False alarm

November 14, 2003

A BELATED brouhaha about Baltimore City's penalties on false alarms is much ado about nothing. Cities and counties across the country have adopted similar fines because cash penalties are the best way to reduce chronic false alarms, which are costly and which unnecessarily divert police and firefighters from real emergencies.

In April 2002, when Baltimore's false-alarm ordinance was approved, it was so uncontroversial that only one City Council member voted against it. But now that police are finally getting around to sending residents bills for the annual $20 registration fee, throngs of homeowners are upset.

Chill out, folks. However strongly you may feel about these fees, they are unlikely to go away as long as false alarms keep ringing in this cash-strapped city.

Last year, Baltimore City's 129,000 false-alarm calls cost the police and fire departments more than $5 million, officials estimate. That comes to about $40 a call and explains why the city wants to charge residential users $50 for their third false alarm. The fines then go up progressively to $1,000 for the 14th false alarm. Fines for businesses are even stiffer.

These amounts are in line with similar penalty charges in surrounding metropolitan counties. They, too, are having headaches with false alarms.

After the current system has operated for a full year, the Baltimore City Council should re-examine it and review the penalty amounts. Also, perhaps the registration fee ought to be changed from an annual obligation to a one-time fee, as is the case in Howard County.

Overall, though, residents have a choice: They can subscribe to an alarm service and make sure that it works properly, or they can choose not to have alarm devices, figuring that paying insurance deductibles is cheaper in the long run than shelling out money for annual registration, monthly service fees and possible fines.

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