Burglar and fire alarm installers and repairers

Burglar and fire alarm installers and repairers

Jeffrey Gruenert

Even though the total number of burglaries has down over the last decade, fear of crime is increasing. One response to this fear is for people their homes and businesses with burglar alarms. According to Security Distributing and Marketing Magazine, approximately 17 million alarms have been installed nationwide, and average annual growth of installations over the past 5 years has been 8 percent.

If installed correctly, burglar, fire, and other alarm systems increase peace of mind and safety for a building’s occupants. Also, most insurance companies want the businesses they insure to install alarm systems, especially those businesses most vulnerable to thievery (such as jewelry, clothing, and electronic equipment stores) as well as homes with contents that have a high insured value.

Most alarm systems installed today are integrated systems equipped with sensors for intrusion and fire protection. These systems can also control other systems, such as heating and lighting. Many alarm systems are connected to central offices run by the company providing the system. Others automatically dial 911 if a break-in or fire is detected. Others systems simply ring an alarm on the premises.

Most alarms must be installed and serviced professionally by burglar and fire alarm installers and repairers, also called protective-signal workers.

Nature of the Work

There are two kinds of protective-signal workers: installers and repairers. Using hand and power tools and soldering irons, installers install wires, conduits, and signaling units in homes and businesses, following diagrams and building plans.

Repairers work on the many components in an alarm system. These include a keypad control system, door and window contacts that detect entry, an interior alarm to alert occupants to an intrusion or fire, motion detectors, and often, telephone connections to a central station monitoring the system. Repairers inspect, repair, and replace these components to ensure proper functioning. They test the system and wiring, using testing devices, such as an ohmmeter and a voltmeter. They may also test the transmission of signals to the central station.

Earnings and Working Conditions

As reported in Security Sales Magazine, a 1994 survey of firms that install burglar and fire alarms showed average hourly wages of $11.90 for installers. Average wages were highest in the Northeast, at $13.00 per hour, and lowest in the South, at $10.13 per hour. This same survey found that about 70 percent of installation technicians and service workers were paid on an hourly basis. The rest were paid by the number of jobs completed or by some other method of compensation. About one-half of the firms responding said they offered commissions or bonuses to installation technicians, and about 3 out of 5 offered these inducements to service workers for such things as adding components to a system, working as a team, overall performance, or the number of jobs completed.

A 40-hour week is standard, but sometimes the work week may be longer. Those who are paid hourly rates receive premium pay for overtime.

Despite the growing use of exterior alarms, installation and repair are usually done indoors. Therefore, these workers lose less work time because of bad weather than many construction workers or electricians. As in other precision production, craft, and repair occupations, alarm installation and repair work is sometimes strenuous. Installation technicians spend most of the job either standing, bending, or kneeling. In addition to using potentially dangerous power tools, other hazards include falls from ladders and scaffolds.

Qualifications and Advancement

The burglar and fire alarm industry has few training or professional certification standards that must be met. Burglar and fire alarm installers and repairers need to know enough about electricity and electronics to understand the equipment they install, and in particular, how to run wiring indoors and out, in old or new construction, and in all types of structures. However, installers and repairers do not need to know as much about these subjects as electricians do. Electricians usually work with higher voltage circuits that could cause a fire or injury if not installed correctly, and must be careful to perform their work in accordance with building codes. Low voltage alarm circuits do not pose similar threats and may not be covered by building codes. Therefore, protective-signal installers and repairers generally need less formal training than electricians. Also, unlike electricians, there are few or no licensing or certification standards for burglar and fire alarm installers and repairers in most States and local areas.

Installers must know how to conceal wiring and connect equipment into a circuit. The ability to read and follow manufacturers’ installation instructions is essential. Repairers must be able to tell whether a circuit is open, closed, or grounded; know how to read a wiring diagram; and follow written instructions.

Most alarm installers and repairers start as helpers or apprentices and learn their skills on the job. Installer helpers start by carrying wires and tools, drilling holes, and cleaning up debris. Within a short time, apprentices learn to measure, cut, and install wires. With time, they become experienced workers, able to compute the voltage, amperage, and resistance of circuits. Installer apprentices begin by pulling wires through joints and walls, under the direction of experienced workers. These eventually learn to install wiring by determining the voltage required for the system. Later in their training, they learn to troubleshoot the system and correct any faults they discover.

Some installers learn their trade in apprenticeship programs conducted by their employers. Additionally, the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association, Inc. (NBFAA) offers training through its local affiliates around the country, and there are videotaped correspondence courses available.

Employers prefer high school graduates who are in good physical condition but may hire applicants with less education. High school or vocational school courses in math and carpentry provide a helpful background for alarm work. Regardless of educational background, installers must be good at math up to the level of high school algebra.

There are currently no uniform national standards for either alarm systems or the installation, maintenance, and repair of alarm systems, although the National Fire Protection Association has appointed a subcommittee to begin writing alarm standards. Delaware, Louisiana, and Texas, and the city of Boston require that participants in the fire detection and alarm business be certified by the National Institute for Certification in Engineering Technologies, which is sponsored by the National Society of Professional Engineers.

Employment and Outlook

An estimated 75,000 people held alarm installer and repairer jobs in 1996, according to Jason Knott of Security Sales Magazine, with about 30,000 of them at the craft worker level and the rest at the helper or apprentice level. Most worked for alarm companies specializing in alarm installation; others worked for general or electrical contractors. Some are self employed as independent alarm contractors.

Most installers and repairers are employed in urban areas. In other areas, where there may not be enough work to keep an alarm installation and repair worker employed full time, the work is usually done by electricians, or the alarm company may offer other services like stereo, intercom, and microwave installation and repair.

Alarm installers and repairers with a few years of experience and leadership ability may become supervisors. Some workers eventually start their own businesses, which is easier to do in this industry than in many others because relatively little startup capital is needed. As with many other industries, however, a high percentage of such ventures do not succeed.

Many new job openings will be created by the increasing demand for alarm installation and repair work. Employment is expected to grow rapidly, according to the NBFAA, reflecting the rapid growth of new alarm construction, repair, and renovation. In addition to traditional interior alarm systems in homes and businesses, there is growing acceptance of exterior alarms, like infrared sensors, which should also spur demand. Finally, the industry-wide problem with false alarms is increasing demand for experienced technicians with the ability to improve and update existing systems. Replacement needs also will account for many job openings through the year 2005, as workers transfer to jobs in other occupations or leave the labor force.

Related Occupations and Sources of Additional Information

Alarm installers and repairers install and repair wiring and electrical and electronic equipment. Other occupations that require similar abilities include electricians, Local Area Network (LAN) technicians, telephone installers and repairers, and cable TV installers.

For information about work opportunities and standards for alarm installers and repairers, write to the following organization:

National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA)

7101 Wisconsin Ave.

Bethesda, MD 20814

Jeffrey Gruenert is an economist in the Office of Employment Projections, BLS, (202) 606-5725.

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