Maryland city considering false alarm ordinance

Feb. 10--False alarm? It may cost you, if two city aldermen have their way.

Alderman David Cordle, R-Ward 5, and Alderman Sam Shropshire, D-Ward 7, introduced legislation at a City Council meeting last night that would impose fees on repeat offenders in false-alarm calls.

City police last year responded to 3,598 false alarms at homes or businesses in the city, at a cost of $55,000. That averages about 10 calls a day at a cost of just more than $15 per call.

It's money that could be spent on more than one more police officer's salary, said Shropshire, who also is a candidate for mayor in this year's election.

But it's not just money that's pushing the idea to the forefront; it's also time.

"When our policemen are chasing false alarms, they're not out on the street or walking their beat," he said.

"It's a matter of public safety," agreed Cordle, another expected mayoral candidate who also serves as chairman of the council's Public Safety Committee.

"You don't want to waste the police resources that you do have going on frequent alarm calls when they're false alarms," he said.

County Executive John R. Leopold said the county is working on similar legislation with Councilman Josh Cohen, D-Annapolis.

"Clearly there's a need to take action in the interest of public safety and the taxpayer," Leopold said.

Under the proposed city ordinance, two false alarms may be incurred during a revolving 365-day period. Upon the third, fourth and fifth false alarm, the resident or business owner will be assessed a $100 fine. The fine increases to $200 after the fifth false alarm.

Aggrieved residents and business owners will be able to appeal to a board established by the Annapolis Police Department, which will administratively review a petitioner's claim for relief.

City Police Chief Michael A. Pristoop said he supports the legislation.

"More than 99 percent of alarms are not responding to a real crime," he said.

And many of the calls are from the same places. He said 331 addresses accounted for more than 2,300 alarm calls during the first 11 months of 2008 -- an average of seven alarms per address.

That accounts for hundreds of hours officers spent responding to false alarms -- time that could have been spent patrolling or doing other work, he said.

"To me, it's a good piece of legislation," Pristoop said.

False alarms generally are due to malfunctioning or improperly installed or maintained equipment.

Business owners and residents need to make sure their alarms are working properly and that they're well-maintained, Shropshire said.

Cordle said he hopes the fines will encourage businesses to maintain their alarm systems.

"That'll be the incentive to take care of it, I would think," he said.

The city does not have a fine for false alarms for police calls, but it does have fines for fire department calls.

The city Fire Department follows the Fire Laws of Maryland, which allow for fines after three false alarms within a 30-day period or after eight false alarms within 12 months.

That fine is rarely imposed, officials said. This proposed legislation would lump police, fire and emergency medical responses together under the same rules.

A hearing will likely be scheduled for March or April on the proposed legislation, city officials said.

County laws

The county has fines for repeat false fire and smoke alarm calls, said Chief Matthew Tobia, county Fire Department spokesman.

After three false-alarm calls within one month or eight within one year, commercial buildings are subject to a $100 for the first violation, $500 for the second and $1,000 for the third.

The fines are designed to get businesses to maintain their alarm systems, he said.

Anne Arundel County does not have fines for false police alarms, though this was proposed last year.

During a County Council work session in June, police representatives proposed that the first two false alarms would be free, but then the next four false alarms would cost $120 each. The following six after that would cost $500 apiece. If the security system sent out 13 false alarms or more, each alert could bring a $1,000 fine.

The county Police Department responds to some 60 false-alarm calls per day, adding up to about 22,000 bogus alerts each year and representing 99 percent of all alarm calls to which police are dispatched.

Elsewhere, fines for false alarms have cut calls and saved money.

Fines in Montgomery County have cut the rate of response to false alarms to 24 percent and saved $1.7 million a year, police representatives told the council.