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

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.

A customer may opt to have a local alarm, said Jimmy Wilson of Columbus Fire & Safety Equipment Co. That's when a customer pays for the equipment and installation but does not have it monitored by an alarm company. If the system is tripped, a person could hear the alarm in or near the house, but because it is not wired for monitoring, the company would not be notified.

"The siren will go off, but it will not alert anyone," Wilson said.

If a system is monitored, Wilson said, the company would know the alarm went off.

When alarms are registered, there will be a city sticker in the front door or window of the house.

"It's just a small sticker -- it's a two-by-two (inches) -- and you'll see the city of Columbus' logo on it," Wilson said.

The finance department receives a weekly report from the police department of alarms that are not registered, said Craig Strain, manager of the finance department's revenue division. A bill is then sent to the address of the unregistered alarm along with information on how to register.

"We receive more revenue from non-registers than from false alarms," Strain said. "There are probably 10,000 to 15,000 homes and businesses out there that are not registered, and that's a conservative estimate."

Customers for A-Com-installed systems range from multimillion dollar homes in Green Island Hills to convenience stores on South Lumpkin Road, said Vice President of Operations Chuck Granberry. Many customers only want perimeter doors wired; others want electronic beams placed around the house.

When an A-Com-monitored alarm is activated, the dispatching system in the company's Veterans Parkway headquarters is alerted, A-Com President Ronnie Beck said. The dispatchers try to reach the owner of the alarm or listed contacts. If not satisfied that everything is OK, they call the proper authorities.

A-Com monitors about 25,000 alarms in Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina. In Muscogee County, the company monitors 6,000 to 7,000 alarms.

"Over the last seven to eight years, alarm systems have become more cost-effective," Beck said. "Now, on the flip side, it's a little more different for police. There are more alarms to respond to, and the No. 1 problem with alarm systems is false alarms."

According to police data, in fiscal 2005, 98 percent of alarms to which police were dispatched were false.

FISCAL 2005 FALSE ALARMS IN COLUMBUS

POLICE: Total alarms: 15,759
Human error: 3,863
Mechanical failure: 11,074
Weather-related: 587
Total false alarms: 15,524
Percent false: 98.5% FIRE

FIRE: Total alarms: 1,637
Human error: 807
Mechanical failure: 749
Weather-related: 44
Total false alarms: 1,600
Percent false:97.7% MEDICAL

MEDICAL: Total alarms: 306
Human error: 305
Mechanical failure: 1
Weather-related: 0
Total false alarms: 306
Percent false: 100%

TOTAL: Total alarms: 17,702
Total false: 17,430
Percent false: 98.4%

Source: Columbus Police Department

WHAT COLUMBUS LAW SAYS

Sec. 14-23. Alarm registration

Alarm registration is required for all monitored fire, medical and burglar alarms in homes and businesses within Columbus.

Alarms are registered in the city's finance department free of charge. Once registered, applicants are issued an alarm permit.

A minimum fee of $30 will be charged for not registering an alarm.

An alarm permit must be displayed on or near the front entrance to the premises where it can be seen by responding units.

Sec. 14-23. Fees

After a fourth false alarm response to the same premises within a calendar year, the finance department sends notice that future false alarms within the year will result in a $150 fee for fire, $100 fee for emergency medical services false alarms and $25 fee for police and other types of false alarms.

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