Everyone has heard them, and everyone has ignored them on more than one occasion. It’s the friendly neighborhood car alarm. This alarm is what passes for “security” for the average vehicle. The neighbors think it’s a nuisance, and you can be confident if civilians are going to ignore it, your local public safety departments likely will too.
Public Safety or Public Noise?
Security systems by their nature are designed to get attention if something is going wrong. Naturally, the best person to notify in the event of an emergency is someone whose job it is to respond to emergencies. So why do public safety officials hate consumer-grade security alarms?
It isn’t because emergency personnel are lazy and would rather spend their time doing something other than their job, it’s because consumer-grade security systems have a false positive rate that is out of this world.
The Electronics That Cried Wolf
Car alarms are designed to detect movement, noise or tampering. Flood detectors can be used to watch for leaky sinks or water heaters. Security cameras get set up to watch a sensitive place 24 hours a day. These ideas sound great on paper, but very often the most experienced public safety officials miss a suspicious situation. How can that hypersensitive box of wires know when to sound the alarm?
The problem is electronics don’t know what is and isn’t a threat, so they are designed to go off when something unusual happens. Mom trips with the laundry basket and the paramedics are summoned to find her standing in her kitchen making soup. A cat knocks something over in a warehouse, and three minutes later a SWAT team crashes through the windows. Then, on the off-chance there is an emergency, a single police officer arrives to turn off what he or she thinks is a false alarm and walks into an armed robbery.
The Human Factor
The truth is, at least for the time being, only human beings can determine with any level of confidence what is and is not a “threat.” While security systems are no doubt useful, they can’t yet be a substitute for a reasoned evaluation by an experienced mind.
This concept rests on the fact that a robot by itself is no match for the combination of a robot and a human. The human mind is unmatched throughout the known universe for its ability to discard vast portions of a list of possibilities and focus on the probable. This is why police officers and firefighters don’t consider the unusual a threat until it becomes a threat.
So the next time the wailing car alarm awakens you at 3 AM, just remember it’s doing its best.