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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Alarming Realizations - Home protection tips and tricks

Make your home hard for intruders to hit
Published: Saturday, September 12, 2009, 5:00 AM
Updated: Saturday, September 12, 2009, 5:11 AM

It actually took me a minute to snap to the fact that something was wrong.

I opened my front door, turned off the burglar alarm and noticed papers strewn on the floor. Oh, well, I reasoned, a stack of books and magazines could have fallen. Then I noticed a table's drawers hanging open. Then I realized my dog, Bob, wasn't there to meet me, and called out his name.

Crash! There were heavy footsteps upstairs.

I was definitely in trouble.

I closed the door, beat a hasty retreat to my car and called 911. Looking up, I saw that the door to the second floor balcony was open -- maybe the route for someone else's hasty retreat?

The drama was all over in about an hour. The police came pretty quickly, checked out the house, found no one, and let me tour the three bedrooms upstairs. All trashed. Every drawer pulled open, every mattress tossed, every closet open. In the middle bedroom, a half-eaten banana was on the floor. My son came home from work to survey the damage and start the cleanup. Adding insult to injury, sticky black fingerprint powder was all over everything.

Where was the dog? Bob had apparently been making new friends, lured upstairs by one of his favorite toys. Some defender of the hearth he turned out to be.

Our family has lived in the same Uptown house for 22 years. This was our fourth break-in, so we are all weary veterans of the process -- the discovery, the police visit, the sense of violation, the cleanup, the worry, the rush of adrenaline followed by exhaustion.

This time, the burglar removed a large pane of glass from the back door, leaving it in one piece, and carefully left it in the yard. He (they?) entered through the large opening, which didn't set off the alarm.

"That's a new one, " said the cops.

"That's a new one, " said the sales rep from the security systems company.

"Never seen anything like that, " said the installer of the new sensors. "And I've been doing this for 28 years."

Too traumatized to admire the intruder's ingenuity, I could at least be grateful for one thing. He left the glass in one piece. Make that three things. My contractor, Francisco Solorzano, was there in less than an hour. The door was repaired and boarded up by the afternoon's end. The burglar alarm company sent someone out later that afternoon.

The irony in all this? The intruder didn't seem to have taken anything, or else I scared him (them?) off quickly. There was no secret stash of cash in any of those drawers. Far from it. No drugs or guns either.

"Look on the bright side, " my son said. "We still have Dad." And yes, the bronze urn containing his father's ashes had not been disturbed. Eventually we even found my wedding rings in one of the piles on the floor.

Problem solved? Not quite. There was still the matter of rebuilding a new sense of home, a sense of security.

We started by updating our alarm system with motion detectors that can overlook the family pet. The saleswoman gave us an estimate of $200, petted the dog, and said, "See you later, Vicious."

The actual installation would have made a wonderful reality show. The installer and my son Dash and I hid out of range of the sensor, throwing dog toys and trying to put Bob through his paces. Everything seemed fine until we went out to dinner that night, and a call from the alarm company reached us as soon as we'd ordered our food (but not in time to stop the cops from coming).

We went home, found a Greek chorus of sympathetic neighbors on the street, and everything in order. When this happened a second night, we called the alarm company, who set us up with better pet-immune sensors at no additional charge. There are also sensors that detect breaking glass, obviously the vulnerable area in our house.

"These are really what you should have had in the first place, " the installer said, explaining that the new sensors would detect Bob's heat and mass as well as movement.

More games of fetch followed. The dog looked at us as if we were crazy.

Throughout all this, the cleanup was under way.

That yucky banana was pretty gross. "Why do I always get burglars who want a snack?" I asked a friend, who wisely replied, "Because people who do this are starving -- they're hungry in every way."

"You know what?" my son asked. "We have too much stuff."

Once you've picked up all your stuff off the floor, you might be inclined to agree.

For the next week, we undertook a thorough campaign.

When we picked up each item off the floor, we decided whether we wanted it or needed it. After we reorganized drawers and closets, we gave away a carload of clothes to Bridge House. (I washed everything we kept.) Dash finally organized the big closet in his room, access previously blocked by a telescope.

We recycled four out-of-date computers at Best Buy and sent off two boxes of old floppy disks to an e-waste recycling business Dash found online.

We sold things, unloading clothes and old costume jewelry at Funky Monkey. Dash sold all his old textbooks online, racking up more than $100 and getting them out of the house.

My daughter Casey came home for a few days and dove into the remains of her childhood, packing away things for the next trip, when she'd have a car to take them back.

"Does it hurt your feelings that the burglar didn't think any of your jewelry was good enough to steal?" she asked.

"Not really, " I said. "I still have it."

Now, more than a month later, we're back at home in every sense of the word. I admit that I still open the door with a little trepidation. I'm always relieved to see the dog, and I don't pretend he's a good alarm system. We have started calling him "Vicious."

