April 2010 - Posts

Eau Claire County, WI, Toughens Alarm Ordinance

Eau Claire County, WI, looks to cut down on the number of false alarms deputies respond to.

Whenever an alarm company calls in a break-in alarm, the home or business owner is now asked whether or not they want law enforcement to respond. In the past, deputies automatically responded. That approach usually took two deputies off patrol and could lead to wasted time if someone wasn't around to turn off the alarm.

"If we're doing this 187 times a year and if you start thinking about the weeks in the year, we're spending way too much time when we should be responding to other calls or being available for other calls that are out there in our area," says Lt. Rod Stearns, Eau Claire County Sheriff's Department.

A new ordinance would also change when folks are billed for false alarms. Currently, home and business owners get a $200 invoice after the fourth false alarm in one year. The sheriff's department is looking to change that to $100 after a second and third false alarm and $330 for the fourth. That change still needs to be approved by the county board. No word on when that could happen.

The change in response will not affect how the department responds to holdup and fire alarms, they will still immediately respond to those calls. 

Lt. Stearns says the new rule is a way to make things more uniform with the Eau Claire Police Department which has had these rules for a number of years. All other law enforcement agencies in the county are doing the same thing.

Moses Lake, WA, Increases Fine for False Fire Dispactch to Commerical Buildings

Moses Lake, WA, City Council agreed to increase the fee associated with the Moses Lake Fire Department responding to false fire alarms in commercial buildings.

The motion passed unanimously Tuesday night. It requires a second reading before it becomes a law.

Assistant Fire Chief Brett Bastian explained at least one fire engine and one ambulance will respond to all fire alarms. A second engine is put en route to the location of the fire alarm until the first engine arrives and it is determined that the second is not needed.

There is concern about distracting personnel from true emergencies.

Bastian said the fire department responds to about 140 to 160 false alarms annually.

The ordinance allows for two false alarms per commercial business without penalty during a three month period. The third false alarm will result in a $500 fine.

“It is costly to go out on a false alarm,” explained City Manager Joe Gavinski.

The council wants to encourage commercial business owners with faulty alarms to get them fixed.

When fire alarm companies are working on alarm systems, often the system will engage so the company is required to notify the fire department of their work.

If the company does not inform the fire department of alarm system testing and the alarm engages, it will be fined $100 for the first offense and $200 for the second offense, according to the ordinance. Currently each offense is $100.

Councilmember *** Deane said he agreed with increasing the fine because it is not just about the cost. He explained the fire personnel are put in harm’s way because they are rushing through traffic to what they believe is an emergency.

Councilmember David Curnel moved to approve the ordinance with the increased fees and Councilmember Brent Reese seconded. It passed unanimously. Councilmember Richard Pearce was absent from the meeting.

Dayton, OH, Police Department to Crack Down on False Alarms

The Dayton, OH, Police Department plans to get tougher on home and business owners with security alarm systems that continually summon officers with false alarms.

The city responded to 6,911 false alarms in 2009, including 39 calls to a single business on North Broadway Street. Police data show 27 percent of the false alarms are due to human error.

“We get there and people say, ‘sorry,’ ” Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said on Wednesday, April 14.

Most of the time police respond and no one is there. The cause of the alarm is unknown, said Biehl, adding that the false alarms, overall, cost the city about $100,000 in 2009.

The city’s alarm ordinance became law in May 1997 to protect emergency services of the police department from responding to defective alarm systems and excessive false alarms. A provision in the ordinance that permits the police department to disconnect a system that makes excessive false alarms will now be enforced.

A disconnect order basically means no signals are to be emitted to the Dayton police from the alarm, directly or indirectly.

“We have not enforced disconnects, but we do have authority in this ordinance to do this,” Biehl said.

Also under the current law, alarm users are required to register their system with the city and pay a $10 fee. Users are given information regarding penalties for false alarms at that time.

During a rolling 12-month period, the first false alarm at an address receives Dayton police response without negative consequence. After a second false alarm, a warning is left at the site to advise the owner of the police response.

