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Police Verify Dangers First to Reduce False Alarms

An Urban Institute report describes how three police departments saved time and money by reducing the incidence of false alarms.

When police investigate a triggered house or business alarm, they usually find it wasn’t caused by criminal activity. Blame the pet that sets off a sensor, the out-of-town guest who doesn’t know the alarm code or maybe a first-time user still learning how to activate the security system. Whatever the reason, between 90 and 99 percent of alarm calls to police end up being false, according to data collected by the Urban Institute.

Cities and counties could save money and improve public safety if they cut down on the incidence of those false alarms, according to a November 2012 report from the institute.

The authors reviewed case studies in Salt Lake City, Seattle and Montgomery County, Md., to showcase how three localities tackled the problem of false alarms.

The most dramatic improvements took place in Salt Lake City, where the city required registration of alarm companies and users, but also stopped dispatching police for an alarm until the security company confirmed that the call was real. Between 1998 and 2011, annual false alarms dropped 95 percent, from roughly 10,000 in 1998 to less than 500 in 2011. The authors estimate that the reduction in false alarms saved Salt Lake City about $508,000 per year.

Verified Response: Double-Checking Before Calling The Cops

Salt Lake City adopted an ordinance in 2000 that mimicked an existing practice in Las Vegas called verified response. Alarm companies could try to verify that the alarm was real by phone or video camera, but if the technology wasn’t available or didn’t prove sufficient, they would have to send out a private guard. The result was dramatic: a 90.5 percent reduction the first year the ordinance went into effect.

The policy shifted the responsibility of first responder for alarms from law enforcement to private guards, which might actually improve public safety in Salt Lake City.

“The guard response is faster than the police response because the police assign a low priority to alarm calls,” according to the report.

How much faster? The average response time for private guards in Salt Lake CIty is six to 13 minutes, whereas it takes police 40 minutes on average.

The authors noted that burglaries did not appear to increase as police set more stringent standards on which alarms warranted a response. In general, burglaries in Salt Lake City remained relatively flat from 1999 to 2010.

Seattle and Montgomery County also use a verified-response system, though they only require checking by phone and reviewing any video or audio recordings before dispatching police. 

The Salt Lake City approach to verified response does come with a potential drawback: The public may feel less safe. A 2006 survey by the Alarm Industry Research and Education Foundation found that about 30 percent of respondents -- all registered voters -- said they felt less protected after the Salt Lake City ordinance went into effect.

The survey also found that only 20 percent of respondents knew about the verified-response ordinance and most (65 percent) disapproved of it once they understood how it worked.

Stan Martin, executive director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, said local governments can avoid public outcry by focusing on permitting, customer education and fees (all approaches also endorsed by the Urban Institute report). Martin's group -- a national trade association -- also recommends exacting fines after the second false alarm at the same location and discontinuing police response if customers fail to pay fines or register for a permit. 

Charging Repeat Offenders

All three locations exact fees for false alarms. In Seattle, the $115 fee now nearly covers the cost of responding to false alarms ($123 cost to police per false alarm). In Montgomery County, the fees escalate for repeat false alarms from the same location, from $25 for a second false alarm at a residence to $1,000 for the 15th. The fees rise to $4,000 for the 20th false alarm at a commercial location.

Salt Lake City also used fees to discourage false alarms, but added its verified-response system after the fees didn’t drive down the number of false alarms enough.

The report also discusses the need for registration and licensing, which allow the police to identify and hold accountable the appropriate alarm company or user. Seattle also uses educational workshops for people and businesses that keep setting off alarms.

The study isn’t a scientific evaluation on the merits of the three approaches. It doesn’t compare treatment and control groups to determine how false alarms and associated labor costs might have decreased even without a change in false alarm policy, nor does it isolate for the effects of each component -- such as fees, escalating fees, verified-response techniques and educational workshops. Phil Schaenman, one of the report’s authors, said that level of analysis seemed unnecessary, given the “giant before-and-after effects.”

Schaenman said the lessons learned in Seattle, Salt Lake City and Montgomery County should have broad application elsewhere in the country.

“There’s every reason to believe that you’d have the same problems everywhere,” he said. In researching the case studies, he came across at least 30 other cities that use similar false-alarm reduction schemes.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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