alarm sensors (painting/statues).
10. Door contact switch and break-glass sensors.

Away Game

As security consultant Edward Engert of Security Systems Designs points out, "Vacation homes are where you're most complacent and vulnerable." Yet opinion is divided as to whether these homes require the same amount of security as primary residences.

"It depends on usage," says James C. Wisener, president of Westec Security's West Coast Residential Division. "If you're there enough, there might be reason for the system to be just as sophisticated."

According to William J. Daly, managing director of Kroll Associates, if the house is miles from the nearest town and seems safe, then typically it is. However, if an intrusion does occur, it will take police that much longer to arrive. Before choosing your system, he advises, "you want to know the area and what the response time should be."

Two sensible investments include a well-concealed safe room, which provides you with 20 minutes of protection, and cellular or radio backup communication devices. But if all else fails, security consultant Gerald O'Rourke says, "You've got to scare them away in some other manner." At times like this, he says, "the only solution may be a gun."

Home, Safe Home

A single-family home on a half-acre or more of land requires extensive indoor and outdoor security devices— both to discourage intruders and to protect household members while help is on the way. Here's what Kroll Associates recommends for such a home.

1. Vehicle sensor, invisibly imbedded in gravel or asphalt.
2. Security lighting.
3. Infrared sensors, which activate security lights and sound chimes in house; seismic sensors or buried magnetic-field sensors.
4. Alarm panel with cellular backup, activation of interior and exterior lights, and voice-driver circuits that sound verbal announcement on intrusion.
5. Safe room with cellular backup and emergency equipment.
6. Low shrubs spaced apart to increase visibility.
7. View and speak video intercom.
8. Magnetic contact switch for recessed windows and doors to warn of intrusion; interior break-glass sensors and motion detectors.
9. Portable panic buttons with interior and exterior coverage.
10. Closed-circuit television to monitor and record activity

The Widening Safety Net

Public law enforcement spending (est. 1997): $90 billion
Private security industry revenue (est. 1997): $80 billion
U.S. residences in 1988 with an electronic security system: 7%
U.S. residences in 1997 with an electronic security system: 14%
U.S. residences with annual household income exceeding $100,000 with an electronic security system (est. 1997): 36%

Sources: SDM magazine and consultant estimates

Source Box

The security consultants listed below come highly recommended and/or have been awarded Certified Protection Professional (CPP) status by the American Society for Industrial Security. Some charge on a project fee basis; others charge on an hourly basis, which normally costs $150 to $300 per hour.



IMAR CORP. (MARYLAND) 301-530-8000
KROLL ASSOCIATES (INTERNATIONAL) 888-209-9526 OR 212-593-1000

Richard John Pietschmann is Departures' contributing editor for the West Coast and Mexico.