Upon the third false alarm, a $50 fee is imposed. The fee increases by $50 for each false alarm up to $250 for the seventh. After the seventh false alarm, the alarm will be disconnected within 10 days.

Failure to register an alarm in 90 days or failure to pay false alarm fees also could result in an order of disconnect, under an amendment proposed by Biehl. The ordinance already includes an appeal process. That amendment is expected to go before the City Commission for a vote within two weeks.

Issaquah, WA, Ordinance Cuts False Alarms by 63 Percent

An Issaquah, WA, ordinance designed to cut the volume of false-alarm calls to the Issaquah Police Department reduced the number of calls by 63 percent between January 2008 — 18 months before officials approved the ordinance — and January 2010.

The department said the measure saved the department 20 hours in officer time during January. The city released the data Wednesday.

Officers received 71 false alarm calls in January 2009, compared to 36 in January 2010. The number for February dropped from 40 to 28, and the calls fell from 84 to 47 in March during the same timeframe.

Police said a false alarm occurs when officers respond to a call triggered by a security alarm, and after investigating the scene, find no evidence of a criminal offense or attempted criminal activity.

City Council members acted to limit the number of false alarms after police said Issaquah officers responded to 1,035 burglary, robbery or duress alarms in 2008 — but 99.2 percent of the alerts turned out to be false.

The council members OK’d the false-alarm ordinance last July. The measure requires most commercial and residential alarm users to purchase a $24 alarm permit; senior citizens and people with disabilities pay a reduced rate, $12. The ordinance requires alarm companies to notify the city of installations.

Each false burglar alarm costs a violator $100; a false panic or fire alarm costs $200.

Issaquah officials contracted with a Colorado Springs, Colo., company, ATB Services, to administer the program. ATB works with alarm providers to include the permit fee in customers’ bills.

The ordinance became effective in early August, and the police department had procedures in place for the measure by November.

Police Chief Paul Ayers said the department worked with the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce to educate businesses about the change.

“Education was a key component of our new program,” Ayers said in a statement released Wednesday. “Thanks to our community’s efforts to learn more about their alarm systems — and how to prevent false alarms — we have saved valuable time and resources.”

Shelby County, TN, Stiffens False Alarm Fines

Shelby County, TN, Commissioners passed unanimously passed an ordinance imposing stiffer penalties for false home alarms. "It's been costing the city - also the county, but mostly the city - a lot of money responding to false alarms," Commissioner Steve Mulroy said. Before Tuesday's vote, people were fined just $25 starting their seventh false home alarm. "This steps up the schedule of penalties people have to pay if they have multiple instances of false alarms," Mulroy said. Now, the $25 fine begins at the fifth false alarm. For the sixth false alarm, you pay the $25 fine, plus $90 in civil damages. For the seventh false alarm, you pay the fine and civil damages, and your alarm license is revoked. Responders then have the right to use their own discretion about responding, though they will usually act on the side of caution. Both of the ordinances go into effect immediately.

Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, to Charge for False Alarm Dispataches

Security alarms are a plus for homeowners and businesses, but when they malfunction they become headaches for law enforcement. To counter the time spent going to those false alarms, some law enforcement agencies either impose fees on the owners of the alarms or plan to do so.

Taking a cue from the Bangor and Brewer, police departments, Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, selectmen voted Monday to institute a fee schedule starting in July for repeated responses to false security alarms. After the third false alarm to a specific location, the town will charge $50 per hour per response. 

Dover-Foxcroft Police Chief Dennis Dyer said Tuesday that his officers have gone about 19 times in the past 18 months to a false security alarm at a Route 15 business. When an officer goes to an alarm and determines the doors and windows are secure, he often has to wait several hours for the key holder to show up, the chief said.

“I’ve seen cases and my guys have seen cases where we’ve [sat] there and no one ever does call us back, so you’re tied up keeping an eye on that place,” Dyer said Tuesday. 

In Bangor, those false security alarms really can affect the department.

