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 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.

Responding to false alarms diverts police resources from service to the community as a whole to service for a select group of people – alarm users. Alarm response is the only type of call for service the police have traditionally responded to without a person being present to verify the need for police presence, and it is also the only type of call for police service that is unnecessary anywhere close to 99.7% of the time. That led us to the core premise of our program – that false alarm response is not a basic police service. Alarm users are the customers of alarm companies, not the City or the police. In Olympia, unverified police response to alarms is a privilege the City and PD grant to alarm users with two provisos. First, alarm users must pay for the entire cost of the service – program administration and response to any false alarms. Second, alarm users must demonstrate good stewardship of their alarm systems by not having too many false alarms. To those ends, we have an annual registration fee that is based on what it actually costs us to administer the program. We also have a service fee for false alarm responses that reflects our actual cost of providing the service, and alarm users are charged that fee for every false alarm response they generate. Alarm users are permitted three false alarm responses in a calendar year, after which they lose the privilege of police as a first response option (are "suspended") for 90 days or until the end of the calendar year – whichever is greater. If they are suspended three times in any five year period, they are "revoked" – i.e., they are no longer eligible for police first response to their alarm system. If an alarm user has fees outstanding at the time they need to re-register, they are suspended until their fees have been paid in full. Alarm users are responsible for making their own arrangements for unverified first response if their registration is suspended or revoked.

Alarm users do not have register with the City or use police for first response. They can opt to hire private security to be first responders or they can rely on neighbors. But, in those instances, police will only respond to alarms that have been verified by a person present at the alarm site (i.e., the same standard of reporting we require for all other calls for service).

When we developed this program, we used a process that involved representatives from the industry, from residential alarm users (including several representatives from the senior community), commercial alarm users, schools, State government (we’re the State capital, so this was important) and from citizens who were not alarm users. That group met several times over the course of a year (mostly in 2003) to craft the program, and there certainly were some areas where there was controversy. All in all, though, there was broad agreement on some central themes. Among those were that taxpayers generally should not subsidize specialized services provided only to those who chose to own and could afford to own private alarm systems – either directly or indirectly, and that those who used the specialized services should pay for them. The alarm industry was prepared to take an active role in making the program work, and they contributed a number of suggestions to help make the program stronger. Particularly important in that regard was our agreement that we would require enhanced call verification (ECV); the installation of the most contemporary ANSI panels (currently CP-01); and the installation of devices for activating robbery and panic alarms that required two actions. (The installation requirements were for all new installs and for any system upgrades done after a certain date.) They also agreed to have consumers sign an affidavit prior to signing a contract for monitoring, for installation of new equipment/systems or for installation of upgrades that verified that the customer understood the obligations involved in the City’s alarm program and realized that unverified first response by police was a privilege that could be lost.

After the work group completed its task, the City Council held a public hearing prior to adopting the ordinance in July, 2004. We had done a lot of public information work during the whole process, and there was little opposition to the proposed program at the public hearing. There was good editorial support from the local newspaper throughout the process, too – which undoubtedly helped community understanding of the issues and the proposal. We spent the last half of 2004 and the first months of 2005 setting up the logistics of the program and doing more community education. We gave "warning notices" starting in May, 2005, and then started the full program in earnest in July, 2005.

McConnell: What has been the result of the new measures that were put in place?

Machlan: The results so far have been very good, and we’re far enough down the line now, that I feel pretty comfortable that we’re not just experiencing a "honeymoon" period. 2006 was our first full year of the program, and in that 12-month period, we averaged 51 false alarm responses per month (613 total for the year) – a 79% reduction from the 1999-2003 five-year monthly average. That reduced level extends back to when we actually started the program in July, 2005, as well. We are averaging 31.5 per month for the first two months of this year. In addition, we recovered $38,814 in service fees in 2006 (our ordinance mandates that the revenues from false alarm service fees must be spent on public safety) and paid for the entire administration of the program with registration fees.

We use a private vendor for 99% of our alarm administration. Alarm businesses bill their own customers for annual registration, which ensures that all of their customers are properly registered and saves the City the cost of having a duplicate billing system. One police employee spends an hour or two a week supporting our entire program.

McConnell: How would you describe the relationship between the Olympia Police Department and the local burglar alarm companies (both installation companies and central stations)?  Has the relationship changed at all over the years?

Machlan: The industry has been a full partner with us in this, and they deserve immense credit for helping it succeed. There were a few companies who were pretty skeptical at the beginning. Worried, I believe, that they would lose customers in the much tougher environment we had created. A few months into the program, though, and the skepticism was pretty much gone, and now I don’t think we have any company that is uncomfortable with the system. We continue to find ways to refine the program, and our good working relationship carries over into being able to make adjustments very easily. The local industry has really stepped up and taken responsibility for managing their customers. My understanding is that the industry now actually has better leverage with difficult customers because of the program. Much of the time, alarm businesses are able to get chronic false alarm violators to convert voluntarily to private security options – due in part, at least, to the fact that it’s a cheaper option than paying us for the service. We’ve always known intuitively that a relatively few chronic violators generate the vast majority of false alarms. Our experience is confirming that bit of knowledge and giving our alarm business partners the ammunition they need to work effectively with the chronic offenders without jeopardizing the credibility of their system or their relationship with the PD.

McConnell: Do you think that burglar alarms add security to a home? 

Machlan: Absolutely alarms add to the security of a home or business. That said, people need to understand that the value of a security system is only as good as its credibility with the police, and chronic false alarming is the equivalent of crying "wolf" too many times. It is critical that people who choose to own and operate alarms understand that there is a very high level of responsibility and accountability that goes along with alarm ownership. Our program is predicated on the fact that alarm owners, properly aware of their responsibilities and clearly accountable for the consequences of poor stewardship, will do the right thing and reduce the waste of public resources caused by false alarms. So far, our theory seems to be correct.

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-Greg

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