November 2009 - Posts

Enhanced Call Verification Reduces Alarms by 28 Percent in Elk River, MN

A change in the way the Elk River, MN, Police Department deals with alarm systems in businesses and homes is leading to fewer false alarms. 

Police Chief Jeff Beahen said they have had 28 percent fewer false alarm calls for the first 10 months of 2009 when compared to the same period a year ago. 

There were 553 false alarms through Nov. 2 of this year, compared to 763 at this time a year ago. 

Beahen attributes the drop to a new alarm ordinance adopted by the city late last year. 

“Our budgets are dwindling,” he told the City Council Monday, Nov. 9. “If we can prevent our officers from having to go to false alarms, which we have a lot of, it will be very successful in reducing our costs both in fuel and hours spent driving to and from and recording these incidents.” 

The city’s new alarm ordinance has several requirements for businesses or residences that have alarm systems including:
•The alarm company is required to utilize a two-call system to verify that the alarm is not false. The first call is to the business or residence, the second to the key holder or responsible party. Beahen said these calls do not significantly delay police response, as alarm monitoring companies are equipped to make these calls in a very short period of time. 

•All alarm systems in Elk River must have an alarm permit from the city, at a one-time cost of $20. This is designed to help the police department be aware of alarm types and coverage areas, as well as key-holder information. 

Beahen said 253 alarm permits have been issued to date — 126 business and 127 residential. 

To deter continuing false alarms, there is a fine schedule. 

There is no fine for the first one to two false alarms a year. 

The third false alarm in a year carries a $50 fine, each consecutive alarm up to five is $50 each. After that, alarms 6-7 are $100 each, then alarms 8-9 are $250 each, and over 10 in a year is $500 each.

Islip Town, NY, Proposes Tougher Carbon Monoxide Law

In New York, Islip Town has scheduled a public hearing for Tuesday on a proposal to adopt a stricter carbon monoxide detector policy for rental properties. 

The move comes after the town came under fire after residents of an illegal multifamily home in Brentwood went to the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning a full year after the town had cited the property owner for illegal apartments and fire code violations.

Islip Supervisor Phil Nolan said the proposed carbon monoxide policy is intended to improve safety in legal rentals. The town in April took aim at illegal rentals with new penalties for landlords, including jail time of up to a year or a fine as high as $10,000 for third-time offenders.

Under state law, all homes with an attached garage or fuel burning appliance, such as a gas stove, fireplace, or a gas or fuel oil furnace, are required to have a carbon monoxide detector.

Islip's proposed code goes further, requiring every rental property with a fuel burning appliance to have a carbon monoxide alarm on the floor nearest to the appliance and other detectors within 15 feet of any bedroom. 

Most rental properties in the town would be affected, Islip spokeswoman Amy Basta said. Properties without an attached garage and with all electric appliances, including the heating system, would be exempt, she said.

There are 10,941 legal rental units in the town, Basta said.

Nolan said Islip would be the first town in the county to mandate carbon monoxide detectors as part of its rental permit application process, and the first on Long Island to require them within 15 feet of a bedroom. 

"This is going to save people's lives," he said.

The new rules will be enforced as part of the inspection required for a rental permit application. A violation would result in a fine of between $750 and $2,500, Nolan said.

Last December, Islip reprimanded a town fire marshal, who failed to check up on an illegal rental where a faulty furnace twice sent five Brentwood residents to the hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning. In February, a different Islip investigator was suspended and charged with issuing summonses on the same house without actually inspecting it. He is on unpaid suspension pending a disciplinary hearing, said Robert Finnegan, the town's labor relations director.

Bryan, TX, Alarms Must be Registered Now

Bryan, TX, Police are asking those with alarm systems to register with the city.

The three year permit costs $75.00. It's open to residences and businesses. Bryan Police officers respond to every alarm call, both residential and commercial, and approximately 98 per cent are false alarms.

Each home and business owner get five false alarm calls before the city charges $50.00.

Sandpoint, ID, Considers Alarm Ordinance

Sandpoint, ID, Fire Chief Robert Tyler and police Chief Mark Lockwood want an ordinance to fine homeowners and merchants for repeated false alarm calls in the city, which tie up city resources. 

The measure, which was discussed at the recent City Council Administrative Committee meeting, is meant to curtail excessive false alarm activations, not generate funds, city officials have said. Home and business owners would not be penalized for their first two activations in a calendar year, although they would face escalating penalties for subsequent false alarms.

The penalties start at $150 for a third violation and climb to $1,000 for ten or more violations.

The council voted in September to remand the matter back to the Administrative Committee for further discussion.

Denham Springs, LA, to Fine for Excessive False Alarms

The Denham Springs, LA, City Council unanimously approved an amendment to an existing ordinance that imposes fines for excessive false alarms caused by automatic fire alarm transmitting equipment.

Fire Chief Melvin Wheat told the council that excessive numbers of false alarms are of concern to his department.

During October, 12 false alarms resulted in three fire stations having to respond to the calls. Wheat said that each call represents a considerable amount of effort on the part of his department.