“We get a lot,” Peter Arno, Bangor’s deputy chief of police, said Tuesday. The city, which requires a permit for alarms that are connected to a security company, has 724 registered commercial and residential alarms, he said. In 2008, those security systems prompted 2,102 alarms requiring police attention. Arno guessed that in excess of 95 percent were false alarms.

“They do tie our officers up,” Arno said. He said the response time for each alarm is about a half-hour, which removes the officers from their regular patrols. To counter the cost of these calls, the city charges a fee for repeated calls to the same business or home. The city does not charge for the first three responses to the same building, but charges $25 each for calls four through eight, and $100 for calls nine and over, he said.

“If you get multiple false alarms during the course of the year, you’re obviously having some sort of problems with your system. It could be user error, or people coming in and forgetting the code and not turning the alarm off when they go in,” Arno said. Brewer Police Chief Perry Antone Sr. is well aware of the precious time officers spend chasing false alarms. Brewer adopted an ordinance to deal with these issues in March 1981, and it has been updated twice since then. The city does not charge for up to four responses to false security alarms in one location. After that, how-ever, it charges $15 per response for five to 15 calls, and $30 per response to more than 16 calls at the same location.

While the fees do generate some revenue for the general fund, the reason behind them is to get business owners and homeowners to maintain their alarm systems so police officers can focus on real incidents, Antone said Tuesday. 

Greenville Police Chief Jeff Pomerleau said his department has not implemented fees, but with dwindling finances, it might consider it.

“It’s not uncommon for us to go to a residence five or six times in a relatively short time — the problem seems to happen in rashes,” he said. “It takes time and sometimes considerable effort” to go to the calls. “We’ve snowshoed into camps in the middle of the night for false alarms.” 

Pomerleau said police rely on business and property owners to do the right thing. If there are repeated alarms in one location, the owner should have the alarm repaired or replaced. 

Craig Clossey, deputy chief of the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department, said false security alarms haven’t been a problem in his county and no fees are charged for the response.

Rolling Meadows, IL, Alderman Look to Correct Alarm Ordinance

Rolling Meadows, IL, aldermen corrected, on first reading, fines for false alarms.

In 2006, the city allowed residents to have up to three false alarms on their burglar alarm systems each year. After that, a resident was accessed a fee of $100 for additional false alarms. Fees and permits for alarms were set at 50% for senior citizens.

Aldermen that year considered a change in the false alarm ordinance for fire alarms, but the change somehow also increased the fines for false burglar alarms. Under the current ordinance, residents are allowed only one false alarm with a fee of $350 for any additional ones.

The change, if approved on second reading at the next council meeting, would change both fee structures.

Under the changes, residents are allowed two false fire alarms. The third triggers a $350 fine, the fourth through sixth carry a $450 fine and on-site written notice, the seventh is a $600 fine and revocation of the alarm permit.

For burglar alarms, residents will now be allowed three false alarms with a fourth allowed for senior citizens. The fine for the next violation is $100. The next two carry a $150 and $200 fine respectively with a permit revocation on the final false alarm.

At the Committee of the Whole meeting the previous week, Fire Chief Ron Stewart explained the department fell behind on billing for fines during 2009 due to staffing cuts. However, he said he has worked with the finance department to correct those issues and will soon go back to the beginning of 2010 and file the proper notices to violators.

Large Herkimer, NY, Employers Balk a False Alarm Fines

Two major Herkimer, NY, area employers want village officials to reconsider a local law that charges property owners when the fire department deploys to alarms deemed to be false or a nuisance.

After receiving bills for 10 such fire alarms each in February alone, both Herkimer County Community College and Valley Health Services reached out to the village board for an explanation.

The bill came to $1,350 for HCCC’s nuisance calls, costing $150 each after the first each month being a free warning. 

The VHS fines totaled $2,100, with the amount set by the false alarm fee schedule: One free warning each month, $100 for a second alarm and $250 for a third and each additional false alarm per month.

