False alarm rule in Steamboat is netting results | SteamboatToday.com

False alarm rule in Steamboat is netting results

Officials see drop in erroneous calls

Enforcement of Steamboat's false alarm law began Aug. 1 and outlined potential penalties for alarms triggered falsely. Since the law has come into effect, the city's fire engines have had to make less unnecessary trips through the city's streets.
John F. Russell

Enforcement of Steamboat's false alarm law began Aug. 1 and outlined potential penalties for alarms triggered falsely. Since the law has come into effect, the city's fire engines have had to make less unnecessary trips through the city's streets.John F. Russell

— In a time of tight budgets, local police and fire officials say a citywide law that went into effect last year might be helping them save time and money.

Enforcement of the false alarm law began Aug. 1 and outlined potential penalties for businesses and residents that had alarms triggered falsely. Letters were sent for first offenses, the second offense carried a $100 fine, and the fine for subsequent offenses increased $100 each time.

The city has collected about $3,500 in fines, but officials say the goal never was to profit from false alarms.

"I want people to realize that when a fire alarm goes off, it's real," Steamboat Springs Fire Chief Ron Lindroth said. "I don't want people to be desensitized to fire alarms."

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Police feel the same way.

"We want people to have well-functioning alarm systems," Steamboat Springs Police Department Capt. Joel Rae said.

Another goal of the ordinance was to save money and resources.

Lindroth estimated it costs the city $500 each time Steamboat Fire Rescue sends an engine and four-person crew to an alarm — an estimated total of $135,000 each year.

"We treat every fire alarm like it's a real fire," he said.

Police estimated that false alarms cost the department about $9,300 in 2009 for 401 alarms.

Law encourages upgrades

The rate of false alarms has not dropped dramatically since the ordinance was enacted, but officials said it is trending in the right direction and has encouraged discussions with alarm owners.

Between Aug. 1 and June 15, Steamboat Fire Rescue responded to 465 alarms. During the same time period the year before the ordinance took effect, the department responded to 509 alarms. The difference is an 8.6 percent decrease in calls since the ordinance was enacted.

Lindroth said false alarms now make up about 30 percent Steamboat Fire Rescue's calls, down from 34 percent. The goal is to get that number to decrease to 10 to 15 percent, he said.

"It would be nice to eliminate all false alarms, but that's not realistic," Lindroth said.

The fire department has levied about $5,200 in fines and has collected about $1,000. Some of that money has been rebated to people who have spent money to upgrade their alarm systems. That rebate program was outlined in the ordinance.

Lindroth and Fire Marshal Jay Muhme said the ordinance has encouraged home and business owners to take action and upgrade alarm systems that may be more than 30 years old.

"We've had several buildings that have taken out the antiquated alarms systems, which is huge for us," Muhme said.

He said complexes that have upgraded their systems include The West Condominiums, Storm Meadows Club and Walton Creek Condominiums.

"We don't have a lot of second, third or fourth offenses like we used to," Lindroth said. "That's good for everyone."

Systems have purpose

Police also have studied whether the ordinance has had any effect on call volume.

"It's working, but it was also going in the right direction before we had the ordinance," Rae said. "The ordinance is helping."

Between Nov. 1, 2006, and May 31, 2007, the department received 287 calls. During those same months this past year, the department received 191 alarm calls, a decrease of 33.4 percent. Since the ordinance took effect, alarm calls have decreased 12 percent.

"We've had fewer and fewer alarm calls," Rae said. "I think some of it is attributable to the ordinance."

The city has collected about $2,500 in fines related to false alarms to which the Police Department has responded.

Police chose to alter the fine schedule so the maximum fine amount is $200 for third and subsequent offenses.

"There were businesses that were wanting to flat-out turn off their alarms, and we didn't want that to happen, for obvious reasons," Rae said. "They serve a purpose for the protection of people and property."

Some downtown business owners realized the importance of functioning alarm systems May 4 when six businesses were targeted by burglars.

Cantina Mexican Restaurant was one of the businesses targeted, but the intruders were scared away when they broke through the back door and triggered the alarm, which notified police and sounded a loud noise. Cantina co-owner Kristi Brown said her business had triggered a false alarm before the break-in. They spent money to fix their system, so the alarm did not count as a violation.

"I think it's more of a deterrent," she said.

Other businesses have accepted the new ordinance and the fees associated with it.

"We've always been vigilant, and we are 100 percent for the new ordinance and payment process," said Wade Gebhardt, of the Steamboat branch of Wells Fargo.

The bank has had six false alarms since the ordinance was enacted, Rae said.

"All the false alarms are our own fault, and we need to pay for them," Gebhardt said.

He said security is a top priority for the bank. The bank continuously is training employees and inspecting and upgrading the alarm system, he said.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247 or email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com

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