Fines lower false alarms in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Feb. 24--The sound of the burglar alarm signaled another fine for Insight Human Services in downtown Winston-Salem.

Insight, a substance-abuse center, had 12 false burglar alarms and one false fire alarm in 2006 -- the most false alarms in the city that year. They cost Insight about $2,300.

The fines were the result of Winston-Salem's false-alarm ordinance. Since 2003, the city has charged homeowners and businesses for false alarms that send police officers rushing across town only to find people who had forgot their alarm code, or that an alarm was triggered by a thunderstorm.

"If there are ways to make sure police know when they are responding that it's a real emergency, if that penalty system helps, then it's a good thing," said Bert Wood, the CEO of Insight.

The city does not charge for the first three false alarms a year at a home or business. After that, it charges $50 to $500 for each false alarm. The city has raised nearly $1 million since the ordinance took effect.

The fines have helped drive down false police alarms from almost 17,000 in the last six months of 2002 to about 10,300 all of last year, despite a growing population and growth in the alarm business.

Still, about 89 percent of the burglar alarms and about 17 percent of the fire alarms that went off in Winston-Salem last year were deemed false.

False alarms consume valuable time for Winston-Salem police officers, Cpl. Mike McDonald said.

He said that before the false-alarm ordinance was passed, he might go out to the same house six times in one night because of a faulty alarm. Police often stopped responding to those chronic violators, he said.

"Once people started taking responsibility for their alarm systems," McDonald said, "that was a world of change."

Wood said that the price of a false alarm has prompted him to change the way he manages Insight. He reduced the number of employees who have keys to the buildings and retrained his staff about how to work the alarm system.

He said he also put in a system that warns employees if an alarm is going off in another part of the building, so they have time to turn it off before the police are called.

The changes have paid off. Insight Human Services did not make the city's top 10 list for false alarms in 2007. Wood said that the building had about six false alarms last year.

Only one of the top 10 offenders from 2006 was on the city's top 10 list in 2007.

Forsyth Medical Center had 13 false fire alarms in 2006, and it topped the 2007 list with 25 false fire alarms.

The false alarms cost the medical center about $7,000 last year, hospital spokeswoman Freda Springs said. She said in an e-mail that most of the false alarms went off in areas of the hospital's property that are under construction. Dust and other air-born particles can trigger smoke detectors and other fire-detection equipment around the construction zones, she said.

She said that the medical center has about 4,000 detection devices, including 1,200 smoke detectors.

Jason Faylen, the operations manager for Carolina Alarm Inc. of Winston-Salem, said that the alarm business is growing in the city. He said that many of his new customers say that they want an alarm system to guard against home break-ins.

"A few years ago all the alarm companies were at each others' throats because it was cut-throat," Faylen said. "Now I wave to the ADT guy on the way to work because there is enough business for everyone."

He said he warns all of his customers about the city's alarm ordinance.

Wood said that despite possible false-alarm fines, Insight and other organizations choose to keep alarms because they do help protect the property in a real emergency.

Several years ago, for example, he said, a man who had attended an evening session snuck into the ceiling.

The man, who Wood called "Spiderman," then tried to get into the center's medication room after the building was closed for the day, apparently to steal methadone. But he triggered an alarm and was caught by police outside of the building with a crowbar in his hand.

"He didn't get anything," Wood said, "but he tried."

-- Blair Goldstein can be reached at 727-7284 or at

Paying for false alarms

This is how the Winston-Salem Police Department sets fines for false burglary or fire alarms.

--First three alarms: No fine

--False alarms 4 or 5: $50 each

--False alarms 6 or 7: $100 each

--False alarms 8 or 9: $250 each

--10 or more false alarms: $500 each

Source: Winston-Salem city code

Top false-alarm offenders

The top five false-alarm offenders in Winston-Salem for 2006 and 2007 shows only one repeat offender, Forsyth Medical Center.

2006 Top 5 Burglary Fire Total

Insight Human Services, Fourth Street 12 1 13

Forsyth Medical Center 0 13 13

Moe's Southwest Grill, Griffith Road 13 0 13

TGI Friday's, Hanes Mall 11 1 12

Southern Community Bank, Shepherd Street 9 3 12

2007 Top 5 Burglary Fire Total

Forsyth Medical Center 0 25 25

Old Salem New Visitor Center 14 4 18

Old Vineyard Behavioral Health 0 15 15

Mineral Springs Elementary School 6 7 13

Gamestop, East Hanes Mill Road 12 0 12

Source: Winston-Salem Police Department

Copyright (c) 2008, Winston-Salem Journal, N.C. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.