Somewhere in Gwinnett County right now, someone's burglar alarm is probably annoying the neighbors and tying up the police.
And 99.5 percent of the time, according to police figures, that's all the alarm is doing.
The overwhelming majority of alarm calls to the police turn out to be false, Gwinnett County statistics show. The county spends a small fortune in lost manpower and gasoline on false alarms.
In 2004, only about one alarm in 724 was a real break-in, according to police statistics. In 2005, legitimate alarm calls nearly tripled, even as the total number of alarm calls decreased slightly.
During the first seven months of this year, the rate has decreased to about one legit alarm call for every 189 false alarms. The number of alarm calls has dropped each year since 2003, even as more residents have poured into Gwinnett County.
In 2003, Gwinnett officials revisited the county's false-alarm policy by adjusting false-alarm fees against homeowners and businesses.
There's some evidence that homeowners and businesses have become better at managing their alarm systems since Gwinnett County began cracking down using false-alarm fees. Most false alarms occur because users are unfamiliar with their security system.
But it's still a sore spot for patrol officers, who schlep to about 600 alarm calls to businesses and homes every week, or about 30,000 alarms a year, police statistics show. Each alarm call requires an officer to come to the building and look for trouble, said Cpl. Darren Moloney, Gwinnett's police spokesman.
"It's pretty frustrating to the road officer when you respond to the same house three times in one shift," he said. But when an alarm-monitoring company calls, the police generally must respond, he said.
"The only time we don't respond to an alarm like this is in severe weather," when hail or lightning can set off alarm systems, Moloney said. "Alarm companies will call us with entire neighborhoods going off."
False alarms tie up officers for half an hour or more each time, Moloney said. On average it takes county police about 11 to 12 minutes to get to the alarm, he said. If the building seems to be open, a second officer must be called to help check for intruders, taking up more time. A 2004 estimate on the county's Web site pegged the cost at about $13 a call.
The county recovers some of the cost through the false-alarm fee. Gwinnett County charges $25 for the second false alarm in a year, $50 for the third and $100 for the fourth. The police can revoke the registration of an alarm system after the fourth false alarm in the year, according to county statute. The police department handles the billing.
Compared with some counties in metro Atlanta, the fine is a slap on the wrist. Forsyth County charges up to $1,000 a call after the fourth false alarm in a year, for example. But Gwinnett collected about $429,000 in fees for false alarms in 2005 --- more than twice as much as the year before.
Most of the trouble with false alarms can be traced to users who don't know how to work their security system, said Stuart Huse, chief financial officer of Fortress Technologies, a Norcross-based security services firm.
The problems range from older users who aren't comfortable with technology to children who haven't been taught how to turn off the alarm. Sometimes cleaning crews at office buildings aren't given the access code. And occasionally, people just forget their codes because it's been so long since their alarm went off, he said.
When an alarm sounds, the monitoring company first tries to call the owner. If no one answers the phone --- or whoever does answer can't identify themselves properly --- the alarm company calls the police, Huse said. Many problems with false alarms could be solved simply by keeping phone information up to date, he said.
Even though the overwhelming majority of alarm calls are false, homeowners understandably worry more about that small chance that the problem is real, Huse said. The public expects a quick response from police, even if cops presume the alarm is false.
"I want the county screaming to my house when the alarm goes off," he said.
ANNOYING AND COSTLY
Gwinnett County spends a small fortune in lost manpower and gasoline on false alarms each year. Here's a look at the total number of alarm calls and the number of false alarms and a look at false-alarm fees collected by the police department.
Year....Total alarm calls....Legitimate alarm calls
*2006 ..17,660 ..............94
Year....Fees billed for false alarms ....Fees collected
*2006 ..$230,375 ........................$195,645
*First seven months of 2006 only was available.
Source: Gwinnett County Police Department