Patrol: False Alarms

By Sharp, Arthur G. | Law & Order, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Patrol: False Alarms


Sharp, Arthur G., Law & Order


Rate of false alarms is well, alarming

They're the three words police dispatchers most commonly hear from patrol officers who have responded to activated home or business security alarms.

Those words are proof that officers have responded to a security alarm activation call that proved unfounded-for which the owner might have to pay a fine. The number of such calls is growing each year.

Do they constitute a major problem for law enforcement agencies by taking up time and resources that could be allocated elsewhere and putting responding officers at additional risk? That is a subject of some debate.

A recent survey of randomly selected law enforcement agencies upon which this article is based revealed that 96 percent of the activated alarms to which police respond are false. That is certainly nothing new. The problem of false alarms has vexed police for years.

Some of the respondents date their written policies pertaining to false alarms and fines policies back as early as 1984. Representative departments include Fort Worth, Texas (1984); Ripon, Wis.; Tampa, Fla.; and St. Peters, Mo. (1985), Palm Beach County, Fla. (1988), and Smyrna, Ga. (more than ten years). No matter how these departments formulate their false alarms percentages, though, they remain consistently high.

Police departments use a variety of methods to calculate their percentages. The bulk of them use the industry standard, i.e., the number of false dispatches per individual installation per year. The second largest group simply divides the number of false alarms by the number of total calls. A third group does not compile percentages; they simply track the number of false alarms. Regardless of methods used, the percentages and numbers are remarkably consistent.

Consider these examples (with percentage of false calls in parentheses): Watervliet, NY (99); Waterville, Maine (98); Palm Beach, Fla., Sheriff's Office (99.7); Smyrna, Ga. (95-98); Salt Lake City, Utah (99); Hobbs, NM (98); Fort Worth, Texas (98.6); Annapolis, Md. (90). Among those reporting numbers only: Des Plaines, Ill. (4,000-5,000 per year); Ft. Myers, Fla. (400-500 per month); Enid, Okla. (2,879 in a year).

"So what?" some people may ask. "It's the police department's job to respond to activated alarms." That's true, of course. As Chief Frank A. Croft, Palm Beach, Fla., stressed, "We respond to all calls for service." But there are problems associated with the high rate of false alarms, for both the police and the alarm owners.

First, there is the potential danger to responding officers' wellbeing. For example, two Topeka, Kan., police officers responding via helicopter to a burglar alarm on June 13, 2000, died when their chopper crashed. The call turned out to be a false alarm. Certainly, such incidents are not common, but even one death or injury is too many in administrators' opinions. More common is the cost in wasted time and personnel utilization. Responding to false alarms inhibits police responses to other calls and poses dangers to officers.

Seventy-five percent of the respondents indicated that the high rate of false alarms puts their officers at risk when responding to calls. Officer Daniel Clark, Community Services Section, Flint, Mich., Police Department, put that in perspective. "Any false call to the police is an expensive waste of valuable time," he advised. "In 1999, over 13 percent of the Troy Police Department's calls for service were to false alarms; 99.7 percent of the total alarm calls were false." He concluded that, "This is simply too great a strain on limited resources." Other administrators agreed.

According to Chief Stanley Hook, Smyrna, Ga., "False alarms are constantly a drain on budget and manpower. We are one of the few departments which still responds to alarms-- but I doubt that we'll be able to continue this policy much longer." It is not likely that police departments will stop responding to activated burglar alarms completely, but they may place them at the bottom of their priority lists, as some departments have done already. …

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