False alarms a growing problem

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— Since 2002, Steamboat Springs police and firefighters have responded to almost 1,500 burglar and fire alarms. All but three were false.

Routt County and the rest of Colorado are no different -- 99 percent of alarms statewide also are false, Routt County Sheriff John Warner said.

Because law enforcers and firefighters respond to each alarm as if it is the real thing, false alarms significantly drain agency resources in terms of manpower and money. Whether triggered by user error, installation problems or weather, erroneous burglar and fire alarms are a growing problem for already overtaxed agencies.

"It directly affects everyone across the state," Warner said. "If taxpayers realized how much money they're paying for false alarms, they'd be up in arms. But we're seeing more and more of them."

Warner is part of a task force recently created by the County Sheriffs of Colorado to tackle the issue. Sheriffs, police officers and fire chiefs from across the state are examining ways to decrease the number of false alarms. Although cities have proposed different solutions, owner accountability for malfunctioning alarms is a common thread among them.

Dangers of crying wolf

More than simply being a nuisance, false alarms cost agencies time and money, and they potentially threaten public safety.

"It's a waste of time," Steamboat Springs Police Capt. Joel Rae said. "You have to treat every alarm as if it's a real intrusion, so two officers always respond. It takes about 20 minutes to drive up, check out the alarm and wait for the responsible person to arrive. Totaling that up is a lot of man hours."

Outside city limits, false alarms strain resources even more. Deputies often have to drive 40 minutes to reach the site of an alarm. Yet they respond to at least 200 each year, Warner said. That adds up to a lot of money spent on gas and manpower.

"It takes time from the things you could and should be doing," Routt County Undersheriff Dan Taylor said.

For firefighters, the cost of mobilizing fire trucks and men is equally substantial, Warner said.

The task force is working to determine the cost, but Warner said it is "huge."

In addition to the financial cost, false alarms also may endanger public safety by interfering with other emergency calls. Deputies frequently receive calls for things such as fights in progress while responding to intrusion alarms, Taylor said.

"That forces us to make choices about which call to respond to first," he said.

If deputies decide the alarm has lower priority, they may have lost valuable time in responding to the other call.

"On an average day, we only have two deputies on duty. If they're way up County Road 129 responding to an alarm, they're tied up for at least an hour," Warner said.

Chronically malfunctioning alarms threaten safety, as well. If an alarm cries wolf often enough, it becomes difficult for officers and firefighters to take it seriously.

"The inherent risk is of getting lackadaisical," Rae said.

That endangers the officers and the homeowners if a real burglary or fire occurs.

"There's the risk that deputies will say, 'Oh, it's just the same place again,'" Taylor said.

What causes false alarms

Although everything from lightning to insects can trigger an alarm accidentally, user error appears to be the largest culprit.

User error usually involves people incorrectly setting or disarming the alarm by failing to latch the door securely or not knowing the alarm code. Businesses, which own 78 percent of Steamboat's intrusion alarms, are particularly prone to user-error malfunctions because employees often aren't fully instructed in operating the alarms.

Alarm owners also frequently neglect to maintain the alarm by not changing its batteries, keeping insects out of the wiring, preventing exposure to pets or wildlife, and so on.

"People need to make sure their alarms are set up properly and maintain them," Rae said.

But owners may receive little training on how to do that. When people buy security systems, the companies don't always thoroughly teach them how to operate and maintain them, Taylor said.

He thinks this is, in part, because the companies aren't held responsible for false alarms. Because the police, not the alarm companies, respond to false alarms, many companies don't have an incentive to minimize them, he said.

"The private industry is making money on their perception that it's the police's responsibility to fix it," Taylor said.

But Frank Bradley, the president of Western Security Systems in Steamboat, thinks the problem lies with a few bad-apple security companies that don't have service departments in the city.

"The whole alarm industry has been degraded by some chief companies that come in and install cheap alarms," he said.

In contrast, he said, Western Security Systems spends an hour training alarm owners. It also always tries to "root out the problem" of a malfunctioning alarm, he said.

Potential solutions

In trying to minimize false alarms, the key word among law enforcers seems to be accountability.

"Right now, your alarm can go off 25 times a day, and nothing will happen to you," Taylor said. "We've had malfunctioning alarms go off three or four times a week for months before the system is fixed. So we need to make the owner responsible for making sure the alarm is operating properly."

Other cities have come to the same conclusion. Boulder, for example, instituted a new policy June 1. It mandates that if the same alarm erroneously goes off three times in six months, the police will stop responding to it until the owner documents that it has been fixed.

"Without any pressure or penalties, there's no reason for the owner to fix the problem or train the people using the alarm. It would keep going off, and we would keep responding," Boulder Police Commander Molly Bernard said.

The city's policy also stipulates that alarm-company employees first try to contact the alarm's owner before they call police. Because user error causes most false alarms, a quick call to the owner can save police a trip, Bernard said.

The policy has been effective, she said. In the first month under the new policy, nine businesses had three false alarms, and police suspended responses to them. The businesses were mailed notification of the suspensions July 2, and by July 20, four of them had fixed the problems, Bernard said.

Before its current policy, Boulder police charged owners increasing fees for malfunctioning alarms. They abandoned the fee system, however, because it was too labor-intensive to enforce.

"We didn't have the staff to track the billing process and play collection agent. It had no teeth," Bernard said.

Policies similar or stricter to Boulder's new guidelines also have been enacted by the Westminster Police Department, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, the Lakewood Police Department and even law enforcers in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.

In Westminster, the alarm company must contact the owner first, and police only respond if someone has witnessed the intrusion, if two alarm zones are activated (for example, a door alarm and a motion detector) or at officer discretion.

According to a statement by the Lakewood Police Department, its new method of responding only to verified alarms has dropped the false-alarm rate "dramatically" with "no increase in the incidence of burglary."

If Steamboat considered a similar policy requiring the alarm company to call the owner first, Bradley said he would not support it.

"Most of the homes are owned by people who live outside Steamboat most of the year. If we spend 15 minutes trying to verify what's going on, that's 15 minutes less the police have to respond," he said.

He also doesn't think it's necessary for police to suspend response to chronically malfunctioning alarms.

"We've always had a relationship with police where they call and say, 'This house is being a problem. Can you check it out?'" Bradley said.

Members of the task force studying the false alarm problem will seek opinions such as Bradley's at their next meeting, which will be held before September.

"We're inviting larger security companies like ADT to the table to work with them to come up with some ideas on solving the problem," Warner said.

Whether their work leads to state legislation or individual county ordinances, task force members hope to develop concrete methods for curbing the deluge of false alarms. In the meantime, Taylor said owners should learn to properly operate their alarms.

"Having an alarm is a good thing, but with owning an alarm comes responsibility. You need to keep it in good working order," Taylor said.

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