Columbus, Ga., Updates Alarm Ordinance, Promises to Enforce Registration Laws

Facing high false alarm numbers, city responds with policy, legislation

Those home and business alarm systems meant to give you peace of mind while protecting against theft and fire can end up costing owners additional money when they are not used properly or not registered with local government.

Take those pesky false alarms, for instance. It's not only embarrassing to have the fire truck or police car come screaming up to your door simply because you forgot to punch in your deactivation code -- it can get expensive.

Columbus' consolidated government bills alarm owners for more than four false alarms a year.

And if those arriving officers or firefighters call attention to the fact that your system is not registered with the city's finance department, you could be helping resolve some budget problems with the charge for that oversight.

Finance Director Angela Cole said unregistered systems have been a problem, but new emphasis is being made to resolve the issue.

"We are going to really enforce that in the fiscal year 2006," Cole said. "We've noticed compliances slacked off."

She said most people have their alarms registered through their alarm companies.

"There have been a lot of new ones (companies) in the last year, and many leave it up to the homeowner to register on their own," Cole said.

The penalty for not registering an alarm is $30. The city expects to collect $61,000 this fiscal year from unregistered alarm owners.

Enforcing such registration is one of the cash-strapped city's initiatives to find more money to fund operations, Cole said.

An alarm company notifies authorities upon activation, said Columbus Police Department Maj. Stan Swiney. At that time, a record is made of the alarm. The police answer a suspected break-in; the fire department and its paramedics respond to alarms for fire or medical emergencies.

"The responding unit makes the decision as to what kind of false alarm it is, and they will make that decision based on what they see at the scene," Swiney said.

Alarms can be ruled invalid due to human error, mechanical failure or when triggered by weather.

"If we can't determine why the alarm went off -- there's no obvious reason for it; it was properly set -- then we classify it as a mechanical error," Swiney said. "Then we look and see whether or not we can get somebody to come to help us turn it off."

Whatever the officer says is entered into the system, Swiney said. That information is then given to the finance department, which compiles the bills and sends them out.

City ordinance allows four free false alarms in a calendar year. A $25 fee is charged for subsequent false alarms to which police respond; a $150 fee is billed for false fire alarms, and a $100 fee for false medical alarms.

"Most of the alarms we get probably are business-related," Swiney said. "We still see a significant amount of residential alarms."

The major said he may have seen three or four residential false alarms actually show up on a person's bill.

"Generally, when they find out they have a problem, they fix it pretty quickly," Swiney said.

Public safety is not concerned about the fees as much as making sure the false alarms are reduced, Swiney said.

"Its kind of like a speeding ticket. We write a speeding ticket to hopefully get everybody to slow down, not because of the fees," Swiney said. "We look at false alarm fees the same way. It's hopefully a way to get people to improve their false alarm records, not collect money."

Cole said from January to July, the city collected a little less than $1,000 in false alarm charges. In 2004, total false alarm charges were $10,000. In 2003, $14,075 was collected, and in 2002, $7,700.

"We have a lot of them that are related to weather and we write them off," Cole said.

Companies such as Columbus Fire & Safety Equipment Co. and A-Com Protection Services Inc. register alarms with the city, so their customers don't have to.

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