They're becoming as much a part of the holidays as the turkey, trimmings and gift-giving -- but there's nothing festive about false alarms from home security systems.
They don't just divert law enforcement unnecessarily, they can be a pain in the pocketbook. That's why Wichita police officials are urging residents to plan ahead as the holidays arrive.
"The problem we run into is the alarm owners aren't educating company or out-of-town guests," said Claudia Zamorano, alarm administrator for the city of Wichita.
The son or daughter coming home from college has forgotten the access code, or nobody told Aunt Rita how to shut off the alarm when she gets back from the mall. Before they know it, a police officer stands at the door.
"We do respond to every alarm, unless it's canceled," Zamorano said.
Audible alarms in Sedgwick County accounted for more than one-fifth of all emergency calls in 2001, the last year for which statistics were available, Zamorano said. Just 1 percent of those alarm calls turned out to be valid, she said.
Under city ordinance, an address is allowed one false alarm call each calendar year, Zamorano said. Every false alarm after that is punishable by a $40 fine -- $50 if someone punched in a "panic" code.
The fines can be appealed and rescinded for a variety of reasons, Zamorano said, including alarms set off by bad weather or the loss of electricity or phone service.
"The appeals always go up right around December and around the first of the year," Zamorano said.
The city sees anywhere from five to 20 appeals a month for false-alarm fines, she said. Last December, there were 51 appeals; last January, there were 50.
"User error" isn't grounds for an appeal, Zamorano said. That's why residents can save themselves some headaches by planning ahead and reminding visitors or returning children how to use their alarm systems.
ADT hasn't issued any reminders for the holidays, company spokeswoman Ann Lindstrom said, though she added, "educating our customers is a high priority to us."
"When you have other people coming into your home, it's really your responsibility" that they have a key and the access codes for the alarm system, she said.
One thing hosts can do, she said, is place a sticker on the security system's front panel with the monitoring service's 800 number so guests can call if they're having problems or they've accidentally triggered it.
"A system is only as good as the person who is using it," Lindstrom said.
The National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association will send reminders about preventing false alarms to its members this week and again next month, spokeswoman Georgia Calaway said.
Many false alarms come from businesses using temporary employees for the holidays, she said, and others come from schools and churches.
As a rule, she said, this is a good time of year for homeowners to test their security systems to make sure they're working properly. Burglaries climb during the holidays because people are often away visiting relatives and because the prospect of finding gifts and holiday purchases tempts thieves.