The new regulations state that in any 12-month period, three false alarm signals will be permitted without penalty.

However, a letter would be sent by the Fire Department‘s Fire Prevention Division to the owner of the premises giving notice that fines would be issued for additional false alarms in the same time period.

Palo Alto, CA, Reduced False Alarm Fine to $20 from $250

Complaints from Palo Alto, CA, residents hit with stiff fines have led to changes in Palo Alto's policies on private burglar alarms.

In April, several homeowners told the council they were shocked to be fined $250, without warning, for failing to renew a $35 annual burglar alarm permit. They were told they could appeal the fine, but when they did so, a hearing officer rejected all of their appeals.

A look at city records by The Daily News showed that the alarm permit policy was supposed to include safeguards such as a courtesy notice before the fees were assessed, but they never made it into the ordinance the city approved in 2001.

In response to the outcry, the city suspended the fines and reviewed its policy.

On Monday, the council approved changes that will give alarm permit holders a late notice before assessing a fine, and change the amount of the fine from $250 to $20. It will also be issued in the form of a citation, not an invoice, giving violators a chance to appeal the judgments to superior court rather than just a hearing officer.

"We're trying to make this a better process and more transparent," said Charlie Cullen, the police department's technical services director.

Phoenix Considers Alarm Fee Increase

Property owners would pay more for generating false alarms from malfunctioning security systems and face penalties for faulty smoke detectors under a plan designed to reduce the strain on Phoenix first responders. 

For the first time in city history, firefighters will levy a $105 fine for false smoke alarms. Beginning Sunday, offenders get a warning at first and a fine the second time, though first-time offenders can erase their first citation by attending a smoke-alarm education class. 

Phoenix Fire Deputy Chief David Carter said firefighters are often left waiting at the property until someone arrives to shut off the alarm, making for thousands of "needless calls" that take crews temporarily out of service. 

Within a 12-hour period earlier this week, Valley fire officials noted 170 false-alarm calls - many from heaters being turned on and kicking up dust.

"We're left sort of holding the bag, babysitting the property until someone comes out there," said Carter, adding the fine will mostly impact homeowners or business owners whose smoke-alarm activations are automatically reported. 

Fire officials rolled out the $105 smoke-alarm fine as officials considered a separate city-code revision to address similar problems with security-alarm systems. 

A Phoenix City Auditor's report reviewed earlier this month by the city's Public Safety and Veterans Subcommittee estimated the city would recover $537,000 through the fee increases, including a false-alarm inspection fee that would jump from $60 to $200.

The changes were recommended by the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association and the Arizona Alarm Association. The City Council will consider the additional fine in the next couple months.

Fort Lauderdale Considers Alarm Fee Increase

Despite a potential lawsuit for overcharging residents and business owners in Fort Lauderdale, FL, for responding to false burglar and fire alarms, some city commissioners are looking for ways to increase the charges.

City Auditor John Herbst and other city staff have warned that the city’s charge to respond to false burglar and fire alarms has been higher than the city’s cost to provide the services.

Yet some commissioners said recently they want to increase the charges.

“I believe these costs are too low,” Commissioner Romney Rogers said at the Oct. 20 meeting, comparing the city’s fees to those charged by other municipalities.

Herbst also has said the overcharges were actually fines, and should have gone through a process that would have allowed offenders to challenge them. The city does not have such a process, which may be in violation of state law.

The exact amount of the overcharges has yet to be determined, but it could be in the millions of dollars.

In 2008 alone, the city overcharged or wrongly billed businesses and residents at least $460,595.54, according to internal data compiled by police and fire department personnel and the city’s auditor. The overcharges date back to at least 2004.

City staff members stood by their calculations at the meeting, and explained that the current fee structure was not based on any analysis, but was randomly taken from costs other cities charged. A majority of commissioners agreed to consider amending the ordinance that provides for the fees so that it reflects any increased costs or other changes.

Not all commissioners agreed to increase the fees, however.

“I’m not ready to put more burdens on the citizens here in Fort Lauderdale,” said Commissioner Bobby DuBose, adding that he prefers to reduce the fees.

Even though the billing discrepancy was brought to light nearly two years ago, it was not discussed by commissioners until the Oct. 20 meeting. 

Commissioners did not discuss refunding the improperly levied fees or lifting liens placed on properties for non-payment. Instead, commissioners questioned the accuracy of the staff members’ data, and asked for a review to make sure they include all costs the city incurs.

“There is no real case law on the subject that I can find. There are tons of cases that say if you charge the cost of the service, that’s a fee,” City Attorney Harry Stewart told commissioners. “If you charge more than the cost of the service, that’s a tax, or a fine. And if it’s a fine then you’ve got to have a quasi-judicial process set up to challenge the applicability of the fine.”

The city has no such process.

Records and emails sent between city officials revealed that in fiscal year 2008 alone, the city overcharged or improperly levied fines on businesses and residences 2,480 times for a total of $453,595.54 to businesses and residents for police responses, and $7,000 to residents for fire department 

Fort Lauderdale’s alarm fee ordinance was first approved decades ago. Commissioners voted to revise the language on Jan. 4, 2004, and again on Sept. 13, 2004 with the current fee structure. 

