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Those Incessant Alarms

By LayStar Magazine
6th September, 2009


Take a walk down any residential street and find that at least one or two properties have a burglar alarm. Most cars are fitted with a burglar alarm. What happens when we hear one of those alarms? We might leap up and check that it isn’t our home or car that is offending everyone’s eardrums. Do we check the house or car whose alarm is sounding? Most of us don’t. Instead, to trust a logical instinct, which suggests it is a false alarm – no action required. Or, we think that someone else will deal with the issue – not our problem. Only if the alarm goes on for some time do we take an interest, which is mainly due to the noise, especially during the night.

  So, what are we supposed to do when we hear an alarm sounding? Many councils suggest that we call the police on their local number. If we take the trouble to do so, and the police arrive to find that there is no break in, the police will ask us to contact the local Environmental Health service. We will need to take note of the address and, if possible, the alarm or car details. Fancy doing that in the middle of the night? When an alarm sounds, we hope that someone else will sort it out to save us the trouble. We also know that by the time the police arrive, any real burglars, attempted or otherwise, will have long scarpered.

  Many councils have set up action lines to combat nuisance alarms and, seemingly, can fine repeat offenders up to £5,000 (£20,000 for businesses). They also have powers to obtain a warrant to enter a property with a locksmith and switch off the offending alarm – then charge it all back to the owner.

  The main objective of a burglar is to deter thieves or intruders. Upon seeing a property in darkness with a burglar alarm on the wall and then seeing a similar nearby property with no burglar alarm, the typical thief is lured to the property with no alarm. It is the threat of the noise that persuades the burglar to go elsewhere. However, this is a minor deterrent if the property has something of a known high value. For example, a property that is known to house some valuable gems might interest the more professional burglar who will simply disarm the alarm in some way. So we are talking about opportunist thieves – those who will take what they can, when they can.

  It is apparent that, for property, the box of tricks on the wall, the alarm sounder, is the visual indicator of whether or not a thief should break in. The alarm could be an empty box that looks like an alarm. How would the burglar know? A ‘dummy’ alarm box might put off a number of thieves. Some, however, might be more enthusiastic and will take a quick look around the property to check its windows and doors. They will look for tell-tell signs of alarm triggers. For example, infrared movement sensors are often employed in alarm systems. They are placed in the corner of a room near the ceiling, and have a red LED light that flashes on and off. The burglar might also peer through a window to see any contacts fitted to doors and windows. These will trigger the alarm on opening the door or window.

  A dummy alarm box can be bought for £8 or less. Screw it to an outside wall that is most visible from the road and we have an instant alarm. Put one around the back as well for double the protection. It is also possible to buy dummy CCTV cameras and other devices that flash just like an infrared sensor. To make it look as though contacts are fitted, buy some white furniture-door magnet locks, or similar plastic blocks, that can be fitted to doors or windows that a burglar may be able to see from outside.

  Car alarms have a flashing LED on the dashboard somewhere that is visible. Dummy car alarms are available for cars not fitted with an alarm. So long as we keep valuables out of sight and lock the car doors, perhaps park in a well-lit area or our own security light, our actions should be a deterrent for the opportunist thief. 

  There is more that we can do for our properties, as well as a dummy burglar alarm. The scenario we gave earlier was two homes in darkness. Both would have looked like potential opportunities for the thief, except one had a burglar alarm. What if the property without the alarm has a car on the drive and the curtains drawn, while the house with the alarm has curtains open and no sign of anyone inside? Opportunity knocks! With the curtains open, the thief can shine a torch in the windows to see what’s on display. If there is something worth taking, the thief could be in and out in seconds, leaving just a noisy alarm – or in our case, no noise at all. We need to remove this vulnerability.

  There are many arguments about whether or not to leave curtains drawn when the home is vacant. There is no right or wrong answer. It would seem sensible to have some rooms with curtains open and some drawn. For example, the lounge and front bedroom curtains could be left open, while the kitchen and rear bedroom curtains could be drawn. Blinds can be down all the time and would not look out of place. The main purpose of drawing curtains and leaving blinds down is so that lights can be left on and, from the outside, will look like the occupants are in at least one of the downstairs’ rooms or are in one of their bedrooms. Hall lights are very effective at lighting up areas of the property and slightly illuminating rooms that have the curtains open. However, thieves are getting to know about hall lights especially. Lighting makes a home look occupied if operated from a number of simple plug-in timers that can be set to go on and off in a way that looks naturally random from outside. This is especially good if the home is left unoccupied for some time, like a holiday period. The opportunist could wait and watch in the shadows for a short while and just one light going on or off is likely to be an instant turn off for the thief. Table or bed-side lamps and standard lamps can be plugged into the timers.

