Case Study: False alarms fought the law (and the law won)

Every now and then I have an interview where I'm like, "Gee, I wish I could put this entire thing in the magazine."  But in the real world, there simply isn't enough space to put full, unedited interviews in the magazine (unless we were to do...


Every now and then I have an interview where I'm like, "Gee, I wish I could put this entire thing in the magazine."  But in the real world, there simply isn't enough space to put full, unedited interviews in the magazine (unless we were to do away with the ads which I've been told would be a bad idea).

In this month's issue of Security Dealer I wrote an article about showing homeowners the value of burglar alarms.  In the sidebar, I featured a case study about how the Olympia Police Department in Washington state overcame a budget crisis caused by false alarms.  I interviewed Dick Machlan, manager of the Olympia PD's administrative services division.  Machlan, along with his colleague Laura Wohl, won this year's SIAC "Award of Distinction in Alarm Management."  The following interview gives an in-depth look at the problems that were facing the Olympia PD, and how Machlan worked together with colleagues and other community leaders to create a modern alarm ordinance that could, perhaps, be used as a model to be followed by other police departments with similar struggles.  (Yes, the following interview is a little long but I think it's a worthwhile read.  Besides, this is the web, so we've got the space.  Enjoy.)                

Greg McConnell, associate editor, Security Dealer magazine: Please briefly explain the history of police dispatches to burglar alarms in Olympia over the past 5-10 years.  When did your police department decide that false alarm police dispatches were a problem that needed to be dealt with?

Dick Machlan, manager, administrative services division, Olympia PD: From 1999-2003, Olympia PD responded to an average of 242.2 false alarms per month. During that period our false alarm rate was running consistently at 99.7% of all alarm calls. The alarm ordinance we had in place had been written in the mid-1980s, was cumbersome to administer and had little or no effect on our false alarm rate. By 2000, we had all but given up on trying to make our alarm ordinance work. It was simply not a deterrent, and, even when we assessed penalty fees, we had a terrible time collecting. In short, we were using up the equivalent time of two full-time officers each year chasing false alarms and we had an ordinance that cost far more just to administer than we collected in fines. In 2003, we went to our City Council with the problem because budgets were tightening and it was impossible to continue to justify spending the resources we were devoting to a task that was a waste of manpower 99.7% of the time. It was not a hard sell. Our Council fully agreed that the problem had to be addressed.

McConnell: How did the Olympia Police Department go about reducing the number of false alarm police dispatches?  Who was consulted and what measures were put into place?  When the measures were decided on, was there wide agreement or was it controversial?

Machlan: From our perspective, the program we developed was really not designed to reduce false alarm dispatches. It was designed to recover the cost of providing a specialized service. The fact that our program has reduced false alarms markedly is a great side-effect that we’re certainly proud of, but it was not (and is not) our (the PD’s) goal for the program. False alarm reduction is what’s of prime importance to the industry because it bolsters the credibility of security alarms. Cost recovery is what’s important to us, because it keeps us from having to use public money to subsidize private alarm service. Our program does both, so it serves both the industry and us very well.

This content continues onto the next page...