False alarms fall

Published 7:04 pm Saturday, June 21, 2014

Police call billing program a success

Five years after the implementation of the city’s false alarm ordinance, police department officials call it a success.

Requiring residents and businesses to register their burglar alarm systems, and fining people whose systems summon police needlessly, has reduced the overall number of alarm calls, Maj. Stephanie Burch said, although the percentage of false alarms has stayed about the same.

“We’ve reduced them overall, which is a benefit to our efficiency in terms of our ability to handle other calls,” Burch said. “You send two officers to every false alarm, because you never know when it’s going to be legitimate. When we deploy two officers out of a squad of eight or nine officers working in that particular area, that’s a pretty big chunk being wasted for what is — 97 percent of the time — false.”

Email newsletter signup

The goal of the false alarm ordinance was to reduce the number of false alarms, which Burch said it has done. In the 12 months before the ordinance was implemented, police responded to more than 6,000 false alarms — more than 16 per day — but in fiscal year 2013 there were less than half that number.

False alarms can be caused by a number of issues, from poor installation or maintenance to someone who is permitted access to the home but doesn’t know the code.

The program requires alarm system owners to register their systems and pay a $10 annual fee — down from $25 at the start of the program. This aspect of the program has been criticized by some who say they’re being punished for a problem they haven’t caused. As of May 31 of this year, 45 percent of the systems registered had never sent even one false alarm.

But the city says the purpose of registration is to pay for the cost of the program and enable the police department to match up violators and bill them for the fines.

There is no fine for the first false alarm. But the second one draws a $50 fine, with a $100 fine for the third and $150 for the fourth and all subsequent false alarms. There are late fees for not paying the fines, and an unregistered system that gives a false alarm will cost its owner $100 per response. There are fees for alarm companies, too, from annual registration to a fine for not providing a list of Suffolk customers.

City Council increased the fees for false alarms to put more responsibility on violators, city spokeswoman Diana Klink said.

The program has brought in more than $942,000 since its inception, according to numbers provided by the city. The private, third-party billing company has received $274,000 of that total.

But Burch said the motivation for the program wasn’t money.

“The program was really never about the funding so much as it was making sure that alarm owners were responsible, and the people who were receiving the service from the department were paying for the service,” she said.

“If we were to have somebody that called the police, and 97 percent of the time they were wrong, they were lying and fraudulent, we would count that a problem and we would do something about it.”

Burch also said the program has required alarm companies to install and maintain their systems, educate their customers and keep records in a more responsible fashion.

“We want to make sure they’re not doing it in a haphazard, fly-by-night kind of way,” she said. “It was a multi-faceted tool to reduce false alarms at every point of origin.”