During its Monday meeting, village board members instructed village Attorney Nicholas Macri to respond to letters from HCCC and VHS. Village officials said they are unable to negotiate the fees as they are set in the law passed unanimously by the village board in February.
Comment on the issue from HCCC was unavailable Tuesday, and VHS officials did not return a request for comment.

Village fire Chief John Spanfelner, who is responsible for enforcing the law, declined to comment on the fees and their relation to how much each fire department response costs the village. 

The aim of the law is to protect taxpayers from the cost of the fire department responding to repeated false alarms or nuisance calls, Mayor Mark Ainsworth said at the meeting. 
The false alarm fee had been in place prior to the February vote that set the village’s fee schedule and law. The amount was raised but village officials were unable to provide the prior cost. 

But the “nuisance” call fee was added this year. Village officials during prior discussions on the new fee mentioned frequent alarms at HCCC that are set off by burnt food and steam from showers. 

Village board members gave Spanfelner the authority to determine which alarms or emergency calls are deemed a “nuisance.” 

Macri has said relying on the chief’s experience avoids impacting public decisions on calling the fire department. The village does not want people, fearing a possible fine, waiting for a fire to get out of hand before calling for help, he added. 

Ainsworth at Monday’s meeting described the fees as a way to lower the number of false and nuisance alarms. Frequent fire alarms at an HARC facility had dropped to just one last month, he said.

The number of false alarm fees billed to HARC was not available Tuesday.
Spanfelner said in a phone interview the law’s goal is to have property owners correct issues with alarm systems or causes of frequent nuisance calls.

Jackson County, NC, to Address False Alarms

The Jackson County, NC, planning board was asked by county commissioners recently to begin writing an ordinance to tackle a false alarm ordinance that would incur penalties for homeowners if their security systems have an excessive number of false alarms, which take up valuable time for the sheriff’s office.

Bristol, CT, Eyes Fire Alarm Fines

Bristol, CT, city councilors are eying a possible change to the alarm ordinance that levies $90 fines for property owners who have more than three false alarms in a year.

Councilors said the fire and police chiefs want the authority to waive the fines when the property owner bears no fault for the false alarms.

Officials said that major institutions such as ESPN and city schools often rack up false alarms because of the number of alarms they have installed.

City Councilor Kevin McCauley, a firefighter, said that many false alarms are nobody’s fault. He said pressure surges, electrical spikes and the like can cause alarms.

There are so many variables, he said, that he can understand why the chiefs want the ability to waive fines in extenuating circumstances.

But city Councilor Cliff Block said he doesn’t want to open the door to favoritism.

He said that most fire calls involve crews racing to answer an alarm that turns out to be false, putting people in jeopardy for no good reason.

Block said he doesn’t want to see fire trucks racing through the streets for nothing.

The city began enforcing a false alarm statute in 2008 in a bid to clamp down on false alarms.

False alarms are “costly and dangerous” because they divert police officers from crime prevention activities, according to the city police Web site.

By city law, each premise in town with an alarm has to register it. Every year, three false alarms are allowed, and the $90 fine is imposed each time for any false alarms after that.

According to the law, alarms that go off because of mechanical defects, pets and user error are considered false alarms.

There is no provision to for waiving the fines.

But councilors said they are open to the idea of giving the chiefs some leeway as long as they are required to report any waivers to their respective oversight boards or some other entity with an explanation for each fine waived.

The Ordinance Committee is weighing the best way to handle the issue. Nothing will be made final for at least a few months.

Sioux Falls, SD, Considers Fining for False Alarms

Sioux Falls, SD, residents and business owners with burglar alarms would pay a yearly fee if the Sioux Falls City Council passes a new set of rules proposed by the police department.

Homeowners and businesspeople responsible for more than two false alarms per year could face hundreds of dollars in fines. But some business owners say they should not be penalized for false alarms that are beyond their control.

The Sioux Falls, SD, City Council will debate the measure, which is designed to cut down on the staggering number of yearly false calls, Sioux Falls Police Chief Doug Barthel said recently.

In 2009, police department responded to 2,200 alarm calls, and 99 percent were false.

