May 2010 - Posts

Newry, Maine, Considers False Alarm Ordinance

Three straight false alarms in Newry, Maine, that generate a fire department response could net a company, home or business a fine and police summons if special town meeting voters approve a new ordinance currently being drafted.

That's what selectmen learned at Monday afternoon's meeting, Administrator Loretta Powers said.

The Alarm Ordinance establishes guidelines for response to alarms by the Fire Department.

Though aimed mainly at alarm system companies that fail to notify the Oxford County Regional Communications Center before working on someone's system and accidentally triggering an emergency response, the ordinance and assessed fines also target people who make nonemergency 911 calls.

“It's just one of those things where you get three strikes and you're out, and then you get charged or billed,” new fire Chief Bruce Pierce said Tuesday afternoon.

“For me, it's more of an awareness thing and not something that's being done to hit people in their pocketbooks.”

Bethel and Woodstock already have such false alarm ordinances in place, Powers said, but Newry doesn't.

Pierce said the department responded to 27 false alarms last year.

The proposed ordinance, which is still in the early draft stage, states that anyone found violating the ordinance will be sent a copy of the document and a letter after the first false alarm. The second such alarm nets the same thing, but would be sent via certified mail to the owner, whereas the third violation incurs a $300 fine for that instance and each additional nonemergency call thereafter for a year.

In other business, Powers said that out of 3,500-plus tax bills for 2009, there are only 93 that have yet to be sent in, totaling $113,000.

“That's not too bad, out of more than 3,000,” she said. “It's a few more than normal.”

After sending out 30-day notices for liens on the properties, Powers said several people have called saying they'd be in to pay their tax bill.

“But a lot of them just wait until the end” of the 30 days, she said. “They want their money in their pockets a little longer, and I don't blame them.”

Steamboat Springs, CO,. Considers False Alarm Ordinance

Another call, another false alarm. 

Dust from construction, a faulty wiring system, or failure to disconnect the alarm system before maintenance. 

Emergency responders in Steamboat Springs have seen them all, and they’re now introducing an ordinance that would fine repeat offenders of false alarms. 

Under an ordinance that will go before the Steamboat Springs, CO, City Council, the owner of any alarm that malfunctions, is set off by user error or by an undetermined cause more than once will face increasing fines. The second offense would carry a fine of $200, a third offense $300, and so on up to a maximum of $700. 

If a person fined under the ordinance proves to law enforcement or fire personnel that the problems with the system were fixed within 30 days, they can get half of their money back. 

Fire Marshall Jay Muhme, who was the main author of the ordinance in the past four to five years, said it is designed to encourage people to fix problems with their alarm systems. 

“They’ll get smarter, they’ll get wiser and start doing things more purposefully, more correctly,” he said. 

Steamboat Springs Police Dep­­artment Capt. Joel Rae said false alarm calls eat up time for all local law enforcement and emergency response agencies. Rae said often there are several false alarm calls per day, and sometimes more. 

“When you’re literally resp­onding to hundreds of alarms per year and you take in drive time and the time it takes to search a house,” the time adds up, Rae said. “You’re looking at anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes of an officer’s time for each alarm call.”

Police will often find an open door — typically blown open by wind — and will search the house, as well. 

Just as often, heat will turn on in a home and rustle papers, setting off the alarm, or the magnetic contacts on a door sensor briefly will come apart with a strong gust of wind. 

Police Chief JD Hays said the Police Department regularly responds to calls at second homes, where the homeowners are not present to call the alarm company to say it’s a false alarm. 

“A lot of our second homes are alarmed, and those alarms will go off just all the time,” he said. “Whether there’s a cat in the house or a butterfly by the window.”

The same alarm also can trigger many times in a row, Muhme said, because the property owner or alarm company doesn’t take the time to fix it right away. 

“We may go to the same place three, four, five, six times a night and do that for a week or two straight,” he said. “It’s really not a priority.”

Muhme said whether emergency responders are called to the same house for false alarms three times in a night, it doesn’t necessarily mean the person would be fined $300 — that decision is left to the top responding officer based on the circumstances. 

