Fighting the Battles of Alarm Ordinances from Within

Alarm ordinances, which typically have provisions such that a fee is charged to the user when an alarm is triggered but no cause is apparent, continue to sweep across the nation. The fees, which range from under $100 for first-time false alarm offenses to upwards of $1,000 for repeat offenses, are designed to help municipalities recoup what they claim are the high costs of sending police, fire and emergency health responders to a potential scene, and the ordinances often involve a permit process whereby businesses or homeowners with alarms must register with the city.

In one recent report from Florida's Sun-Sentinel newspaper, the fire department spokesperson said that upwards of 80 percent of the department's fire alarm calls were false alarm scenarios, but most statistics put the number much higher, usually above 90 percent. A report in the Tampa Bay Business Journal about Hillsborough County's new ordinance says that roughly 96 percent of all alarm calls in that area were false alarms.

With groups like the NBFAA advocating education of the end-users of alarm systems (both burglar and fire) to decrease the prevalence of false alarms from accidental tripping and user error, the industry has moved to neutralize the problem of alarm ordinances. However, non-response ordinances have been established in some cities, including Eugene, Ore., and Salt Lake City, Utah, and even special scenarios like Union City, Calif., which requires that users obtain a permit for their alarm or run the risk of being placed on a non-response list until that permit is obtained, or Los Angeles, where a recent ordinance not only increases fines but can make a third call a misdemeanor.

While the industry was happy to see Los Angeles step away from its verified-response policy, the city switched instead plans to switch to a still painful schedule of fees that many in the industry are calling outrageous. And tacking on a misdemeanor charge for repeated false alarm calls is a change that local leaders like California Alarm Association president Patty Hartman say should send out alarms itself. In addition the third alarm from a home or business that had previously given false signals is "broadcasted and filed" meaning that it's up to the discretion of police officers as to whether the alarm will be followed up on.

"That's pretty sad that you're charged a misdemeanor," said Hartman about Los Angeles' new program. She adds that, even though it's on the city books now, she thinks it will backfire, and cites the example of public outcry that followed the previous verified response ordinance as indicative of what the public will do when it becomes aware of this recently passed ordinance.

But to keep city hall from policing your industry, many say that you must police yourself first. Hartman now requires new clients to pay for their alarm permit fees up front -- a good idea considering the fact that in Sacramento, a location where Hartman's own company Bay Alarm does business, there is a law on the books that fines the alarm company if the end-user does not register the alarm. But the industry has also moved toward techniques like easily programmable delays, seven-day holds to allow new owners to familiarize themselves with their system, and repeated attempts at verifying alarms before calling upon local police and fire departments. As part of that trend, the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC) announced in its September public safety bulletin that the group has endorsed enhanced call verification programs (EVC). The system is designed such that a central monitoring station will make additional calls to back- up phone numbers or mobile phones before contacting the police to arrange a dispatch. Stan Martin, executive director of SIAC, was quoted in the September bulletin to say that, "[W]hen a dealer implements enhanced call verification, 50 percent of alarm signals that would traditionally have been dispatched under premises verification were not dispatched because the signal was verified on the second call." SIAC also said that EVC lowers costs to both monitoring stations and to police -- and it also helps users avoid fees associated with false dispatches. Some alarm company reports have said that EVC procedures can cut as much as 75 percent of false alarms.

But for alarm companies, this isn't a total solution. Hartman says that alarm companies must stay on top of their customers to make sure that emergency notification sheets stay updated. Without updated information, she says, the enhanced verification plans can't do their jobs.

In the end, dealer companies need to educate their buyers, since users are the most common source of false alarm signals. First, they need to teach them how to use their system correctly and efficiently, and secondly, they should be prepared to educate the public and their users about which ordinances they will be subject to. Don't just tell your customers that there is a law in effect, says Hartman. Instead, give them printed materials. The alarm registration/permit form and a sheet with bullet points on what the local ordinances require is a good place to start. With this approach, not only will you possibly cut down on false alarms, but you're also providing solid customer service that is always beneficial for repeat business and word-of-mouth referrals.

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