  Lighting around the outside works well too. Security lights that switch on when movement is detected will put off anyone snooping around the grounds.

  The next thing to consider is the security of the windows and doors and any gates and garage doors. Doors and windows fitted with top, bottom and middle locks or bolts pose more of a problem to break in. Try this: from the outside, and with the front or back door locked, as it would be while we are out, apply pressure to the bottom or top of the door by pushing it. If it moves in, it is clear that there is only the usual lock halfway up the door. A large crow-bar will get through this in no time, as it is just one vulnerable point on the door frame. Some people like to fit two or more locks half-way up the door. Once the frame is sufficiently damaged, all of these locks offer little or no security.

  Doors that have bolts or locks at the top and bottom are much harder to break into – and any attempted break in could generate quite a lot of noise, which isn’t desirable to thieves. Many people have sliding bolts fitted, but these rely on people being inside the house to operate them. On leaving the house there is often little more than just the middle door lock. A well known brand of mortice door bolts can be locked from either side of the door and cost about £10 - £15 each. It is also possible to buy hinge bolts that offer additional security should the intruder try attacking the hinge side of the door. Bolts can also be bought for windows.

  Plastic, wooden and aluminium framed windows and doors often have multiple bolts fitted as standard. Although there is seemingly only one locking point, the locking action moves a sliding bar that runs from the top to the bottom of the door or window that moves bolts into their secure position. A vulnerable point for plastic door products is the plastic panels fitted to the top, bottom or both on a door. They may also be found on the lower half of conservatories, but a half-glazed door is often a good example. On some older doors these panels are secured by external plastic edging strips that are merely pushed into place along a special groove in the door frame. They can be unclipped very easily with a small screwdriver. More recent products ensure that these strips are on the inside of the door. The same is true of older windows. Modern window products ensure that the glass unit is secured on the inside. However, the panel on the door doesn’t make as much noise as shattering glass if it were forced in. Fitting security lights near or over doors will make any intruder feel more uncomfortable than the cover of darkness.

  Side entrances around the property would be better secured with a gate that has a visible padlock or other form of lock attached. Again, this reduces the property’s opportunistic allure. Burglars like to get in, get what they want, and get out – quickly! Anything that suggests to them that they might not get out quickly, and possibly get trapped, is less desirable. Locked gates can be climbed, as can garden fences, but this is much less desirable than a straight run out of one or more exits. Obstacles are good.

  Garage doors are particularly vulnerable to thieves, especially the up-and-over type. It is opened with a large screwdriver without even buckling the metal – it is that easy! There are all sorts of goodies in the garage for a thief – things that can be sold on quickly.

  Most vulnerable garage doors are made of metal, which has a quality that we can use to make it much more secure. By visibly securing the door at one point on the top or bottom corners, the thief is posed with a dilemma: try to crowbar the lock, but run a very high risk that this action will generate a great deal of noise.

  A sliding bolt usually used on wooden garden gates (Pad Bolt) with a padlock can be fitted to a garage door such that it bolts into its surrounding frame or wall. The bolt is fitted to the door with coach bolts, which are not easy to remove from outside of the door. Alternatively, a purpose-made lock can be bought for £25 - £50, plus fitting costs. 

  When we are in our homes, lock and bolt external doors and put the keys out of site from any windows, especially when the darker evenings draw in. It is so easy for a thief to pop in through an unlocked door into the kitchen or hall and take anything while we are sat in the lounge watching the TV. This form of intrusion also brings about a far uglier opportunity – armed burglary or sex-related attacks. Locking the doors and any windows that don’t need to be open significantly reduces this risk. Also, ensure that house and car keys are put out of the reach of the fisherman – the intruder who, with a long metal rod, can hook your keys from a table or work-top near to the letter-box. Just make sure the family know where the keys are for any emergency.

  If leaving the property for longer durations, there are some other signs that tell the burglar that the place is empty. The postie delivers the mail and, after a day or so, it starts to pile up just inside the door. A burglar just needs to open the letter-box to see the stack of mail. Ask a neighbour to pop in and move it every couple of days and, perhaps, take a quick look around to check for other unexpected things, like leaks. Also, invite a two-car neighbour to park one car on a vacant looking drive.

  For less than the cost of the annual house insurance premium, we can fit better locks, security lights and other devices to make our property less vulnerable to the opportunist thief. We can also fit a dummy alarm and other realistic security products that are just as effective as the real thing.

  Some people need a real alarm as a means to call for help or because they feel vulnerable. If we have a real alarm, we should have it regularly serviced and of the type that automatically switches off after 20 minutes. We should leave a key with a neighbour so that they can at least switch off the alarm if it goes off accidentally.

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