Kirkland, Wash., False Alarms Down 47 Percent

Somewhere today, police virtually guarantee, a house cleaner will open a door to a home on the first day on the job. The cleaner will have a key but will be missing something just as important: the code to the burglar alarm.

"It's the sort of call you roll your eyes at," Kirkland Police Department Captain Gene Markle said.

But repeated thousands of times a year, it turns into major frustration for police and other emergency workers who handle the false alarms from commercial and residential alarm systems.

Now Kirkland and other cities in the Puget Sound area are reporting that recent efforts to crack down on the false alarms by imposing fines and registration fees have begun to have a positive effect.

One year after the Kirkland City Council adopted an ordinance requiring alarm users to pay $20 to register their alarms and $50 fines every time their alarms go off in error, such calls have declined 47 percent, the city announced this week.

That exceeds even the Police Department's original goal of 39 percent, said Patricia Ball, who runs the program for the department.

For Markle, it means less time is wasted sending two police officers to check out someone's false alarm. "It frees their time up for other calls and more patrol time," he said.

Despite the improvements, false alarms remain a headache.

In Kirkland, about 45 percent of the thousands of alarm calls received between June 2006 and June 2007 were false, Ball said.

Kirkland's year-old ordinance prescribes a warning for the first false alarm. After that, it's $50 each time until the sixth false alarm. After that, the city won't respond for 90 days, except in the case when a panic or duress button is activated indicating a person is in immediate danger.

Other cities have reported similar progress with their ordinances.

Redmond has had a similar program for several years. In fact, Kirkland modeled its ordinance after Redmond's.

In 1999, the Redmond Fire Department responded to 2,476 false alarm calls. After the ordinance went into effect in January 2000, the calls dropped 32 percent to 1,687 calls, said Shawn Fitzpatrick, a Redmond Police Department supervisor.

As of last year, the calls were down 54 percent compared with 1999.

Marysville passed a similar ordinance in 2003 and has seen false alarms drop from 1,098 in 2002 to roughly 500 in 2006, said Marla Ringen, who handles billing for the Marysville Police Department.

The measures weren't popular with everyone there, at first. At the time, alarm companies and property managers complained the fees and fines were just a tax on their businesses.

"There's always resistance to something new," said Ron Haner of the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association. "I can't say we jump up and down with joy about it, but life goes on."

His association now puts out a "best practices" guide for avoiding false alarms. And generally the industry has improved, cutting false alarms to about a third of what they were a decade ago, he said.

It hasn't proved to be much of a revenue source for cities.

"It's not a money-making business," Redmond's Fitzpatrick said. "We're not even breaking even with giving out bills. It's a pretty labor-intensive program."

Seattle has had a false-alarm ordinance since 2004. It penalizes alarm companies $90 per false alarm, said Seattle Police Department spokesman Mark Jamieson. The companies then bill the user.

Last year Seattle collected $1.4 million in such fines. But "that's on par with the estimated [cost of] police response," Jamieson said. The Seattle ordinance appears to have reduced the number of false-alarm calls significantly. In the three years before the ordinance, the city responded to about 24,000 false-alarm calls. In the three years after, there were about 14,800 such calls.

Even so, Seattle still grapples with the fact that virtually all of the city's alarm-company calls are false, Jamieson said. Before the ordinance, 99 percent of all alarm calls were false; now it's 97 percent.

"That takes up valuable resources and time," Jamieson said.

Issaquah has similar frustrations.

The police department issues bills to individuals with repeat false-alarm calls, but no city ordinance requires payment.

In the first half of this year, the city got 453 alarm calls and 70 percent were false, said Theresa Schaap, who handles the false-alarm bills for the Police Department. Of the false alarms, half were from businesses and 108 were from homes.

"People aren't being held accountable for false alarms," she said.

Even so, the police still go to every call, and Schaap dutifully sends out mail to repeat offenders about how to prevent false alarms.

"We're never not going to respond," Schaap said. "That's our job."