Madison, Wisc., Goes Live with Verified Response Policy

Jan. 5--A new city ordinance that changes how police respond to commercial security alarms quietly went into effect with the new year on Monday.

Now, despite the protests of some business owners, the Madison Police Department will respond to mechanically activated alarm systems only when the alarm has been verified. According to the ordinance, police will not be dispatched to an alarm site until a responder -- in this case, any person, including alarm company personnel or private citizens -- confirms there is evidence of intrusion or an emergency on the premises that would warrant a police call.

The policy does not apply to alarms activated by an individual, such as robbery or panic alarms.

The purpose of the change, according to the ordinance, is to limit the number of false alarms, which constitute about 97 percent of all responses. The ordinance is a reflection of police sentiments that false alarms can endanger the public by diverting police officers from actual emergencies or crime investigations.

But the new ordinance is prompting some commercial property owners, including a number of the customers of Jim Zirbel at Capital Fire and Security, to take it upon themselves to patrol properties in case of an alarm.

"There are a great many customers that have chosen to do their own response," Zirbel said. "It's really dangerous. . . . We never would recommend this."

The ordinance will also unfairly force some businesses to contract out for private response services, said David Koenig, treasurer of the Wisconsin Burglar & Fire Alarm Association and co-owner of Capital Lock. Koenig believes the ordinance could even lead to more brazen burglars.

"As the lack of police response becomes better known, bad guys are going to say 'Hmm. The opportunity for me to score without getting caught is going to increase,' " he said. "I suspect it's going to lead to more break-ins. And for the break-ins that do occur, the losses are going to increase."

The City Council passed the ordinance last summer, and had originally extended it to both residential and commercial automated alarms. The police department later adjusted the policy to exclude private residences.

Ald. Brenda Konkel, 2nd District, was one of three council members who opposed the ordinance, saying that it was not well thought out.

Her feelings about the measure haven't changed since the summer vote. "To me, the answer isn't just not showing up," she said. "We spend so much money on the police department because we hold health and safety at such a high regard. And I don't know why we wouldn't do that the same with businesses as we would with a home."

But police spokesman Mike Hanson defended the ordinance Wednesday, saying that it will not make for an unsafe environment at commercial properties.

"We'll still broadcast and file the fact that this business had an alarm," he said. "So if an officer is free, nearby, or knows of past incidences in the neighborhood, we can still always respond. We're just making it not a mandatory call to some businesses. Banks, financial institutions, some government buildings, they're still mandatory calls."

In a November prepared statement, Police Chief Noble Wray stressed that an observation is sufficient to verify a crime, and that private citizens are not expected to enter potential crime scenes. A person can also verify an alarm by turning over to the police video and audio monitoring that can be reproduced and definitively shows a point of entry or an actual intruder, Wray said.

Sonitrol, a national company specializing in verified electronic security, uses audio monitoring to authenticate an alarm.

"We're able to verify if an alarm is real or false without having to send someone out there," said Sonitrol account executive Matt Schultz. Sonitrol uses impact-activated audio devices to monitor security. Sonitrol dispatchers can listen to audio from the alarm site, he said.

This way, dispatchers "can determine if a balloon was popped . . . or if people are walking around the store intending to rob it," Schultz said.

The police department allows this type of audio monitoring to serve as verification because Sonitrol dispatchers have previously determined whether or not the alarm was real, Hanson said.

Copyright (c) 2007, The Wisconsin State Journal Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.