False alarms in county declining

Wasted police calls cut by prospect of fines

August 04, 1999|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Nobody likes even the threat of a fine.

A new Baltimore County law fining businesses for more than two false-alarm calls appears to be working, freeing Baltimore County police officers who wasted time responding to the calls.

From January through June, the number of false-alarm calls dropped to 39,693, from 42,970 for the same period last year, according to a report released by county police this week. Police say they might answer 10,000 fewer alarm calls than they had expected for this year.

"It allows the county, the Police Department and the precinct commanders to dedicate their resources toward crime prevention and increasing arrests," said Steve Heggemann, who manages the county Police Department's false-alarm reduction team. "What good does a false alarm generate? Absolutely none. Everybody loses."

Under the law, the first two false alarms carry no penalty, but a third brings a $50 fine. The fine increases by $50 for each additional false alarm up to eight, with subsequent fines becoming progressively steeper.

Most of the businesses violating the law have been issued warnings, according to the report.

The problem of false alarms has increased across the United States, as the cost of burglar alarms has declined steadily since the 1980s. More than 27 million homes and businesses had alarm systems last year, compared with 1.5 million in 1985.

In Baltimore County, the 86,499 false alarms last year topped the 79,781 calls about crime.

"It costs billions of dollars nationwide for response to an alarm activation where there's absolutely no reason for [police] to be on the scene," said Norma Beaubien, president of the False Alarm Reduction Association, based in Rockville.

The majority of false alarms are caused by equipment malfunction, user error or weather, she said. Many of last winter's false alarms in Baltimore County were attributed to power outages, according to the report.

Before the law took effect in December, residents had no incentive for fixing a faulty alarm, said Michael H. Davis, a spokesman for County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger.

"The intention of the bill was always to change behavior," Davis said.

On July 1, police also began enforcing the law for homeowners, but they have not calculated the impact of the effort. While residential alarm systems outnumber commercial systems, they create fewer problems per alarm system than those at businesses, Heggemann said.

"It really comes down to the alarm users paying attention to their systems," he said. "And then everyone wins."

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