Safety First

written by
Nora Boxer

Pioneering Bay Area company
AEC Alarms has grown from humble
origins in the family garage to a leader in ensuring life safety and security in
multifamily and commercial buildings.

AEC Alarms, one of the top providers of security and life safety systems in San Francisco and the South Bay, began with a simple request. In 1972, Sik-Kee Au, the father of current CEO Yat-Cheong Au, was working as an engineer at IBM when he was approached by a neighbor whose house had been broken into. “How can I protect my home?” she asked. So Sik-Kee, who was never one to say no to any task requiring invention and innovation, set to work in his San Jose garage designing an alarm system for his neighbor and then installing it in her house.

Sik-Kee kept tinkering. He was still working for IBM but his intellectual curiosity was piqued by working on security design. The alarms endeavor remained a garage enterprise for the better part of a decade, but by 1977, Sik-Kee had officially left IBM to run the business full-time along with his wife, Mandy. By the early 1980s, AEC Alarms had moved out of the garage and into an office in downtown San Jose. It was in this environment that Yat-Cheong Au grew up.

Sik-Kee’s background as an engineer and his inventor mentality meant that AEC Alarms was a “digital pioneer” in the field. Sik-Kee was among the first to create computerized security systems, as well as a software platform to run the business. “My dad’s computerized central station allowed us to do 24/7 monitoring,” says Yat-Cheong. “In the ’70s and ’80s, the tech wasn’t really there. Dad pushed his knowledge and advanced the entire industry.”

In the ’80s, as commercial buildings started requiring alarm systems, AEC expanded its focus, which up until then had been primarily residential. Today, the company remains heavily involved in both markets, and has become a leader in life safety and security for multifamily residential buildings. While the company still operates out of the South Bay, “a lot of the focus right now is the city,” Yat-Cheong says. “The scales have tipped.”

In the late ’90s, Sik-Kee left AEC Alarms in the hands of his son and moved to Hong Kong. There, he returned to the family lineage by applying his relentless curiosity to the practice of Chinese herbalism, and is specializing in treating autism and rare brain diseases.

The “Pillow Test”: Preventing Another Ghost Ship
In 2017, amendments were made to the San Francisco Fire Code, and all multifamily buildings with three or more units need to comply with these new requirements. Among them is the “Pillow Test”: At the resident’s pillow, regardless of where that may be in any given room, an alarm must sound at a minimum of 15 decibels (dB) over the room’s ambient decibel level, with a 75 dB minimum requirement. For example, a room with an ambient rating of 60 dB has to bring the dB level up to 75. AEC Alarms works with installing low-frequency sounders in each bedroom and in the living room (remember, in housing-crunched San Francisco, it’s become more and more common for people to be sleeping in living rooms and not just in individual bedrooms). So a three-bedroom unit, for example, will have a minimum of four low-frequency sounders. The low-frequency sounders operate at 520 Hertz (Hz): studies have shown this is the frequency that will wake you up. “520 Hz is like the secret specific code word,” says Yat-Cheong. “Even if your alarm-system-at-large is producing more than 75 dB, having the 520 Hz sounder is the key to what is going to wake people up.”

Even though many multifamily properties have existing building-wide alarm systems that produce a sound level over 75dB, studies have shown that without the 520 Hz low-frequency sounders, people may not hear the building’s alarm go off. Therefore, the National Fire Protection Agency Chapter 72 (NFPA72) now requires low-frequency sounding devices in all sleeping areas.

“We have really focused here to fill this important niche,” says Yat-Cheong. “We want to make sure our clients have a life-safety system in place that can give residents early warning to evacuate. Unless a building is new, it rarely meets these requirements, because the low frequency sounders were never installed—they simply weren’t available until quite recently.”

He also adds, “There are way too many buildings in San Francisco and not enough contractors to get the work done. I want to bring awareness to this issue and help property owners get their contractor on board and make sure they have the right systems installed. The last thing I want to read about is another Ghost Ship.”

Similar to soft-story seismic retrofits, San Francisco’s new fire code amendments were passed along with a city-mandated time window for the completion of the work. July 1, 2021 is the deadline to meet the city’s new requirements. If prior to July 1, 2021, a building owner obtains a building permit for $50,000 or more worth of work, the updated fire code compliance must also be met at that time.

Upgrading to meet the “Pillow Test” is only one aspect of necessary code compliance. Seismic upgrade work or the addition of an accessory dwelling unit in a building may trigger additional fire alarm code requirements and require the installation of other life-safety elements.

Real-Time Monitoring, Surveillance, and Security
In addition to life-safety systems, AEC Alarms also focuses on security systems for residential, mixed-use, and commercial properties. They work with CCTV systems to enhance the overall security and safety of buildings. These types of cameras can cover the exterior of a building, offering both prevention and evidence in regard to vandalism, break-ins, entryway protection, and parking issues. For the interior, in a common lobby/mailbox area, cameras can help with an issue such as package theft—which has become a growing problem as more and more shopping happens online, with deliveries now a daily occurrence. If local law enforcement is required to resolve an issue, these types of monitoring systems can provide an evidence trail.

AEC Alarms offers customized solutions for these video-monitoring systems. Some clients want a secure system with no remote access, while others want to be able to pull the video right up from their smartphone or computer. In-house at AEC Alarms, there is also a dedicated technical support team to assist property owners and managers in finding the correct footage. For example, if there was an accident outside your building and the SFPD were to request evidence, the in-house support team would be able to work with local law enforcement.

These types of security systems are technologically innovative, meeting the demands of the modern era. You can get information pushed out to you via text or via email notifications. The system will inform you of  “event triggers.”

For example, in a multifamily building in a higher-crime area where there has been an unusual amount of comings and goings late at night: A sensor is placed on a front lobby door. Every time the door is opened, notifications are sent to the property owner or manager. By combining this technology with cameras, now a property owner or manager can see exactly who’s coming and going in the wee hours. “Our systems have been successful in dramatically reducing suspicious activity in multifamily buildings,” says Yat-Cheong.

Innovation and Community
Sik-Kee Au’s roots in technological innovation continue to inspire the company today. “If you don’t evolve your business with the technology that’s available, then you’re not going to be able to provide your clients with the best possible solution,” says Yat-Cheong. “At the same time, unlike phones or computers that are putting out a new iteration every few months, when you’re dealing with life safety and security, you have to be careful not to just say ‘This is the newest, greatest tech.’ It needs to really work and be a practical design, so we bench-test it; beta-test it before we make it available to our customers. Is it a feasible product that works to give our clients the tools they need? We’re taking from my dad that legacy of innovative curiosity, and also balancing it with pragmatic realism to really come up with the best solutions.”

“The start of my father’s business was really just about helping out a neighbor,” Yat-Cheong says. “My dad instilled in me a sense of community and giving back. My number one mission right now is to knowledge-share about the new fire code—to make sure everybody has the information and resources they need.”

For more on the new San Francisco fire code requirement, visit https://sf-fire.org.

Yat-Cheong Au can be reached at 408-298-8888 or at yatcheong@aec-alarms.com

Nora Boxer served as the editor of SF Apartment Magazine in 2015-16.