Since small business owners cannot afford to leave any of their valuable assets —including customer data, inventory and computers — unprotected, many install security systems as a first line of defense against thieves. Small business owners need to know the right questions to ask before plunking down money on equipment and ongoing monitoring.
The types of features and function of an alarm system can vary greatly by the type of business being protected, experts said. A reputable alarm company will perform a site survey before recommending an alarm system or any security equipment.
"A jewelry store, for example, has different needs than other businesses that do not have the same type of high-value inventory," said Andy Lowitt, vice president of Lowitt Alarms, a security system provider.
One of the first things that small business owners should ask is if the security company is licensed in the state they are working, Lowitt said.
While many companies have a centralized monitoring center to coordinate a response when an alarm is triggered, small business owners should inquire about how the system will be connected.
"You do not want the system connected to your main phone line, because that will be the first thing that the criminals cut," Lowitt said.
The system should provide the ability to monitor entrances and exits as well as any windows or other ways burglars might enter the premises.
He added that many systems have the capability to transmit information not only to the monitoring station but to a smartphone. "By sending video immediately to the business owners' smartphone he or she can determine if it is really a thief or maybe just an employee who tripped the alarm by mistake, for example."
Small business owners should also ask about access codes, experts said. "For example, will they issue separate arming/disarming codes to each employee?" said Patrick T. McGahan, system installation and design manager for Abt Electronics, an electronics retailer that provides alarm installation.
Once passcodes are assigned, passcode management is often overlooked, experts said. "Business alarm systems should have the ability to assign passcodes and update passcodes in the event of new hires or employee dismissals," said Charles Black, president and CEO of iWatchLife, a security equipment provider.
Small business owners should inquire about total costs of the security system, including fees for monitoring and changing passwords. "Many business owners don't spend enough time getting a complete understanding of the alarm system costs upfront and can be blindsided by costly add-ons and on going maintenance and updates," Black said. "Find out what any changes to your system will cost. For example, is it going to cost you extra to have passcodes or pass cards updated or changed in the event that an employee is terminated?"
Be sure you understand exactly how a trigger of the alarm is handled. "Does the system use your phone system or your Internet connection?" Black said. "What happens if those services go down or are changed? Are there any charges for making any changes? You need to find out who will respond to an alarm, how fast they will respond, how they will enter the premises and what their response to an actual burglary will be, who they will call and how you will be notified of an event."
If you are leasing office or warehouse space, it is important to ask building management about installation. "Discussing your intention to install an alarm system with your landlord or building management company will help you avoid issues or additional charges down the road by finding out any restrictions or requirements from the building owners on what you can and cannot do in terms of your installation and system functions," Black said.
Wireless sensors can help avoid some of the costs of installation and provide flexibility, experts said.
"Wireless sensors are not prohibited by wall, glass or metal and can be used indoors or outdoors," said Brian Hess, founder and CEO of Tattletale Portable Alarm Systems.
He added that portable sensors can be moved easily as business needs change. "If you change where your high-value inventory is stored, for example, you can move the sensors to provide the necessary protection."
Small business owners also want the alarm company to provide the proper training to avoid costly and inconvenient false alarms.
"You need to be aware that some vendors may charge for false alarms, so be sure to understand who is called when an alarm is triggered and any charges for that service," Black said.