"We average about six and a half of these things a day, and frankly, they're almost never legitimate," Barthel said.

At least two officers respond to each alarm call, Officer Greg Schmidt said, sometimes waiting hours for owners to return. About two-thirds of the false alarm calls come from businesses; the rest come from homes.

"It takes officers off the street for what could be a balloon floating around in a business," he said. "It's not the best way to use our resources."

Alarm owners ultimately are responsible for false alarms, however, and a third false alarm call in one year would result in a $100 fine. Each false alarm after that is a $200 fine.

Residential alarm owners would pay $25 a year for a permit under the new proposal. Businesses would pay $35 a year.

Sioux Falls resident Coralea Schoenfelder said Wednesday that she wouldn't mind paying a yearly fee to license her alarm system, but only if the money generated were used to the direct benefit of the police and fire departments.

"I'd want to know that the money goes to them and doesn't end up somewhere else," Schoenfelder said.

As far as false alarm fines go, she trusts her alarm company to help prevent unnecessary police deployments. Her company calls her before calling the police or fire department, which she appreciates. The system doesn't miss much.

Her 17-year-old son once set off the alarm while sneaking back into the house, she said, and her smoke alarm has gone off while she's in the kitchen.

Scranton, PA, to Start Charging for Multiple False Burglar Alarms

Every three to four hours, on average, a Scranton, PA, city police officer is dispatched to investigate what usually turns out to be a false burglar alarm.

After more than a decade of spotty enforcement, the Police Department is cracking down on businesses and other properties where officers respond to more than three false alarms during a 12-month period.

Violators will be assessed $50 for the fourth false alarm, $100 for the fifth and $300 for each one after that, based on a graduated service fee schedule in an ordinance approved by city council in July.

Police Chief David Elliott said the intent is to cut down on the number of false alarms so officers can engage in more proactive police work.

"It will bring in some funds for the city, but it's more about freeing up officers and not tying them up on calls they should not be going on because of problems with alarms and faulty alarm systems," he said. "I think people will be paying a lot more attention to the maintenance of their alarm systems."

Under a new procedure that took effect Tuesday, an officer responding to an alarm will document the incident on a notification form. Each form will include information about what the officer found at the property, weather conditions and whether it is a "chargeable" false alarm.

The officer will leave one copy of the notification for the property owner and keep one for himself. A third will be submitted to a Police Department clerk who will be responsible for managing a false alarm database and billing the violators.

The ordinance enacted by council last summer amended a false alarm statute that has been on the books since 1995.

Chief Elliott said individual officers who happened to respond to more than three false alarms at a single location have been writing citations, but the department lacked a simple system to track all of the alarms. The database will take care of that, he said.

Of the 2,811 alarms city officers responded to 2009 - representing almost 5 percent of all the calls received by police - at least 95 percent were false alarms, said Capt. Carl Graziano, head of the Patrol Division.

That is in line with national statistics.

A 2007 report by the Office of Community-Oriented Policing Services, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice, said between 94 and 98 percent of alarm calls in the United States are false. Responding to those alarms costs police departments an estimated $1.2 billion annually, the agency said.

"An officer responding to a false alarm, by the time they get dispatched, respond, secure the place and document it, is probably out of service a half-hour," Chief Elliott said.

The Scranton Fire Department has been charging a flat $250 for each false fire alarm after the third one since 1994.

Although the annual number of chargeable false alarms has fluctuated sharply during that time, the incidence has been on a downward trend, Fire Chief Tom Davis said. The department collected $86,250 in 2006, $57,500 in 2007 and $37,250 in 2008 before edging back up to $40,500 last year.

After getting a bill or two from the city, most violators become serious about repairing their fire alarm systems, Chief Davis said.

"It opens some eyes," he said. "I think it's a great policy."

Chief Elliott said he hopes the new procedures will have an immediate impact on the number of false alarms his officers respond to. In the meantime, the department will answer them all.

"I wish we had a crystal where we could tell before we go out, but we have to respond to everything," he said.