Verified response may be sought by Columbus, Ohio

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Jul. 1--Too many burglar alarms that cry wolf might spell the end of an automatic response by Columbus police.

As part of a plan to reduce mounting costs for police and fire overtime, officers soon might require security companies to verify that a crime is taking place before responding to alarms, Department of Public Safety officials said yesterday.

Assistant Director Barb Seckler said Columbus police respond to all alarms -- about 75,000 annually -- even though an estimated 95 percent go off in error. The city charges homeowners and businesses for repeated false alarms, but Seckler said fines don't cover police costs.

So-called "verified response" would require an alarm company or private security agency to confirm for police that they're needed at an actual crime scene. It's not a popular policy with the alarm industry.

"Verified response is non-response," said David Simon, a spokesman for Brink's Home Security, a Dallas-based company with 1.2 million customers nationwide.

Only about 30 U.S. cities have adopted the idea under consideration in Columbus, Simon said. The Dallas City Council voted last September to repeal its verified-response policy.

Simon said he would recommend higher false-alarm fines instead, or a policy that cuts off police response to places that have repeated false alarms. Columbus now charges $100 for the third or fourth call, and fines escalate to $800 each after the ninth.

Jim Gilbert, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9, said false alarms don't contribute much to overtime costs. Burglar alarms are a lower priority for police than violent crimes, he said.

In a memo yesterday to Mayor Michael B. Coleman, Safety Director Mitchell Brown offered 10 other recommendations to control overtime, including an end to non-mandatory training for firefighters and a change in paramedics' scheduling.

Brown said the Division of Police will seek help from the federal government and presidential campaigns to cover costs associated with candidates' visits to central Ohio. The Division of Fire will cut the number of firefighters on temporary administrative assignments.

Police and fire unions have long complained that the city prefers paying overtime to hiring more people. Even department officials acknowledge much of the overtime is unavoidable, for emergency runs late in a shift, paperwork that can't be handed off, mandatory training and other reasons.

"We're not a Monday-through-Friday, 8-to-5 department," Gilbert said.

Coleman spokesman Dan Williamson said the mayor expects the department to do whatever it can to rein in overtime. Finance Director Joel S. Taylor projected in May that police and fire overtime could go $4.7 million over budget by the end of the year, pushing the city's biggest department into the red.

City Auditor Hugh J. Dorrian has said the entire general fund faces a $75 million deficit next year.

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