False-alarm calls drop with fines, police say

Balto. County's law aims to stop repeat offenders

April 26, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

A new Baltimore County law that fines businesses with more than two false-alarm calls is working -- the number of false alarms dropped more than 6 percent in February and March, police said.

By the end of last month, police had issued 2,351 citations for false-alarm calls. Equally significant was the number of false-alarm calls that were canceled before the officer arrived -- it doubled for the first three months of this year, according to police.

"Before, if your alarm went off, it was no big deal," said county Police Chief Terrence B. Sheridan. "Now, they've been educated -- it is a big deal. The word is getting out that this is a problem."

The problem is a national one. When the cost of burglar alarms dropped in the 1980s, their popularity rose dramatically -- from 1.5 million alarm systems in homes and businesses in 1985 to almost 27 million last year, according to the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association.

As the numbers increased, so did false alarms. Police across the country say the spectral electronic wails triggered by weather, pets, electronic malfunctions and human error pull police from the serious business of fighting crime.

Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New Orleans are among cities that impose fines for repeated false alarms. Baltimore County is the fifth in Maryland to pass a law punishing repeat false-alarm offenders. Montgomery County's law, passed in 1981 and amended in 1993, became a national model for such legislation. Harford and Prince George's counties have fined offenders for several years, and Charles County passed a law last year.

Baltimore, which had almost 127,000 false-alarm calls last year, is considering enacting an ordinance, city officials said.

In Baltimore County, false-alarm calls exceeded crime calls last year, Sheridan said -- 86,499 false alarms were called in compared with 79,781 calls about crimes. The wasted time and resources cost the county millions of dollars each year, he said.

The new county law was intended to reduce that problem. Beginning Dec. 14, the county applied progressive fines to businesses with more than two false alarms. On July 1, the law will be expanded to cover homeowners -- who account for the majority of false-alarm calls in the county.

Ice storms and power outages increased false alarms by 17 percent in January, police said. But the numbers improved in February, when false-alarm calls declined to 5,929 from 6,327 recorded a year earlier. The improvement continued last month, when calls fell to 7,006, compared with 7,491 a year earlier.

"We have turned a corner, I believe," said Steven R. Heggemann, who manages the county Police Department's false-alarm reduction team.

Under the law, alarm owners are required to register with the county. The homeowner should call the alarm provider and request a registration form, Heggemann said.

The fine structure works this way: The first two false alarms are free, and the third brings a $50 fine. It increases by $50 for each additional call up to eight, police said. The ninth false alarm is $400, and the fine increases by $100 to a maximum of $1,000 for the 14th call.

Police have issued citations totaling $392,500 in fines, Heggemann said. The money goes into the county's general revenue fund.

A false alarm triggered by weather conditions will not result in a fine, police said. Nor will a false alarm in which the alarm company notifies police before the officer arrives at the scene that the alarm was sounded in error.

Sheridan and Heggemann noted that the number of canceled calls rose dramatically in the first three months of this year -- from 242 last year to 476 this year, a 96 percent increase.

Such cancellations represent a savings, police said, because the officer does not have to walk through a building.

Pub Date: 4/26/99

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