False Alarms Drop after Little Rock Changes Ordinance

A new ordinance is drastically reducing the number of false burglar-alarm calls police in Little Rock have to handle, city officials believe.

Police responded to 3,718 false burglar-alarm calls through the first seven months of 2006, 7,343 fewer than during the first seven months of 2005 - a 66 percent decrease.

While he hesitates to say that the ordinance has permanently reduced the number of false alarms police deal with, "It's had an impact," said Bob Biles, the city's finance director. His department tracks and documents false alarms in the city.

City officials sought to reduce false alarms - burglar, fire and other alarms - through the ordinance, which took effect Jan. 1. It increased the maximum fine for a false alarm from $96 to $200. It also requires alarm owners to register their systems and allows alarm companies to place two telephone calls to the owner before calling police. If an owner informs the alarm company there is no trouble and provides the correct pass code, police are never dispatched. If the owner cancels the call while police are en route, owners pay a discounted fine for the false alarm.

The first three false alarms are free.

Fire and medical emergency calls are dispatched immediately.

Statistics on non-burglar alarms responded to by emergency workers in the city so far this year were not available.

Fewer false alarms frees the city's police to patrol areas as needed and respond to actual emergencies. Little Rock Police Officer Michelle Hill, a department spokesman, believes the two-call notification portion of the ordinance in particular has reduced the number of false alarms her department has had to handle.

"It has helped because it has allowed the owner to have a little bit of discretion on what the alarm is," Hill said.

City officials have put the average cost of responding to a false alarm at $96, a figure that would mean the city has saved about $705,000 so far this year. A U.S. Department of Justice study put the nationwide cost in 1998 at $42 per call. Using those numbers, Little Rock would have saved about $308,000.

The lower number of false alarms, however, also has cut back on the fines the city has collected. The city collected $122,010 through the end of July 2005 in false alarm fines, and $67,000 through July of this year.

Increasing numbers of false alarm calls are a problem in many communities around the country, leading many local governments to consider ordinances similar to Little Rock's. As the cost of placing alarm systems in homes has declined, new homes have increasingly been built with the wiring needed for alarm systems, said Stanley Hanson of the False Alarm Reduction Association, a nine-year-old international organization of government and public safety officials. The presence of more alarm systems has resulted in more false alarms, said Hanson, who also is alarm administrator for the city of Palm Bay, Fla.

Several factors contribute to false alarms. Systems do require maintenance, and lightning and animals can sometimes cause motion detectors to set off the alarm. But the biggest factor leading to false alarms, he and others said, is that alarm-system owners often don't fully understand how to arm and disarm their systems.

In Arkansas, at least 16 cities have false-alarm ordinances, said Jordon Brown, training coordinator for the Arkansas Security Alarm Association.

But the ordinances have not come without disagreement.

Some alarm companies have argued that fines should not be levied, since taxes pay for police services. Brown, however, likened a false alarm to a false 911 call.

"If somebody calls 911, that person needs to need response," Brown said. A non-emergency call to 911 is a waste of resources, money and time, he said.

"When an alarm goes off, there needs to be a reason for it to go off and a reason for officers to respond," Brown said.

Within the past five years, alarm companies overwhelmingly have started working with the false alarm association and government officials to help draft ordinances, Hanson said.

"We all have to face this problem, and it's not going to go away," Hanson said.

This article was published 08/28/2006