For traditional burglar alarm installers dealing with intrusion detection and monitored systems, it came as no shock that voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) was not the end-all and cure-all it was originally purported to be. But that’s the reality of emergency communications in some instances.

When digital communicators first appeared in the 1980s, many thought they were a practical solution, at least until it was found the devices might not be able to dial out in an emergency if the telephone line was cut or otherwise compromised.

Enter the world of backup. In power systems, backup and redundancy are necessary and a given—as it should be in the protection of people, lives and property with burglar and fire alarm systems. Any type of system needs to have a backup, whether it is long-range radio, cellular or another transmission technology that makes certain signals get through in a timely fashion—and that means right away in an emergency.

VoIP technology converts analog telephone calls into digital packets that are transported over the Internet or a privately owned and managed network to the designation, where the packets are reconverted into an analog stream. The National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA), Silver Spring, Md., recently issued a “Report on Voice over Internet Protocol,” which can be accessed at www.alarm.org.

Published on behalf of the NBFAA Industry Affairs Committee, the update said “there have been many reports of problems connecting digital alarm communicators to VoIP services. Some of these problems include the difficulty or inability of particular alarm transmission formats to pass through the VoIP network; wiring issues involving the electrical connection of the RJ-31X jack; and backup power issues.” These issues, however, lie with the cable industry. NBFAA is working with service providers to develop educational programs—teaching them to install VoIP with minimal negative impact.

“There are several issues with regards to VoIP and the reliability of alarm signaling passing through a broadband connection,” said George Brody, senior vice president, Telular Corp.’s Telguard division, Vernon Hills, Ill. “The first issue is plain and simple: can signals get to the alarm monitoring center?”

No backup on broadband connections exist, said Brody. “When it is down, power is out—and signals don’t go through.”

According to Brody, Telular and other manufacturers were present earlier this year at a CableLabs-sponsored meeting with NBFAA, the Security Industry Association and Central Station Alarm Association in Denver to discuss the problem with cable company attendees from Cox, Charter, Time Warner and others.

The industry’s objective is to educate broadband service providers and the industry on how to be smart about VoIP and wire the system so the alarm system is the first path and the line is seized for the emergency communication.

“There are hundreds of VoIP providers out there. Some are addressing the issues and others aren’t as active. We see this as an issue and we’ve taken a leadership position to find a solution,” Brody said.

NBFAA advises installers to:

°Inform existing monitored subscribers of the issues. NBFAA has a sample letter available.

°Program all existing and new accounts so the panel will send periodic test messages. If a subscriber goes off the air, at least there’s notification.

°Meet with the cable provider to discuss the issue and arrange a training class for their installers on the proper way to wire their devices onto the RJ-31X jack.

°Purchase the cable provider’s VoIP service for your house and run tests with your commonly used brand of alarm control panels. See which formats (communication) work and which don’t.

°Sell backup alarm communication systems that use cellular radio.

For installing companies, be proactive and do the following: Carefully monitor the amount of missed or garbled communications that reach the central monitoring point. A flurry of error messages, particularly if they seem to originate from a specific geographic section of your service territory, may indicate the local telephone service has gone to VoIP.

And just as long-range radio and other wireless, such as cellular, emerged as a critical primary and backup method of transmitting alarm signals during the hey-day of the digital communicator, it has again emerged as a force in ensuring emergency calls go through.

“Cellular has changed,” said Brody. “Telguard Digital TG-8 operates on a next-generation digital cellular network, transmitting full data to central stations and providing E-911 voice service using standard telephone equipment.”

For the alarm industry, the vulnerabilities of the plain old telephone system (POTS) or now VoIP-connected digital communicators have been common knowledge for years. Now is the time for alarm dealers and systems integrators to shore up these vulnerabilities with cellular and radio. It is the backup you need and your customer counts on for security and safety. EC

O’MARA is the president of DLO Communications in Park Ridge, Ill., specializing in low-voltage. She can be reached at 847.384.1916 or domara@earthlink.net.