"I can't believe I don't feel worse about this, " I told a friend.

"Why should you?" she said. "That's what we do here. We clean up. The city floods. We clean up. The bad thing happens. We move on." And so we do.

For the first time, I gave some thought to getting a bigger, meaner dog, maybe a personal firearm. I settled for a better security system, outside lighting, and changes in landscaping.

It's a tradeoff, but it's still home.

. . . . . . .
Book editor Susan Larson can be reached at or 504.826.3457.


1. Walk around your house and try to evaluate it from a burglar's point of view. Look at the landscape that both hides and reveals the interior of your home. Look at the lighting, both exterior and interior, and consider exterior lighting with motion-sensors, mounted high so they are easily disabled. Giving your neighbors an unobstructed view of your property is a good deterrent.

2. Be sure all doors and windows have adequate locks. Then use them! Consider gravel outside your windows (it's noisy) and bushes or trees with thorns or prickly leaves.

3. Don't leave out tools that can be used as weapons. A burglar can use a piece of debris to smash a window or a garden trowel to chip out a pane of glass.

4. Do your homework before meeting with an alarm company. Evaluate the paths of motion through your house; be sure to place alarm panels strategically both for ease of access and occasionally for visibility. If a burglar can look through a glass door and see a red light indicating the system is armed, it may cause him to think twice. And make sure you have a phone by your bedside.

5. Don't hide keys under doormats or leave notes on doors. If you must have a key outside, bury it, or leave it with a neighbor.

6. A barking dog is a great asset, but remember that dogs react to fear, and many burglars are dog lovers.

7. Replace hollow-core exterior doors with solid wood, fiberglass or steel. Put the hinges on the inside rather than the outside -- where an intruder could remove the pins and then the door. Install peepholes.

8. Don't leave valuables in sight through windows.

9. If you have double-hung windows, put in a removable bolt that joins the upper and lower sashes together, or insert a metal bar in the track to prevent opening.


1. One of the best deterrents is a house sitter. While this may seem expensive, remember that it could save on pet boarding costs.

2. Stop mail and newspapers if no one will be checking on your home, or ask a neighbor to pick them up.

3. Don't announce your plans on your answering machine or your Facebook page, but do let trusted neighbors and friends know how to reach you.

4. Don't leave potted plants to wither and fade on the front porch. Have someone mow the lawn. Leave curtains slightly parted, so the house doesn't look vacant. And leave a car in the drive, if possible.

5. Put lights and radios on timers; and don't forget to put your television on a timer as well. That blue glow, combined with the sound of voices, is often a good deterrent to intruders.

6. Get to know your neighbors. If there's a Neighborhood Watch Program in your community, join it. If there's not, start one. Report any suspicious people or vehicles to the police.


In more than 40 years in the home security business, Larry Frilot, owner of the local Alarm Protection Systems, has seen remarkable advances, from "pet-immune" motion sensors to glass-break detectors (set off by the sound frequency of glass breaking), to closed-circuit cameras, to new wireless technology.

Now, he adds, for a generation virtually without land lines, technology that combines wireless devices with cell phones is a rapid growth area.

Underlying it all, safety can boil down to a sobering bottom line, he says: "How much are you willing to pay to keep your family safe?"

Though APS and other local alarm companies work with clients to develop personalized systems, Frilot says installation of the average basic system, "runs from $2,000 for a pretty good system in a 2,000-square-foot house."

Add to that the monthly monitoring fee, which usually starts around $20.

Here are some questions Frilot suggests considering when selecting a security provider:

- How many years has the company been in the business?

- Is it a local company?

- Is the central station, the operation that monitors your alarm and calls for emergency service, locally based? Does the company own its central station or use a third party, and what responsibilities does the third party have with that company?

- If the signal doesn't go through, who's responsible?

- What kind of training has the salesperson had? How many years of experience does he have? Is he knowledgeable, or is he trying to sell "what we call 'an address' -- two doors and a motion detector?"

- Does the company do its own installation, or use third-party installation?

Most of us have seen a basic alarm system, with magnetic detectors on doors and door frames that send a signal to a monitoring company when the circuit is broken. These are basic perimeter protection.

Buyers also should consider interior protection, such as motion detectors, for vulnerable areas.

"Our goal is, when you come home, " Frilot said, "no one is inside your house."

But, he added, burglary isn't the only threat to a household: "I can't say enough about fire."

"You need to have a smoke detector in each bedroom, each hallway, one on each level of the house."

And maintenance should be more than those battery changes we're reminded of when daylight saving time begins and ends: For fire alarms built into a security system, there is a definite shelf life.

"After 10 years, " Frilot said, "you have to replace them."

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