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Armed response companies and how they work

In order to understand armed response companies and what they can and cannot do for you in terms of personal security, it’s again valuable to have a little insight into their history and what function they actually fulfil in the big picture. 

In the early 1990s if your home alarm was activated, it dialed out over your telephone to a control centre that would call the police and notify them that your alarm was going off. Due to the exceptional volume of these calls, the police considered a charge per alarm attended if the alarm was faulty. The drain on policing resources was enormous. 

This led to the rise of the alarm response industry. Companies were quickly formed that offered to monitor your alarm for you and send someone out to check if everything was in order. This way, if you were out of town or out to dinner, your neighbours didn’t have to listen to a wailing siren while eagerly anticipating your arrival back home. It was a basic and necessary service. 

With crime becoming more serious at the time, companies leveraged the phrase ‘armed response’ and offered to send armed personnel to your home to check the alarm and apprehend any intruders if it wasn’t a false alarm. People gravitated naturally to this service because it offered them the peace of mind that someone capable would arrive in their time of need. 

Over the years armed response has become standard, with many insurance companies insisting on homeowners having armed response. This decision was based on a mid-1990s study that showed that homeowners with armed response services, while still prone to burglaries, were likely to lose fewer items of value in a burglary as the culprits would enter and leave quickly before the response officers arrived. In time emergency medical services were also tacked onto the service as an added bonus. 

Fifteen years later crime patterns and trends have changed, and we’ve learnt lessons from incidents where armed response officers have mistaken homeowners for intruders and homeowners have mistaken response officers for intruders. However, not much has changed in the service offering. Or has it?

Armed response companies in the early 2000s learnt that an officer hopping over a garden wall was likely to twist his ankle and that would mean a few weeks off work and a good bit of paperwork. Officers were often bitten by dogs and injured on fencing, so it wasn’t long before companies started discouraging their response officers from hopping over fences and walls. The risk of injury just became too high. Today, it’s not uncommon to see some armed response officers whipping out a little step ladder to peer over a wall to see that everything is in order rather than risk jumping over. 

If you read through a response contract, you’ll find that clauses about gaining access to your property are carefully worded. I’m not saying that armed response officers are shying away from work. I am pointing out that armed response companies are businesses with very real risks to manage in terms of work related injuries and legal constraints. 

Then there is of course the debate about whether a homeowner actually wants alarm response or armed response. Armed response infers that the person responding to your alarm carries a firearm and is capable of using it effectively and responsibly under the conditions of their job. 

To be clear, an armed response officer (ARO) may never carry his personal firearm on duty; he must carry a work-issued licensed firearm only. An ARO must also be declared competent having passed theoretical and practical exams in the use of a firearm and the legal use of firearms.

It is also important to note that an ARO has no powers of search, seizure or arrest any more than you or I have. AROs all operate under civilian powers of arrest only. In fact, all security officers in South Africa operate under civilian powers of arrest and are subject to exactly the same laws and restrictions as you and I. 

In order for an ARO to be certified competent in the use of a firearm, he probably fires approximately 100 rounds of ammunition a year from a stationary position with an unholstered weapon at a distance of five to seven metres. This isn’t necessarily true for all armed response companies. I know of many who invest huge sums of money in the professional training of their staff. However, just as many keep to the bare minimum. 

Having been a keen firearms enthusiast since the age of 16 when I started shooting, I can categorically state that it takes thousands of rounds of ammunition a year to build the required familiarity with a firearm to use it confidently and competently. It takes hours of dedicated training and coaching to be able to fire a weapon calmly under the most stressful life threatening conditions. 

I am yet to be convinced that armed response companies in South Africa take weapons training and use seriously enough to actually offer armed response as a service worth paying for in the consumer market. 

I am not an advocate of armed response. I prefer alarm response. Alarm response is essentially the same service, but the person responding to the alarm will not be armed. I’m not a great believer in introducing a weapon into a situation that doesn’t already have one. What I want is someone who will respond, assess the situation and if necessary call the police to attend to it since they’re the most capable, qualified and legally empowered to do so. I know that not everyone will agree with me, and there have indeed been cases where armed response officers have distinguished themselves in dangerous situations. 

So how does all this work and what are you actually paying for?

Most people pay approximately R300 a month for armed response. This fee covers three components: alarm financing, alarm monitoring and armed response/alarm response. 

Alarm financing: Companies offer alarms at reduced upfront rates in exchange for increased monthly subscriptions and minimum period contracts. 

Alarm monitoring: This ranges from R80 to R180 a month depending on how the monitoring happens. If your alarm is connected to a Telkom landline, it’s cheap to monitor. If the alarm is activated, it dials out on the phone line and sends a signal to the control room. Telkom lines can and have been cut in the past to circumvent this, so the radio frequency (RF) transmitter is a good alternative. This is an add-on device to your alarm that’s normally situated in your roof and transmits a signal to the control room if your Telkom line fails and the alarm is activated. This does cost slightly more as there’s a licence fee payable for the frequency being used. 

The newer option on the market is GPRS. This requires a unit like the RF transmitter to be placed in the ceiling (normally) and the unit has a SIM card which transmits the alarm signal via the cellular network. In most cases this is the R180 a month option because of cellular costs. 

Armed response/Alarm response: The response component costs approximately R150 a month. 

Crime Watch members are able to use alarm monitoring only and then have alarm signals relayed directly from the control room of their chosen provider to the patrol car which will respond. 

Know what you’re getting for your money and what you can expect from the service. Read the fine print of your contract. 

Copyright: Craig Pedersen 2014