Hotels and other condos won’t necessarily be fined if someone pulls an alarm in error, and the idea is not to fine someone who burns food while cooking. In that situation, the alarm would have been working properly. 

The ordinance does, however, call for fines against anyone who “maliciously” sets off an alarm. There is no first warning in that instance, with $200 for the first time and an extra $100 for each offense up to $800. That includes students who pull the alarm at schools, and people who set off alarms at hotels and condos for fun. 

Muhme said the city used to have a similar false alarm law, but it was removed when it was no longer used. That was about 10 to 12 years ago, he estimated, and he said the new law likely would have the same effect — it will be used more frequently at first, but alarm owners will fix the problems in the systems until it is rarely used. 

“I don’t think this is something that will be a huge issue after a year or so,” Muhme said. “Within a year, everybody will realize that there are consequences to this and, ‘Maybe I should make this more of a priority,’ and it will regulate itself.”

Tonight’s review of the false alarm ordinance is a first reading. Police and fire officials said they will present statistics of the number of false alarms per year and the time taken to respond to those. Those numbers were not available Monday.

Tulsa, OK, Proposes Doubling Alarm Registration Fee to $30

Tulsa, OK, budget proposal includes revenue-generating options to ease financial woes, including an alarm ordinance that would be changed to increase the $15 renewal rate to $30 and property owners with a history of false alarms would be charged $60. This would generate an estimated $300,000 per year.

Wichita City Council Defers Vote to Increase Alarm System Fees

The Wichita City Council defers a vote on raising alarm system fees. The city proposed the fees to offset the cost of responding to about 25,000 false alarm calls each year.

The new fees would include a $25 annual registration fee. Alarm users would be required to register themselves with the city. The registration fee came about after negotiations with the alarm system industry. The original plan called for monthly fees, $1 for residents and $3 for business.

On top of the registration fee, false alarm fees would also go up. Everyone would get one false alarm for free. After that, it's $40 and goes up to $350 depending on the number of false alarms. The fees are higher for false fire alarms. Those start at $100 and go up to $750 depending on the number of calls.

If the council eventually approves the fees, the city would offer an online false alarm course and quiz people could take to avoid the payment. The city says the goal is to educate people to reduce the number of false alarms.

Council member Jeff Longwell says every time an officer is dispatched for a false alarm, citizens are less safe. He says if the fees truly help reduce false alarm fees he could support it, but he's not interested in just raising fees to generate revenue for the city.

Mayor Carl Brewer says the deferral comes at a good time because he's not ready to raise fees for citizens. He says once more details are worked out with the alarm system industry, he may feel more comfortable with the issue.

The alarm system fees will go back before council in about three weeks.

St. Johns County, FL, Alarm Owners Must Register; Pay Fee for False Alarms

Effective immediately, residents with home alarms in St. Johns County in Florida will have to register with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office and pay a fee for false alarms.

At the April 20 commission meeting, commissioners approved an ordinance allowing the Sheriff’s Office to impose fees for excessive false alarms.

According to Col. Art May, division director of support services, the time it takes the Sheriff’s Office to respond to the number of false alarms in the county is equal to staffing five full time deputies.

"There were over 10,000 false alarms [last year]," May said. "The alarm company is supposed to do a verified response. If you don’t [have the right code when the alarm company calls] it is deemed an active alarm and we send a deputy out."

May said the Sheriff’s Office sends out two deputies on alarm calls for safety reasons, which eats up a tremendous amount of time when the alarms are false.

The new ordinance requires that private citizens with home alarm citizens register with the Sheriff’s Office. The initial registration fee is $25. The first instance of a false alarm nets a notification letter from the Sheriff’s Office, but each subsequent false alarm incurs a $25 penalty. The first fine can be waived for offenders if they attend a training course. After the ninth false alarm, the fine is $125.

"If you can reduce those by half [the number of false alarms] it would be good," said May.

The ordinance outlines the duties of the Alarm Coordinator who’s job will be primarily to administer the program and provide community outreach and education regarding alarm systems.

"This is a tremendous efficiency opportunity," said Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson at the April 20 meeting. "You can use your force as cost effectively as possible."

May said this ordinance came about as a result of a study conducted a few years ago.

"From that study we started going through an alarm ordinance," he said. "Its taken us all this time to come up with this."

