An overnight switch from protector to intruder

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the unexplored traumas of modern life is the way a burglar alarm can frighten the living daylights out of you in your own home. This is an account of a week of torture, living with an alarm out of control and with a mind of its own.

Most people who do not have alarms regard them as noisy pests when they ring outside a building and are not turned off for hours. But there is another, more private side to this. I'm not looking for sympathy, but the frustration and embarrassment are all the greater when the alarm is your own.

We have a state-of-the-art British Telecom alarm, with an internal siren designed to wake you up and scare the intruder. It was 4.30am when an unholy racket started up. My husband leapt out of bed, grabbed his baseball bat for protection and rushed downstairs.

The good news was that no one had broken in. We turned off the alarm, assured the BT monitoring staion which rang us that all was well, reset the alarm to cover the ground floor and went back to bed. Two minutes later it went off again. After that, we just tried to turn it off by tapping in the appropriate code, without resetting it. But it started up again.

This pattern was repeated 20 or maybe 30 times. In the end we blearily drew up chairs by the control pad and stood guard, coffee in our hands. We realised we were in the grip of an alarm gone mad.

This has happened once before, during the daytime in June. But at night, with a rainstorm battling away outside, it was a very different, and very eerie experience. The children woke up frightened and crying and then dived under their bedclothes, huddling together.

At 5.30am the police knocked on the door. The monitoring station had called them out: they had been unable to ring us again since the alarm is linked to the telephone line and was now on almost constantly.

The monitoring station had also woken up our friend who is a key-holder in case of emergency. Holding a key for someone's burglar-alarmed house is one of the most thankless tasks imaginable.

The problem was only solved when at 6am a BT technician arrived and disabled the device. If only turning off an alarm was as easy as switching off a light.

On Monday the system was overhauled. But within 24 hours it was misbehaving again. The police came again on another pointless check. By now my eldest children were so hardened that they could operate the control pad as easily as the video.

At least this time we could turn it off and were spared the din. However when we went to bed that night we couldn't set it: the alarm had gone on strike.

Yesterday a senior BT technician arrived; it turned out that the rain had soaked into our back door and caused havoc with a sensor there. I hope that this weekend it will be peace at last.

The irony is that now I no longer see the alarm as a friend, an ally against intruders, but as something of an interloper itself. It has been such a source of disruption that the house no longer feels a place of peace. When we go out even briefly we wonder what we will be greeted by on our return.

On speaking to other people I found that they, too, while unable to contemplate going back to an unprotected house, are not exactly happy with their alarm systems. With their reliance on sensitive contact points and circuit breakers, they can cut out, or trigger false alarms, amazingly easily.

Just as a life free from crime seems improbable, so equally it seems that I and many like me will never return to the simplicity of locks, keys and bars. Broken glass cemented to the top of walls seems light years away, but suddenly much less primitive than it used to appear to me as a child.

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