False Alarms: Cause for Alarm

By Moslow, John J. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, November 1994 | Go to article overview

False Alarms: Cause for Alarm


Moslow, John J., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Today's police officers respond to approximately 13.7 million emergency alarm calls nationwide each year. Ninety-eight percent of those calls are unnecessary for one reason or another. To some, these numbers may appear relatively benign when compared to other crime statistics of concern to the public and law enforcement.

In reality, however, false alarms present a serious threat to the effectiveness of police departments and to the safety of the communities they serve. Ironically, this threat stems from the desire of many citizens and businesses to protect themselves better from crime. While media reports focus on increases in violent crime, the rate of property crime has risen even more dramatically, from 1,726 per 100,000 citizens in 1960 to 4,903 per 100,000 in 1992.(1)

One direct result of this upsurge in property crime has been an explosion in the number of monitored alarm systems. It is projected that by the end of 1995, police departments will be responding to a staggering 40 million emergency alarm calls.(2) Unless communities take action to bring the number of false alarms under control, police officers soon may find themselves devoting much of their time responding to false alarm calls, or in effect, working for private security companies.

The larger threat, however, is to the citizens who have become so fearful of crime. As police resources become strained beyond capacity, the safety of all citizens is unduly jeopardized by the rising number of false alarms.

LOCAL FALSE ALARM ORDINANCES

To address the problem, many municipalities have taken the initiative and enacted false alarm ordinances. Are these ordinances effective in reducing the number of false alarm calls? Are they cost-effective and worth the effort? Most important, do they ultimately enhance or diminish citizen safety? Because the ordinances reflect a variety of approaches and differ considerably in scope and effectiveness, police executives should be familiar with the range of false alarm ordinances enacted.

Case Study: Amherst, New York

The town of Amherst, located in western New York, implemented an "avoidable alarm ordinance" in 1993. Amherst is one of the most affluent and fastest-growing communities in the region. The construction of upscale residential subdivisions and a boom in commercial retail development coincided with an increase in demand for police service.

The Amherst Police Department, comprised of 147 sworn officers, responds to an average of 50,000 calls for service annually. Statistics verify that a growing number of these calls result from the triggering of private alarms. Responses to alarm calls increased from 15 percent of the total number of calls for service in 1988 to 18 percent in 1992.

The town organized an alarm ordinance committee to address the issue of false alarms. The "avoidable alarm ordinance" became effective on January 1, 1993. This ordinance specifies no charge for the first five false alarms, a $25 charge for the sixth and seventh, and a $50 fine for every false alarm thereafter.

By April 1, 1993, the police department designed and integrated an alarm notification and billing program into its existing computer-aided dispatch and records management systems. The program required a minimal number of clerical staff hours for managing the statistical data and billing. Still, it proved very successful: From April through December 1993, the ordinance generated nearly $19,000 in fines.

More important, these measures reduced the number of false alarms. During the last 9 months of 1993, the number of false alarms fell by 223 when compared to the same period in 1992. Although the reduction may appear rather modest (six fewer alarms per week), the ordinance succeeded in curtailing the upward trend of false alarms and effected a decrease in calls, even as the number of new alarm installations continued to grow.

Other Municipalities

The measures adopted by the town of Amherst, while effective, are considerably less stringent than those of other municipalities. …

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