Crying wolf with public safety
Police officers respond to more than 13.7 million alarms per year, roughly 98 percent of them false. As fear of crime increases and alarm purchases continue to rise, police departments are relying on punitive actions, educational programs and private response companies to ease the burden.
The call comes into Philadelphia police headquarters. Somewhere a house alarm has sounded, signaling an illegal entry. Two cars are immediately dispatched to the area. They arrive to find the sheepish homeowner who accidentally tripped the alarm.
It happens more than 3,000 times a week in Philadelphia. As of this past June, police had responded to more than 45,000 false alarms in 1996 alone.
And Philadelphia is not alone. Each year, police officers nationwide respond to more than 13.7 million alarm activations. Local police departments estimate that on average between 94 percent and 98 percent of them are false. One nationwide survey of 38,689 alarm systems found an average of 1.44 false activations per alarm system per year.
According to the survey, which was conducted by Central Station Alarm Association (CSAA), Bethesda, Md., the residential rate of false alarms is 0.96 per system per year, while the commercial rate is much higher at 2.75.
Alarm ownership is increasing by 11 percent annually, and the incidences of false activations corresponds to that figure. An estimated 17 million households and businesses already own alarms, and, as fear of crime increases, millions more eventually will.
Police department budgets, on the other hand, will only rise by 3 percent annually. Already, the response to activations occupies 10 percent to 30 percent of police officers’ on-duty time, not to mention the commitment of other resources like patrol cars, dispatching centers’ personnel and equipment and managerial personnel.
“Using very scarce police department resources to respond to false alarms is a disaster,” says John Firman of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP). “The burden on police departments will only worsen because of the increase in alarm installation.”
Currently, police departments across the country, including those in Las Vegas; Boulder, Colo.; and Beverly Hills, Calif., do not respond to activations unless a private security company first visits the premises.
Other large cities like Chicago, New York, Toronto and Los Angeles have reacted by delaying or selectively responding to alarms. Some have abandoned the effort altogether.
And still other cities limit the number of free responses. Riverside, Calif., has legislated police dispatching over the 900 lines so that the central alarm station is charged $5 per call, and Montgomery County, Md., has established rapidly escalating fines for repeat activations.
A number of jurisdictions have followed Montgomery County’s lead. But many provide that fines levied against the activator of a false alarm become part of the municipal general fund rather than part of police department revenue, even though it is estimated that the direct annual cost of false activations to police departments nationwide runs as high as $6 billion a year. (This calculation is based on the average number of responses received by police departments per year times the average salary per police officer.) Theoretically, solving the false activation problem could be the equivalent of putting 120,000 more police officers on street, as well as additional savings of capital and other labor resources.
Programs aimed at reducing false alarm activations can lessen the burden on police departments across the county. These programs fall into six categories:
* Partnerships. Alarm associations have initiated joint activities with police departments in some selected communities to curb false activations. Some large companies initiate their own programs to deal with repeat activations;
* Punitive actions. These may be fines, either fixed or escalating, usually after three false activations in a calendar year. Police departments may also cease responding to repeat activators and/or cease responding if fines are not paid;
* Educational and preventive measures. Computerized letters are sent to repeat activators warning them of possible service suspension. To ensure that the alarm system itself is not faulty, repeat activators must have their systems inspected by a dealer before police response is resumed, and systems must be upgraded to country installation standards after a certain number of false activations. Repeat activators must also attend classes on alarm systems procedures;
* Mandatory registration of alarm owners and/or alarm system dealers. This is critical to track problem systems and repeat offenders;
* Dispatching protocol. This provides the ability to verify all activations and allows the cancellation of calls by the central station after dispatching to police; and
* Alternative methods for responding to activations. Private companies can initially respond to alarm activations and then notify police departments if necessary.
Voluntary activities mainly involve working with repeat activators. The National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA) and the IACP initiated the Model Cities program in three cities aimed at curbing false activations. The efforts yielded declines of 26.8 percent in false alarms in Elgin Ill.; 29 percent in Bellevue, Wash.; and 9.4 percent in Philadelphia.
Voluntary programs require continuous efforts by dealers without immediate monetary incentives, but large companies will probably continue with such efforts. However, small installers may view their jobs as reaching a customer, installing a system and then enjoying the recurring monthly revenues, and they view the problem of false alarms as a process between the customer and the police department.
If, however, the dealer is required to pay the fine and then collect from the customer, companies have an incentive to lower false activations.
Punitive actions are relatively easy to implement. The alarm ordinance of Montgomery County, Md., is designed to penalize repeat activators. Fines escalate significantly after the third activation in a calendar year, sometimes reaching as high as $1,000. Milwaukee has an ordinance that shifts the responsibility of fines onto alarm dealers, and Toronto simply stops responding after the fourth false activation.
Although there is some evidence that punitive actions do indeed reduce false activations, it is important to learn what measures are effective in an overall sense, including administrative cost and levels of security. Such direct actions require significant administrative efforts by police and other city agencies, and they may reduce security since repeat activators may choose not to turn on their systems.
Consequently, from the community viewpoint, a stiff fine system may be undesirable even if it yields a decline in false activations, since the overall costs of administering the fines and the reduced security may outweigh the benefits of reduced false activations.
Educational programs for repeat activators are usually part of a comprehensive program designed by the director of the police alarm unit.
In Portland, Ore., and Milwaukee the director provides such courses and maintains contacts with dealers about their repeat activators. Such efforts require a significant amount of police resources that are ultimately paid for by taxpayers. This means that non-alarm owners are subsidizing services provided to alarm owners.
Thus, such efforts are justified from the community viewpoint if these “educational” expenses exceed the police resources that would have been spent on responding to false activations.
