February 1, 2005 > Editorial: Fremont Pulls The Plug on Alarms
Editorial: Fremont Pulls The Plug on Alarms
Most of us have been frustrated by car burglar alarms screeching, beeping and belching because a heavy truck has passed by, someone bumped the car or for no apparent reason. Imagine the problem faced by the Fremont Police Department when, according to Chief Craig Steckler, 98.5 percent of alarms his department responds to are false. He has made the decision to only answer calls that are the result of a panic alarm, duress, robbery or "verified" by an audio or video feed and eyewitness report of an "unusual occurrence." When faced with the overwhelming false alarm statistics, it is hard to fault this conclusion.
However, a rebuttal at a recent city council meeting was only answered in part. A citizen asked if the city could elevate false alarm fines to not only discourage improper use and poor maintenance but also cover the cost of these calls. People who buy alarms for their business or residence may prefer the extra cost of a listening or visual device monitored by the alarm company. If someone chooses a simple device and is willing to pay the cost associated with false alarms, let them foot the bill and understand that the police will respond, but in a limited manner.
The Fremont Police Department press release stated that there are 7,000 alarm calls during the year and 98.5 percent of them are false. This means that 6,895 calls should be charged a false alarm fee. Why not charge a first time false alarm fee of $100 and each successive false call an additional $50 (or more)? The second call would be $150 and the third $200 and so on. If the alternative to this fee was a more expensive system that used verifiable criteria, it doesn't take a math wizard to figure that soon habitual alarm violators would convert. Market demand would encourage alarm companies to expand their services to include verifiable alarms or lose business. While false alarm income may be substantial, the drain on police services reduces citizen safety margins to unacceptable levels. The idea is to quickly encourage those with alarms to switch to better systems and demand more services from the alarm industry.
A curious twist to this new policy is the timing of a letter sent to permitted alarm owners and alarm companies on Jan. 19, 2005 then a press release dated Jan. 20, 2005. The media immediately picked up on the story and national attention focused on Fremont. The blitzkrieg of policy change was unleashed on a city that had no forewarning and suddenly found itself subjected to hysterical media sound bytes. Now Chief Steckler must explain and defend his actions to an anxious public who is responding to media primarily interested in selling newspapers or attracting viewers to their television or radio programs.
The issue of false alarms and the costs of response are not new, nor is the Fremont Police Department response novel. Police organizations and alarm industry professionals have been debating how to reduce the incidences of false alarms for years. The fact is that rates of false alarms are high and without verification, police are spending unnecessary time investigating non-events. As technology progresses, so should the services offered by the alarm industry. Cooperation between the alarm industry and police services is vital; public information, provided in a non-threatening and thoughtful manner, is essential to public confidence. The International Association of Police Chiefs stated that many states require licensing and training of alarm system installers. Likewise, many states treat deliberate sounding of false alarms as an offense. However, few states have established laws governing unintentional false alarms. Meanwhile, the costs to municipalities who respond to nuisance calls continue to escalate.
A Model Burglar Alarm Ordinance has been prepared through a joint effort between the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA) and the False Alarm Reduction Association (FARA). An introductory statement says, "Both the NBFAA and the FARA strongly believe that false alarm reduction should be a cooperative effort among all parties involved (i.e., the alarm industry, law enforcement officials, and the Alarm User). To that end, we strongly suggest that, before attempting to implement any ordinance designed to reduce the incidence of False Alarms, your municipality form an Alarm Advisory Board."
An Alarm Advisory Board to sort out the data and provide citizen input and guidance could be a viable solution to the issue. Why not give this a try? Mayor Wasserman, a former police chief, and Chief Steckler should be able to come up with a satisfactory formula for participation and duration.