Four years ago, Howard County Councilman Vernon C. Gray introduced a measure to license security systems and to fine owners whose alarms habitually rang false. But after some debate, not one county council member, save for Mr. Gray, voted for the proposed regulations.
As time has passed, it has been the police department -- and ultimately the citizens of Howard County -- who have paid for that missed opportunity.
The Gray bill was never perfect. Its fine system -- $75 for every third false alarm in a 30-day period or fifth alarm in a 12-month period -- would still have allowed abusers to slip through the cracks. Plus, the requirement that all security systems be licensed and periodically inspected would have placed an enormous strain on the county's license and inspections division.
Nevertheless, the Gray bill stands as the only attempt thus far to curb the problem in Howard County. The enormous growth in the security systems business over the past 10 years has, in fact, made false alarms a national concern, taxing police departments everywhere. Where penalties have been assessed -- Montgomery County, for example -- officials are claiming some success. Baltimore County officials are currently reviewing legislation that would charge security companies a fee for every alarm call made to police; that proposal gathered steam after a 1994 incident in Randallstown, in which a malfunctioning system blared for days at the home of a man who was overseas.
But in Howard County, where police reported nearly 18,500 false alarms in 1994 and are recording a similar pace this year, the problem is growing unchecked. With officers responding to up to 75 false alarms a day, the equivalent of one officer's entire shift is wasted daily chasing bogus burglaries. The result is a police force not only drained of valuable resources but becoming increasingly apathetic to these alarms. And if officers assume that every burglar alarm is false, human nature may cause them to drop their guard that one time when the alarm is for real. The potential for injury or loss of life should outweigh any of the concerns about the costs involved in insisting that the owners of security systems act responsibly. Mr. Gray says he will introduce his bill again this fall. We hope the issue is taken more seriously.