Are Burglar alarms effective on residential properties?

Are burglar alarms effective in reducing burglary? seems like a silly question, doesn't it? well, I can assure you that it isn't. Burglar alarms are often bought as a deterrent to would be criminals thinking about breaking into your property and reduce the risk of domestic burglary but is it that simple? well, no not really.

Previous research suggested that some domestic burglars are deterred by alarm systems, as would be common sense, however research conducted using statistics from the crime survey in England and Wales and corroborated by Loughborough University shows potentially, the exact opposite has occurred and it finds that alarm systems have become associated with an increased, rather than decreased risk of burglary with entry.

However, this counter intuitive finding doesn’t tell the whole story. there has been a series of suggestions and hypothesis to explain these findings. so, should you spend your hard-earned money on protecting your property in this way or should you investigate an alternative security solution?

Firstly, alarm systems vary considerably when it comes to costs. a DIY system will set you back around £200 - £300, a system fitted by an industry professional can range from anywhere between £500 - £1000, with additional annual maintenance costs thrown in for good measure, you can likely add £100 per annum to that figure.

A fully fledged monitored system (and I wouldn't recommend anything less), one which is monitored by a 3rd party monitoring station can cost upward of £1000 plus around an additional £200 - £300 for the 24hr monitoring and maintenance you will require.

Even a state of the art system however does not come with any guarantees of deterring crime, additionally they can add problems to the end user in a number of ways. firstly, false activations always have and always will likely be a problem, there have been various studies conducted over the years relating to false activations. false alarm activations range from anywhere between 93% - 98% and in the UK, repeated false activations on a monitored alarm system will result in police response being withdrawn.

Meaning your best option at this point maybe to contract a private, well established local keyholding & alarm response service, increasing the end users costs further still, that being said, I cannot recommend this service enhancement to your alarm system enough. More often than not, a good quality keyholding company will respond in less time than the police force anyway. This however is understandable, taking into account the above statistic relating to false activations, the police force simply does not have the time and resources to deal with thousands of false alarm activations each and every night of the year. the costs to the police force and victims of other crime would be astronomical.

Noise pollution is also a consideration, as someone who has worked in the alarm response industry for 15 years, I have experienced many times where a client’s alarm system is repeatedly going into activation all hours of the day and night, Local residents have contacted my company as key holders to make the (at times very aggressive) complaints. If you've had a long day at work or you have children and you are being kept awake by a faulty alarm system at 2am, I can sympathise.

Moreover, 'false alarms' can be caused by rodents, pigeons, moths, spiders, air conditioning or simply HGV's passing by the property, these of course are not false alarms, the system is identifying movement on site and is doing what it is designed to do, but they aren't intelligent devices, they can't distinguish the difference between these occurences and attmepted attacks on the property.

So, alarm systems come with considerable costs both for initial purchase and beyond, they must always be supported after installation with quality monitoring, regular maintenance and additional enhancements to the service to be effective and for your trouble, you may rub your neighbours up the wrong way as well as annoy the police force, the question is though, do they do what they were intended to do? deter criminals and reduce the chances of an attack on your property?

Common Sense would certainly suggest so but unlike door locks, windows grills and shutters, alarm systems do not create a physical obstacle to burglary. Additionally, they do not make an approach by a would be criminal to the property have a higher risk factor, unlike CCTV or security lighting, nor do they lead potential burglars to believe that the property is occupied or that they will encounter an individual to interrupt their crime.

Instead, alarm systems work based on assumption, that the criminals would note the presence of the installed deterrent and assume that in the event of an activation, a neighbour, a private security guard or a police officer would be alerted and therefore the chances of being caught would be increased. Ask yourself this however, when you hear an alarm system activating, at any time of the day, do you call the police? or go and investigate the property where the alarm is sounding? or do you simply wish that someone would dim the racket? for most of us, it’s the latter.

This is human psychology, there are some basic cognitive psychological principals which suggest that the overuse of auditory warnings can be counterproductive. Its 'diffusion of responsibility' at play, where we assume someone else will be dealing with the problem.

This means repeated false activations (as discussed - the vast majority are indeed false) certainly play a counterproductive part in the audible alarm being taken seriously. it’s understandable, over the past 20 years alarm systems have become standard, almost every property, domestic and commercial now have an intruder alarm installed, meaning more false activations than ever before.

While on the topic of human psychology, a study carried out by Nee & Taylor (2000) simulated a residential environment and asked burglary offenders to rate 5 houses based on their attractiveness as a target. Interestingly, the house with 4 high quality alarm boxes, high quality mortice locks and spotlights divided opinion amongst them. 

Around 1/3 of offenders said they were very unlikely to burgle the property, yet around 1/2 said they would be 'VERY likely to burgle the property.' 'the former group were put off by the security provisions in place (particularly the alarms), while the latter group said that the enhanced security advertised the fact that there was 'plenty to protect'

The least popular house to burgle was heavily overlooked by neighbouring properties but had no alarm system at all! 

In a further study, Nee and Meenaghan (2006) interviewed fifty 21–60 year old British experienced male burglars in two training prisons about their choice of target. The majority of those interviewed stressed the importance of layout, for example, the degree of cover available to them and their access routes. Visibility of the target household (in terms of being overseen by neighbours and passers-by) was often the most important consideration for a burglar. Many also stated that the potential profitability of the target was a key component in their assessments and, importantly, whether or not the house was occupied. Fewer offenders mentioned security systems: of the fifty interviewed, 8 said that they sometimes and 9 that always avoided alarms. Interestingly, over half (30) said alarms did not deter them. 

You can observe this in 2 ways, firstly, you can say that over 30 of 50 burglars would not be deterred by an intruder alarm on your property and therefore the system is not having the desired effect, however you can also suggest that of the 50 burglars asked, at least 17 of them had been put off by the presence of an intruder alarm, so therefore it must decrease the odds of attack.

The fact of the matter is this, an intruder alarm may reduce risk, in as much that less of the criminal fraternity would be willing to make an attempt on a property with a system installed but there is much more to it than that. It is clear from research conducted that you must not regard your alarm system as the 'ace in the hole' or the key piece of equipment that will protect you from burglary. It is still important that you have a system installed at any of your residential or commercial properties but it will not solve the issue entirely.

It is just 1 piece of a puzzle, that on its own, does not make a pretty picture. 

Deadlock your doors, shutter and grille your windows, install CCTV, invest in private monitoring and alarm response and don't forget to set your alarm! Most importantly, be nice and look out for each other!