Bristol, Tenn., considering false alarm fees

Jan. 4--BRISTOL, Tenn. -- About 85 percent of all automatic alarm system calls that summon city police, fire and emergency services turn out to be false, according to data collected by the city.

To help those emergency departments recoup expenses for more than 1,250 false alarms a year, the City Council on Tuesday will consider reducing the allowable false alarms and adopting service fees for calls above that number.

"Obviously, no verification is required for fire, holdup, duress or panic alarms," Police Chief Blaine Wade said. "A lot of times, an alarm can trigger because of equipment failure. We send them out in good faith on any call. But you get the police department, fire department and EMS responding to this many false alarms and it gets costly."

City Manager Jeffrey Broughton, in a memo to council members, said the ordinance changes will give the city a tool to "reduce undesirable false alarms" and "enhance public safety response and resources."

The alarms in question are mechanical devices that, when activated, automatically call 911 or the alarm or security service that monitors the device. The ordinance amendment on the agenda Tuesday would not apply to emergency telephone calls.

Currently, the city's ordinance states that a violation occurs when a system issues three false alarms in a 30-day period, or eight in 12 months.

Wade said the ordinance is "extremely lenient." He said the police and fire departments in 2008 responded to 1,461 alarms, of which 201 had "any significance."

The amendment under consideration Tuesday would drop the limit for false alarms to three times in 12 months. Anything above that would be considered a violation. Additionally, the ordinance amendment would allow the city to assess the home or business owner whose alarm goes off but is found "non-verifiable" in violation of that three-a-year limit.

"Non-verifiable basically means that when we get there, we find the response was unnecessary," Wade said. "That's opposed to an alarm truly triggered by something where a report must be written. For instance, if we find a window has been busted out, and there's a possible burglary, or if we find evidence of a fire."

A false alarm will not be documented if a violent act of nature or other identifiable cause reasonably beyond the control of the alarm user activates the alarm.

Wade said that studies conducted nationwide show that more-accountable alarm ordinances in other cities have reduced false alarms, and he believes the proposed amendment would provide a 50 percent reduction in false alarms in the city.

City Attorney Jack Hyder said the earliest the new ordinance could go into effect is Feb. 20, and the fee for exceeding the maximum allowable false alarms hasn't been set.

"The fee will more than likely equal what it cost each department to respond, and that would vary by department," said Hyder, who helped draft the ordinance. "There may be three fire trucks sent out to one call, and there may be only one. But remember, when a fire truck is sent out an ambulance normally goes with it."