Enforcement of Zero-Tolerance in Des Moines Reduces False Alarms, Sparks Concern

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- The city's decision to enforce a zero-tolerance policy has reduced the number of false alarms but raised concerns among those who sell security systems.

City officials said they know of no one who was injured because an alarm was disconnected to avoid a fine, but one security company owners said it's only a matter of time.

Most security system operators call the customer's home or business first to check if an alarm is legitimate. Some homeowners have instructed companies to call three or more people before police or fire officials, said David Gutfreund, owner of HomeGuard Security.

He said some business owners have begun investigating their own calls if an alarm goes off after hours.

``It concerns me. People are saying, 'Don't call the police, call us first,''' he said. ``What you get is Joe Beer Belly getting up at 3 a.m. to see why his alarm is going off, and I don't think that's a good thing.''

City officials eliminated the three free false alarm policy two years ago. The new policy charges property owners a $100 fine for the first false fire alarm and $50 for the first false police alarm. Subsequent false alarms are $150 and $75, respectively.

The policy changed when the city, facing budget cuts, looked to increase fees and fines. It was driven by police and fire officials who complained that thousands of false alarms ate up thousands of dollars in taxpayer money each year, using resources that could be used for legitimate emergencies.

Since the new policy went into effect, false police alarms dropped about 25 percent, to fewer than 6,800 the first year. False fire alarms dropped almost 40 percent to about 660.

Councilwoman Christine Hensley said the fees have helped emergency crews focus on real problems and alleviated some of the burden placed on taxpayers.

``I am just not aware of any problems created by that, and I think people are more cautious'' to avoid unnecessary charges, she said.

Des Moines is believed to have one of the toughest fire and police alarm policies in the state, according to the Iowa League of Cities and the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

``The whole intent of the ordinance is to get people to maintain their alarm systems,'' said Ken Danley, a fire department spokesman.

South Des Moines resident Kurt Just has been fined more than $500 for over the past year for false alarms at his home and a nightclub he owned on the south side.

He said the city is taking advantage of people trying to protect their homes and businesses.

``It's a scam,'' Just said.

Many cities don't charge for false alarms. Others allow one each year. West Des Moines fire officials allow three; Cedar Rapids allows four.

Jeffrey Quigle, fire prevention and protection supervisor at the state fire marshal's office, said people shouldn't disconnect alarms to avoid a fine.

``You never now when it might be a real emergency,'' Quigle said. ``If you're having problems, you need to get the system fixed.''