The current ordinance mandates that all burglar alarms installed in buildings in the city’s limits must be registered, for a fee of $50. The fees are supposed to cover fuel for emergency vehicles, mailing of violation notices, staff time for processing and legal review, and other costs. 

According to internal scenarios and projections that city managers compiled, it costs the city $140.19 for police to respond to each residential false alarm (compared to the maximum $200 charge per incident) and $200 for businesses (compared with the maximum $400 charge per incident). 

Residents who are repeat offenders for false fire alarms have been charged as much as $400 per incident, in violation of the city’s ordinance, which does not allow residents to be charged for false fire alarms.

Residences were omitted from the fire alarm ordinance due to a typographical error, according to staff. Nevertheless, the city has collected $23,000 in such fees since 2004. Commissioners made no mention of refunding the money at their most recent meeting. 

“The issue on the fire is we’ve got to clean up this ordinance,” Mayor Jack Seiler said. “That’s what we need to do.”
Business owners that are repeat offenders also have been charged as much as $400 per incident for false fire and police alarms, consistent with the ordinance. 

For residential dwellings, according to the ordinance, the first false alarm for police is no charge. The second incident results in a charge of $50. The third incident results in a $75 charge. The fourth is $100, and the fifth is $200. The charge for every subsequent false alarm is $200 within a 12-month period. 

For police to respond to businesses, the initial false alarm is no charge, and the second event is $100. The third is $150. The fourth is $200. The charge for the fifth and each subsequent event in a 12-month period is $400. 

The South Florida Times is one of the false-alarm violators. The business was cited at least three times in 2007 for false burglar alarms at its former address, 105 NE Third St., for a total of $850.

“The city commission has not yet made a final decision on the proposed amendments to the alarm fee regulations in our code,” Seiler said in an email sent to the South Florida Times on Wednesday, Oct. 28, when asked if the city will refund any improper fees. “I expect that the fees and the other issues you raise in your email to be discussed at our November 17, 2009 commission meeting. The commission will make its determination after the matter is fully discussed and debated.”

At least one financial expert has warned that the city may face legal trouble if it continues to levy the overcharges.

In August, attorney Thomas Tew, a financial expert and senior partner in the Miami-based Tew Cardenas, LLP law firm, told the South Florida Times: 

“What they are doing is walking into a re-run of Miami’s fire assessment fee catastrophe.’’

The city of Miami endured years of litigation from a class-action lawsuit filed over its implementation of fire assessment fees from 1997 through 2007. 

The lawsuit alleged that since the assessments also funded emergency medical services, they were improper because emergency medical services do not benefit property, as state law requires. At a July 26, 2007 meeting, Miami city commissioners approved a $15,500,000 settlement that went toward refunds for property owners.

“I followed the Miami fire assessment case, and this is worse,’’ Tew previously told the newspaper. “If there is not aggressive action by the elected officials, it will default to the courts and to enforcement people. It’s ripe for a class-action evaluation and if that occurs, it should embarrass the elected officials and the sharks will be circling.’’

ASHRAE Proposes that CO ALarms be Required Outside Sleeping Areas

In a change that would bring its residential ventilation and indoor air quality standard closer in line with that of the 2009 International Residential Code, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) is proposing that carbon monoxide (CO) alarms be required in homes. 

Under proposed addendum l to ANSI/ASHRAE Standard 62.2-2007, Ventilation and Acceptable Indoor Air Quality in Low-Rise Residential Buildings, carbon monoxide alarms would be required to be installed outside of each sleeping area. The proposed addendum is open for public comment until Oct. 26, 2009. 

Other addenda, unrelated to CO, are also open for review. Steve Emmerich, chair of the Standard 62.2 Committee, said that as the standard becomes more widely used as a result of its adoption into building codes and green building programs, several clarifications are being addressed through proposed changes. 

Carbon monoxide poisoning leads to hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries each year in homes. Emmerich noted that such poisoning results primarily from automobiles left running in attached garages, but also from portable generators, power tools and heaters. A small fraction of poisonings also result from failed central heating combustion appliances. 

“Residents have very little ability to sense the presence of CO without detectors, unlike many other indoor polluting events,” he said. 

Whether to include CO alarms as a requirement in the standard has been discussed since the standard was first proposed. Debate has focused on the unreliability and cost of alarms. But Emmerich said the committee believes the time has come to make this change, noting that it will bring the standard into closer alignment with the 2009 International Residential Code, which requires alarms if the house has combustion appliances or attached garages, and with many states that have passed laws requiring CO alarms. 

“This proposed requirement goes a step further, expanding the protection to all homes, regardless of fuel type or garage configuration, reflecting the fact that many CO exposures occur due to causes completely independent of these factors,” he said. “It also requires that alarms be hard-wired with battery backup to address an increased likelihood of high CO exposure events during power outages.” 

To view copies of the Standard 62.2 addenda open for public review, go to Copies of public review drafts are only available during public review periods.