May said the previous alarm ordinance, 1978-51, lacked teeth. He said the county looked at fee models from different areas, including the League of Cities, to find one that was successful and could work for St. Johns County.

"This gets people’s attention but [the fees] is not exorbitant," said May. "We are not trying to go and harm anyone. Our main thing is ‘Hey, lets get this thing fixed.’"

May said if residents don’t pay the fees after several fines, the Sheriff’s Office will no longer respond to the alarms from that location.

He said the fees generated from the registration will go back to the administration of the program. Fines for false alarms will be collected by the Clerk of Courts and will go back into the county’s general fund. May said the estimate is this program will cost the county approximately $150,000, which he said the Sheriff’s Office will have to "dig out from wherever they can find."

Indio, CA, Implements Verified Response Policy

It's a move to help the bottom line but it's one many Indio, CA, homeowners say puts their safety in jeopardy. Indio police are testing a new plan to save money. They won't respond to burglar alarms unless they know for a crime may be taking place.

Indio homeowner Elizabeth Lira says her alarm went off several times and cops never showed up. In her case, they were false alarms but she thinks the new guidelines may compromise safety.

"If someone attacks you, how are you supposed to verify if they call you and you're laying on the ground?"

Chris Madain, owner of Desert Alarm, says in most valley cities..."If we call the house and there's no response we assume break in and dispatch the police on it."

Indio police now want verification which means suspicious activity must be seen or heard, by either a person or an audio-visual monitoring device, before they'll respond.Madain says most customers do not have that type of costly equipment.

"Most customers in the valley leave in the summer and this is a burglar haven down here," Madain said.

Police say safety is top priority but the new guidelines are an option they have to consider.

According to Indio PD, 99% of the time they're responding to false alarms.

Each time it happens, it's costing the department manpower and time.

"We don't just drive by the place. We (spend time) making sure doors and windows are secure."

Police say they'll evaluate these guidelines for the next six or seven months. They'll determine if it could become permanent policy then.

Even in its early stages, many are sounding off.

"I know they can't respond to ten thousand alarms going off daily but at least do a drive by," Lira said. 

Indio residents are required to pay the city $30 dollars a year for a burglar alarm permit which covers the cost of responding to false alarms.

New Alarm Ordinance in Clackamas County, OR

The Clackamas County, OR, new alarm ordinance, aimed at reducing false alarms, brings a host of changes. 

The Clackamas County commissioners adopted a new ordinance after learning that 98 percent of all alarms turn out to be false, though sheriff's deputies are dispatched to every alarm. 

Under the new ordinance: 

-- Permits are issued for a one-year period. 

-- Residential permits are $20 per year. 

-- Business permits are $50 per year. 

-- Over 65 years old, no charge. 

-- Government offices, no charge 

-- First false alarm, no charge 

-- Second false alarm, $50 charge 

-- Third false alarm, $100 charge 

-- Fourth false alarm, $150 charge 

-- Failure to obtain a permit, $75 charge 

After the fourth false alarm, the sheriff will mail the permit applicant a notice of suspension. 

Alarm applications can be downloaded here.

Applications and fees can be mailed to Clackamas County Sheriff's Office, Attn: Alarm Permits, 2223 Kaen Road, Oregon City, OR 97045.

WI Task Force Addresses False Alarms, Door-to-Door Scams

Thinking of buying a burglar alarm for your home? Think again. Wisconsin requires no more security training for a licensed alarm installer than a banana salesman. And even after the alarm is installed, there’s no guarantee Milwaukee police will respond.

Wisconsin is one of 12 states that still lack an accreditation process for the operators who install and monitor the systems meant to alert police or firefighters to break-ins or fires, according to Christopher Utter, president of the Wisconsin Electronic Security Association (WESA).

He’s sitting with another industry representative and city officials on the Private Alarm System Task Force, where he has promoted adding training to the city’s Private Alarm Business license requirements.

Ald. Robert Puente, vice-chair of the Common Council’s public safety committee and a retired Milwaukee police captain, chairs the panel. It’s reviewing complaints from consumers who say they were duped into buying security systems and considering ways to fine out-of-state companies for violating the city’s unverified alarm ordinance.

