City cracks down on false alarms

Published 9:44 pm Tuesday, February 10, 2009

In the last two years, the Suffolk Police Department has responded to 15 calls per day originating from burglary, robbery and panic alarms at Suffolk homes and businesses.

About 95 percent of those calls – 10,400 – were false alarms. The calls used up the time of more than 26,000 officers. One residence had 19 false alarms in one two-month period.

The department hopes to put a stop to that trend with education.

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Last year, the city council passed an ordinance that allows fees to be assessed upon home- and business-owners who continually allow their alarm systems to register false alarms.

There are a number of reasons that false alarms can happen, said Capt. Stephanie Burch, of the Suffolk Police Department.

One of the biggest causes, Burch said, is a lack of maintenance on alarm equipment. Changing the battery at least every year can prevent false alarms, because most alarm will register an alarm when the electric power goes out, if they cannot access the battery backup.

Other reasons for false alarms typically include:

4Having a motion detector activated, but letting pets run around

4Leaving windows open so that curtains can blow

4Manufacturer installation errors, such as setting contact points on doors too tightly

4Giving somebody access to your house without giving them the proper alarm code

“Much of it is very, very preventable with responsible installation and responsible usage,” Burch said.

The ordinance passed last year requires alarm system vendors and owners to be registered with the police department for renewable one-year periods. Alarm system vendors will be releasing the names and addresses of their clients to the city, which will send out notices letting the owners know of upcoming informational meetings.

The first session is scheduled for Feb. 17, from 6 to 7 p.m., at Suffolk Police Sector Two, located at 3901 Bridge Road. The second will be held Feb. 18, from 6 to 7 p.m., at Suffolk Police Sector One, located at 230 E. Washington St.

Owners of residential and commercial alarms are encouraged to attend and ask questions. Burch said education and responsible usage are essential to cutting down the number of false alarms.

If education isn’t enough to reduce false alarms, the fees might be. The ordinance allows registered alarm owners one false burglary alarm without a charge. After that warning, the second false alarm can result in a $25 fee; the third, $50; and the fourth or subsequent, $100. For a false robbery or panic alarm, the first gets a warning; the second, $50; the third, $100; and the fourth or subsequent, $200. For those who aren’t registered, every occurrence of a false alarm can cost $100.

Robbery or panic alarms are most often used by businesses with large amounts of cash, such as banks, convenience stores, grocery stores, check-cashing and payday loan establishments, or other places that frequently are robbed by armed suspects. They require a more expensive fee, because more officers respond to the calls, and the officers responding use lights and sirens.

“There is greater opportunity for them to get hurt in their response,” Burch said.

She stressed that the city is not trying to discourage the use of alarm systems – only to make the owners more responsible and aware of the maintenance and care necessary to keep the systems working well.

She referenced a case just last week where an alarm system scared off a criminal who kicked in the door of a house while the owners were out, likely intending to steal valuables.

“It’s what scared the offender away,” she said. “Alarms are good, and they’re valuable; they just need to be used in a way that’s beneficial to the citizen, as well as the police department.”