California Town Uses Permits to Help Raise Awareness of False Alarm Issue

Mar. 10--TRACY -- The burglar alarm sounded one recent Friday evening in a classroom at Wanda Hirsch Elementary School.

Tracy police officers responded to 1280 Dove Drive and searched for intruders in the darkened classroom filled with student art. They found nothing suspicious because the blaring siren was a false alarm.

It was another typical night on patrol.

Two months have elapsed since Tracy updated its policy on responding to burglar alarms around town. Since the city began demanding them beginning in January, 400 permits have been issued, said records supervisor Sandy Zepeda. Most of those, she said, have been obtained by residents or business owners who had alarms go off unnecessarily and then received a letter from the police alerting them to the need for the new permit.

Tracy resident Jesse Olliff received one such letter after a recent malfunction caused a false alarm from the system he had installed three years ago. He had no idea he needed a permit.

"I know ignorance of the law is no excuse," Olliff said, after paying the $20 alarm permit fee.

Police officers say 99 percent of the time they respond to burglar alarms in homes, businesses or institutions in town, they turn out to be unwarranted. Tracy officers estimate they respond to 400 unintentional alarm calls -- like the ones at Hirsch Elementary School and Olliff's residence -- each month. False alarms are particularly frustrating, because officers responding to a false alarm could be drawn out of position to respond to a legitimate emergency elsewhere.

Stockton, Lodi and Manteca also require homeowners and business owners to hold a permit to install burglar alarms. They range in cost from free in Manteca to $49 in Stockton and carry fines for excessive false alarms from $50 in Manteca to $75 in Lodi.

On an average day, police officers respond to 13 false alarms in Tracy and Manteca, five in Lodi and 43 in Stockton, officials said.

Tracy officers have spent enough time chasing phony alarms to pay for three full-time positions, according to a consultant's report that chronicled the situation and became the impetus for the ordinance change.

Now, homeowners and business owners must obtain alarm permits and renew them annually. The first time police respond to a site that does not have a permit, the owner will be notified to acquire a permit within two weeks or face a fine.

"Now, the alarm companies are helping us with letters to their clients as well," Zepeda said.

The third false alarm within a year to the same address will result in a $100 fine. That goes up to $500 on the fifth occurrence, after which Tracy police will not respond any longer to that address.

"There's no doubt it's taxing on the police," Zepeda said. "We don't want to be taken away from other important calls for service for false alarms."

The president of the California State Alarm Association said Tracy's new ordinance incorporates many practices that have proved successful in limiting false alarms elsewhere.

That includes enhanced call verification, where alarm companies first phone the homeowner and a secondary number prior to calling police, said Jon Fargent of ADT Security Services.

"That's dramatically cut false alarms, in some cases by 50 to 60 percent," he said.

House and business alarms rank lower on the priority scale than many other calls for service because "resources are valuable," Stockton police Officer Pete Smith said.

Yet, spokesmen for Farmers and Allstate insurance companies said homeowners' policies still include rate breaks for people who have alarm systems installed because they continue to be effective deterrents.

"We've heard there are areas where unusual numbers of alarms go off, but to this point that has not turned the industry against them," said Jerry Davies from the Los Angeles headquarters of Farmers Insurance Cos. "We are in favor of that kind of protection."

Contact reporter Rick Brewer at (209) 239-3324 or .

Copyright (c) 2007, The Record, Stockton, Calif. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.