Silencing False Alarms

June 03, 1994

The recent episode of the Randallstown burglar alarm that wouldn't shut up isn't your typical false alarm story. Indeed, many people (none of them Randallstowners) found it a mildly amusing tale.

To police departments nationwide, though, false alarms are no laughing matter. As the fear of crime scares more homeowners into buying burglar alarm systems -- 8 percent of U.S. homes were wired in 1992, a figure expected to approach 20 percent by 2000 -- the number of false alarm calls has consequently increased. In Baltimore County, for example, the police responded to 62,663 false calls last year, up from 49,112 in 1990. The number is projected to top 115,000 in 2003.

Amazingly, 98 percent of the burglar alarm calls to which county police respond are false, according to Police Chief Michael D. Gambrill. This situation not only diverts police and vehicles from real crimes, it also instills apathy in officers.

A few years ago, Maryland's General Assembly passed a law enabling local jurisdictions to fine home and business owners whose burglar alarms ring falsely on a regular basis. Yet Baltimore County police don't even bother tracking or enforcing such offenses because of a lack of staff. The department has therefore proposed a unique solution that would spare personnel by automatically fining alarm companies responsible for false calls.

A draft of the proposal calls for alarm professionals to be licensed and held to new, tougher standards. The bill's main component is the creation of a 900 telephone number that would have to be dialed by any alarm company monitor who calls the police. (Currently, when an alarm is set off -- by equipment failure, user error or an actual burglar -- the alarm monitor phones police headquarters. A police unit is then dispatched to the site of the alarm.) The cost per call would be about $20 to the company, with most of the fee going to the police. More important from the department's perspective, the fees should force the alarm companies to improve their systems so as to keep from being charged for false calls.

One potential flaw in the police proposal is that companies could pass the cost of the fees onto their customers. Nonetheless, the companies must do something to correct this mounting problem, by doing better jobs of constructing and installing their systems and teaching their clients how to use them. The Baltimore County police department's proposed bill might be the best way to get the companies to meet these goals.

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