Steamboat fire, police chiefs want to impose fines for false alarm calls

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What: Steamboat Springs City Council meeting

When: The council first convenes as the Steamboat Springs Redevelopment Authority at 4 p.m. today. The regular council meeting begins at 5 p.m. today

Where: Centennial Hall, 124 10th St.

Agenda: Items include a first reading of the false alarm ordinance; approval of a grant resolution for improvements at the Steamboat Springs Airport; second reading of an ordinance granting non-exclusive franchise to Atmos Energy Corp. for construction, operation and maintenance of a natural gas system; and interview for the Steamboat Springs Planning Commission.

— 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 City Council tonight, 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.

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