Sounding the alarm on false activations
Police officers frequently find themselves arriving at the scene of sounding alarms only to discover that the alarms have been falsely activated. In fact, of the 38 million alarm activations that police responded to in 1998, 94 percent to 98 percent were false, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Overburdened by the costs and demands on personnel, many municipalities are developing penalties for frequent false alarms.
The leading culprits of false burglar alarms, which account for the majority of false activations, are human error, faulty installation and substandard equipment, says Craig Steckler, chief of police for Fremont, Calif. In March, his department decided to forgo responding to alarms altogether unless they are first verified by a private alarm company, video feed of a crime or an eyewitness report. Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Milwaukee have moved to a verified response program, as well. Steckler first tried to impose fines on alarm companies but was threatened with litigation. “The alarm industry has been making money off law enforcement for years,” Steckler says. “I think [moving to verified response] will become a trend.”
Other police departments are joining alarm reduction associations. The Rockville, Md.-based False Alarm Reduction Association (FARA), for example, brings together government, law enforcement and alarm industry professionals to develop local solutions for false alarms. James Cogswell, first vice president of FARA and alarm coordinator for the Leawood, Kan., Police Department, says popular approaches include requiring individuals and businesses to register their alarm systems with local authorities, instituting incrementally increasing fees for multiple false alarms, requiring repeat offenders to attend police-run alarm school programs, and placing alarm owners on a no-response status if they fail to pay fines or re-register.
Kathy Hinckley, who heads up the new false alarm reduction program at the Barnstable, Mass., Police Department, used FARA’s model Burglar Alarm Ordinance to create regulations for her town. All residences and businesses with alarms now must pay a $25 fee and register their alarms with the Barnstable Police Department.
Implementing the ordinance, which went into effect in January, has been slow in the Cape Cod tourist community of 50,000 year-round residents that swells to more than 90,000 in the summer months. Hinckley says many homeowners who do not live on the Cape all year were unaware of the new registration requirements and have only just begun to register. “We’ll need a good year to get hard data [on how effective the program has been],” she says.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has found that combining registration, fees and educational programs with verified response requirements is helping reduce false alarms. Anabella Fermin, acting officer in charge of LAPD’s alarm section, says the department used to respond to 150,000 burglary alarms a year, of which 92 percent were false. Since instituting the new policy in January — which requires a verified response after a second false alarm activation in a year, along with increased fees — LAPD has seen a 38 percent decrease in alarm calls.
Verified alarm response has become so popular, in fact, that it has spurred a new industry. When Milwaukee moved to the system in September 2004, Joshua Roman founded Alarm Responders, a private burglary alarm response company that sends trained guards to alarm scenes. Roman says his company now responds to approximately 60 percent to 70 percent of all alarms in the city. That means Milwaukee’s police now are free to respond to situations where they truly are needed.
— Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.