Magazine article Regulation

Not Calling the Police (First): A Market for Response Would Lower the Public Cost of False Alarms. (Law Enforcement)

Magazine article Regulation

Not Calling the Police (First): A Market for Response Would Lower the Public Cost of False Alarms. (Law Enforcement)

Article excerpt

COMMUNITIES ACROSS THE UNITED States created and operate 911 emergency communication systems to provide prompt response for medical, fire, and law enforcement emergencies. Many of those systems have carried heavy call loads for years, but they have become even more burdened after September 11, as callers report suspicious activities that they fear might be linked to terrorism.

The burden on the nation's 911 systems would be lessened significantly if there were a decrease in the number of incoming non-emergency calls and false fire and burglar alarms. For example, 53 percent of 911 calls in Atlanta during 1997 were of a non-emergency nature. In 2000, Philadelphia police reported that 96 percent of fire alarms, 97 percent of burglar alarms, and 75 percent of medical alarms turned Out to be of a non-event nature. Those false alarms and non-emergency calls place an enormous burden on emergency services providers and the public; each response consumes valuable resources and subtracts from the manpower that could be mustered for real emergencies.

One especially costly form of non-emergency call is police response to activated home and business burglar alarms. Police response to burglar alarms constitutes 10 to 20 percent of all police calls, but 94 to 99 percent of those alarms turn out to be false. For example, in DeKalb, Ga., in 2000, only 39 out of over 144,000 alarm calls were actual or attempted burglaries. That same year, 97.5 percent of 30,000 police responses to burglar alarms in Seattle were false, and only 40 burglars were actually apprehended. Chicago police annually respond to over 300,000 alarms, 98 percent of which are false.

Those false activations involve significant cost. In 2000, total national cost for responding to 36 million false burglar alarms was $1.8 billion. If the alarm problem did not exist, at least 35,000 officers could be shifted to other duties. Those financial and manpower costs prove especially burdensome for police departments in large cities. For example, the Seattle Police Department calculated that, on average, it cost the department $52 to respond to each false alarm in 2000. And the police were not the only emergency service providers affected by the alarms; the city's 911 center spent $303,237 processing alarm calls in 2000, most of which were false.

Undercurrent conditions, police response to false alarms yields no benefits to the community. Instead, response is an earmarked service to the alarm owner that slows overall police response because of the large number of false alarms. Accordingly, few burglars "on the job" are apprehended. Thus, the effectiveness of burglar alarms in capturing or deterring burglars is modest, and the cost per arrested burglar is high. In Seattle, the cost per burglar for the 40 who were apprehended during alarm calls in 2000 was $38,500.


Local governments have attempted many "solutions" to the false alarm problem. Those include fines for false alarms, education programs for alarm owners, a cessation of response services for repeat false activators, the imposition of registration fees on alarm ownership, and even mandates that calls for alarm response come over "900" phone lines. None of those "solutions" has achieved more than short-term success.

Fines Local governments that implement false alarm fines typically allow an alarm owner three "free passes" per year. (Public and religious institutions often enjoy unlimited free response.) Additional false activations result in a fine of either a standard amount or at an escalating rate. New Orleans, for example, provides five responses per year at no charge, but then assesses a fine of $25 for false alarms six to 14, and $75 for 15 to 20 in a year. The city ceases response after 20 false alarms.

Punitive policies range from simply refusing to respond after a certain number of false activations in a year to possible arrest of the alarm owner. …

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