Most cities require registration of all alarm owners, yet few achieve 100 percent registration. Rather, many non-registered systems are revealed only upon activation. Maintaining accurate alarm registration is difficult since addresses and owners change.
Ironically, in cities that do not maintain alarm registration or require permits, the absence of information about the stock of alarms does not seem to hinder efforts to control false alarms or the collection of fines.
It seems likely, therefore, that alarm registration/permits and maintenance of the database, while unquestioned by many, is more costly than the benefits it yields. For example, Portland, which does require registration, has fewer alarm systems than Seattle but employs six police cars in the alarm unit, while Seattle, which has no required registration, employs only two police cars.
For safety reasons, verification of activations is a requirement of the CSAA that includes most large dealers/monitoring centers, and cancellation of response after initial dispatching to police is still not accepted by some police departments. Yet the verification and cancellation procedures are steps to help reduce police response to false activations.
It is clear, however, that the burden to police officers and administrative personnel must still be eased. False alarms continue to plague police, hinder the community’s level of security and create friction between police personnel and alarm system companies. While alarm owners benefit from response to activations, alarm companies benefit from the rise in alarm ownership and the resulting revenues.
But voluntary efforts alone cannot solve the problem, since they are usually of a short-term nature and depend upon the uncompensated efforts of individuals. Nor is the solution likely to involve increasing government regulation and control.
Changing perceptions as to the obligations of police departments to the public seems to be the first step. Police officers are sworn to provide public services, such as traffic control, apprehension of burglars and homicide investigation. The public does not benefit when police respond to a false activation, because it takes a police officer off the street and away from more serious crimes.
Yet, police departments have traditionally provided other services of a private nature: unlocking a car for a citizen who has inadvertently left the keys in it, for example. However, the fact that services like these are provided does not justify aggravating the improper allocation of resources by responding to false activations.
If false alarm response is a private service that the police provide, then the fees should reflect the real cost and should not be punitive in nature. In the case of alarms, the police are providing a private service that can be offered by private companies. If the fines are too low, then non-alarm owners actually subsidize alarm owners; if they are too high, some will not purchase the systems, and others may be reluctant to turn them on. Thus, security in the community is reduced without justification.
Further, if the cost of additional police responses to the same address does not rise, fees should not escalate. Response should not be stopped to repeat activators as long as they pay their response fees. Additionally, the police should be reimbursed for their activities by requiring false activators to pay the costs they impose.
There is no need for the city to maintain a large and expensive database of all alarm owners. The police should simply issue the citation for a false activation to the address provided by the central station. This would significantly reduce alarm unit spending and make the annual registration fees unnecessary.
If prices that reflect real cost are set for all false activations, if the police are paid for all their efforts, and if revenues of false activations are used solely to finance police response, then the false alarm problem is solved.
The bureaucracy can be reduced, and the burden of reducing false activations falls on the users and, to a lesser extent, to the dealers. In many other nations alarm response is handled only by private security companies and is bundled with other services like patrol, medical response, mail collection and other emergency services.
Even in North America, private guard services, which are regarded favorably by many police departments, have been expanding faster than public law enforcement.
For instance, Protection One Alarm Service, Culver City, Calif., began mobile dispatch in 1992. “We believe that, over time, many cities will mandate private response to alarm activations,” says John Mac, vice president of business development. “Cities like Dallas and Portland came close to passing a mandatory private response procedure to alarm activations this year.”
Protection One figures indicate that the false alarm rate is around 95 percent for residential alarm systems. The company uses a two-way voice feature that allows the dispatch center to talk directly with the caller when an alarm is activated. If the caller responds, and the alarm is legitimate or if there is no response from the caller, the dispatcher sends out a mobile company unit and calls the local 9-1-1 emergency number simultaneously. If the dispatcher can verbally verify that the alarm is false, then dispatch of the company or police unit is not necessary.
Portland-based First Response hires reserve police officers who are on waiting lists for local police departments or have at least two years of a law enforcement education.
If there are signs of forced entry, the company officer responding to the call immediately calls the dispatch center, and the center then contacts another First Response mobile unit and the local police department.
According to Company President Dave Folio, 98 percent of the alarm activations the company experiences are false. “Today, more people are willing to enter into a contract with a private company rather than use their local police,” Folio says.
Whereas police officers arrive at the scene and check only the exterior of the premise, the private company usually has authorization from the owner to enter the interior of the property. The private company can inspect the system and determine the cause of the false alarm. Police officers only determine whether the alarm is caused by an intruder or a false activation. This can lead to another false alarm activation because the cause of the original activation is not determined.
Golden West K-9, Los Angeles, is the only Calif.-based company licensed to use dogs for searches. “Out of roughly 1,000 trips per month, only two are actual intruder situations where police officers need to respond,” says president Jerry Usher.
The 24-hour central station takes calls and radios the company patrolmen. Once on the scene, the officer determines if there are signs of forced entry. If the officer believes there is an intruder, he or she calls the 9-1-1 central station directly. “We get a much faster response from police than individual citizens,” Usher says.
The company patrolman can enter the property and check the alarm system to find the source of the false activation, preventing most of the false activations from occurring a second time. Private response companies are also popular for commercial establishments and in many affluent residential neighborhoods. Using the private companies allows police officers to respond to more serious crimes.
The private response answer to false alarm activations alleviates some of the burdens placed on police departments. Unlike smaller cities that tend to have more time to deal with false alarm calls, many larger cities are turning to the private response companies for help in handling the overload of alarm activations.
Imposing strict fines on alarm users and alarm companies and educating users with alarm systems are also practical solutions to the problem, but with the upward trend in alarm purchases and alarm activations, these solutions seem to be only temporary.
The question still remains, however, what part of public safety should remain in the hands of sworn public servants and what can be safely passed into private hands.