The Common Council voted in January to create the task force “to review the regulation of the private alarm service business” and “study sales and servicing of private alarm systems.” The council’s resolution hints of complaints like those Puente has heard. City regulations, it says, “may be improved to protect consumers from coercive or undesirable sales practices.”

A common complaint, according to Puente, is door-to-door salesmen who claim their security systems will provide a direct link to the police. Such a link implies that if a burglary or intentional trigger by the homeowner sets off the alarm, the police come. But that’s not always true under a controversial policy created by Chief Nannette Hegerty and later written into law by the Council in 2004. The ordinance was intended to prevent police from responding to numerous false alarms.

WESA never liked the ordinance and fought it hard, but 13 out of 15 aldermen pushed ahead, also killing an earlier proposal to convene a task force before codifying Hegerty’s policy. It requires a security guard or other third party, possibly a neighbor or other 911 caller, to substantiate a burglar alarm before an officer will respond.

But Utter speaks of the ordinance like a dead issue: “I’m not on the task force to get that changed.”

There’s money in false alarms
A counter-proposal by Ald. Tony Zielinski, who voted against 2004’s unverified alarm ordinance, sits in legislative limbo. Zielinski says he’ll push it again if he thinks there’s enough support. In 2004, there wasn’t, and the Council filed it away without a vote.

His proposal, he says, “could bring in, literally, millions of dollars.” It would resume police service to unverified alarms but charge the alarm provider the cost of the police department’s response if officers determine, upon arrival, that the alarm is false. Penalties intensify for repeat offenders. An alternate version of the plan, which would charge alarm users a yearly fee of $70, was predicted to bring in about $3.5 million a year.

Hegerty stopped officers from responding to unverified alarms since the vast majority turn out to be false, she argued, and waste time. Puente still agrees with the policy and says police testimony in the public safety committee indicates it’s working well.

He wants the task force to figure out how to fine out-of-state companies for violating the unverified alarm ordinance. Hundreds of fines are possible, he says, but impractical because police must serve the delinquent companies in-person. Puente doesn’t favor suspending or revoking their licenses because it kills customers’ alarm service.

Utter says the problems lie with a new wave of fly-by-night companies that sell alarm systems door-to-door nationwide. “There’s kind of been a new wave of companies that have come into our industry,” he says, and the wave hit Wisconsin sometime in the past year after raising concerns elsewhere.

Utter insists there are ways to bring down false alarms in Milwaukee, including educational outreach to businesses that trigger frequent false alarms, a strategy that succeeded in Eau Claire and Appleton.

Most false triggers happen as employees are leaving or entering a business, he says, and can be prevented. WESA members have already signed a pledge to increase the calls they make, including ones to building owner cell phones, to weed out false alerts.

Sacramento, CA, Fire Department, Wants Fines for False Alarms

With firefighters responding to an increasing number of false alarms, the Sacramento, CA, Fire Department wants the city to go after property owners whose faulty fire alarms keep going off.

The city's Law and Legislation Committee is scheduled to discuss an ordinance that would levy fines on businesses and homeowners whose fire alarms go off in error three times or more. The first false alarm would result in no action, and the city would send a warning letter to property owners after a second false alarm.

Fines for a fifth false alarm could reach as high as $450, a city staff report shows.

False alarms represent roughly 15 percent of responses by the Fire Department, about 8,700 calls a year, a staff report states. Nearly half of those false alarms are caused by lack of maintenance.

"Response to automatic fire alarm system false alarms resulted in fire stations being unavailable for actual emergency response hundreds of times last year," the staff report states.

Other cities -- including Fresno, Roseville, Stockton and Yuba City -- have programs similar to the one being proposed in Sacramento.

If approved by the committee, the proposed ordinance would be passed on to the City Council for adoption.

St. Johns County, FL, to Enact Alarm Ordinance

The St. Johns County, FL, Commission will enact a county-wide alarm ordinance to encourage proper installation, use and maintenance of alarm systems.

The Sheriff's Office reported about 10,000 false alarms through 2009. The commission and the Sheriff's Office want to increase public safety by reducing the time and resources spent by deputies responding to false alarms.