The realities of today’s economy continue to force local governments to do more with less, often prompting deep cuts in police and public safety budgets. Having fewer resources magnifies the pressure police departments face to increase efficiencies and reduce the number of unproductive Calls For Service (CFS).
Alarm calls usually are the leading dispatch call for police services and it is no secret that most alarm calls are false alarms. Year after year, jurisdictions that use the security industry’s model alarm management ordinance and best practices are seeing significant reductions in alarm dispatches, while generating much needed revenue.
Police departments such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C. and Marietta, Ga. can cite a track record of success with several years of data to document the effectiveness of their alarm management programs.
Using a collaborative, effective alarm management approach these cities continue yielding positive results. One of the most important outcomes is establishing the framework for citizens with alarms, law enforcement agencies and the private-sector alarm industry to work together to reduce dispatches.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Blazes the Trail
In the early 1990s, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department recognized the drain false alarms were having on the department. The alarm management program, including the false alarm ordinance implemented there in 1996, has resulted in a significant and sustained decline in alarm calls, despite a higher-than-projected number of new alarm permits each year.
Now in its 15th year, the statistics generated from the alarm ordinance in Charlotte-Mecklenburg are among the most dramatic and sustained with the department able to bring down its percentage of alarm calls, out of total calls for service, from 20.1 percent to 2.4 percent annually, netting 13.5 police officers and an annual revenue in 2009 of nearly $350,000. In addition to the revenue increase, the alarm ordinance netted reimbursement of 2.25 full-time employees from an outsource company contracted to administer billing and tracking.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Deputy Chief, Ruth Story says, “The key to developing a successful and sustained alarm ordinance is working with stakeholders from the beginning and engaging citizens as active partners in the solution. As a result, our alarm reduction program has exceeded expectations not only in reducing alarm dispatches, but also in cost recovery.”
Police Chief Rodney Monroe comments, “Our alarm management program continues to be successful due to the strong partnership between the police department, the alarm industry and alarm users.”
In 1995, the department responded to more than 500,000 calls for service of which well over 100,000 were for response to alarms. This represented one in every five calls for service received by the department. Of those calls, 98.6 percent were false alarms, accounting for the single largest unproductive use of officer time and representing nearly 70,000 police officer hours. The department generally dispatched two officers to each of these calls because of the potential for highly dangerous situations if the alarms proved to be legitimate.
At the time, Charlotte-Mecklenburg did not have an ordinance to regulate alarms or the department’s response to them. Analysis revealed there were a substantial number of locations generating a high volume of alarm calls. In fact, several locations generated more than 100 alarm calls per year.
It was clear whatever response the department developed to solve the problem would have to meet multiple goals of reducing the number of false alarms, the officer hours needed to respond to them, promote responsible alarm use through education and result in a positive police-citizen partnership.
City council charged the department with finding a way to achieve these goals, recognizing any proposed solution would have to include adoption of an ordinance to regulate alarms. The department researched a number of ordinances and recommended adoption of one that required registration of all alarm systems with the owner of the system being issued a permit for the alarm. The permit would be good for up to one year from the date of issue and subject to renewal each year. The ordinance would have a progressive fine structure for each false alarm response over the number of two “free alarms” permitted each year.
Implementation of this type of ordinance would require creation of an extensive database to track all the alarm registrations, the false alarms, resulting fines, and the billing records for each address. Ultimately, a unique, public-private partnership was formed to outsource alarm tracking and billing with the developer of the system absorbing the upfront costs and then entering into a revenue-sharing agreement with the city. Under this arrangement, the city’s share of the fines would start out small and gradually increase. A police department alarm coordination office was established to handle any appeals to false alarm determinations, thus setting the stage for a unique partnership that has served as a model for other police agencies.
Details of the Ordinance
The key provisions of the ordinance ultimately adopted by Charlotte-Mecklenburg and working successfully today include:
- Each new owner of an alarm system is required to register the alarm with the city. The alarm permit is good for one year and must be renewed annually. Any changes to the ownership of an alarm system must be reported within 30 days.
- If a police officer responds to an alarm call and finds that there is no permit for the alarm system at that location, the owner is fined $100, regardless of whether or not the alarm is false.
- Each alarm permit owner is allowed two free false alarms per permit year.
- A progressive fine system was established with fines being levied when a third false alarm is recorded at any location within a permit year.
- The fines are:
- $50 each for false alarms 3, 4 and 5;
- $100 each for false alarms 6 and 7;
- $250 each for false alarms 8 and 9; and
- $500 each for false alarms 10 and above.
- Any audible alarm must re-set within 15 minutes.
- Citizens who are fined for false alarms can appeal the fine in writing. Appeals are sent to the Police Department’s Alarm Coordinator and are to include any information about why the permit holder believes the alarm was improperly classified as false. The Alarm Coordinator reviews each case, including the officer’s notes from each call for service, and makes a final determination as to the classification of the alarm.
- Those permit holders who do not pay their fines within 30 days will have their alarms put into “no response” mode, meaning that police do not respond to any alarms from that address until all outstanding fines are paid.
In order to ensure uniform enforcement a city/county ordinance was established. The county later passed the same ordinance for the unincorporated areas of the county.
According to figures provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, Mecklenburg County experienced a 32.2 percent increase in population growth between 2000 and 2010. Despite an associated increase in the number of new alarm permits Charlotte-Mecklenburg has experienced a decline in alarm calls. Thus, there are fewer alarm calls requiring response and fewer false alarms per system.
Since the ordinance has been in place, only 8 percent of alarm permit holders had billable fines resulting in three or more alarms in a permit year. It is noteworthy that 92 percent of alarm permit holders have incurred no fines, a clear indication that citizens are active partners in making this ordinance work. Since the implementation of the alarm ordinance, less than one alarm has been received annually from each registered alarm system.
The Situation in Marietta
In 2008, Marietta, Ga. — population approximately 57,000 — implemented a new ordinance that closely mirrors the program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg as well as the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police Model Alarm ordinance. Marietta’s ordinance includes alarm registration, enhanced call verification (alarm companies make a second call to alarm owners to verify alarms), and progressive fines for third and subsequent false alarms.
The results in Marietta were almost immediate and extremely positive with a 65 percent decrease in alarm calls from 2006 (the year before the ordinance was enacted) to the end of 2009. Total Calls for Service (CFS) declined 25 percent over the three year period from 2007 to 2009.
Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn says, “We are fortunate to have had a model from other departments to follow including guidance in forming an alarm management committee made up of alarm company representatives and staff from the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC). It has been the most effective method to quickly reduce calls for service and create a framework for solving problems in the future.”
Marietta Alarm Calls
In 2006, before the alarm ordinance, the Marietta Police Department responded to 93,054 Calls for Police Service (CFS). In 2009, with no identifiable reduction in population, the Marietta Police Department responded to 69,229 CFS, representing a decrease of 26 percent over the three-year period of 2007 to 2009.
The goal of the Marietta Alarm Ordinance is to reduce false alarm calls and therefore reduce calls for service so officers could engage in Community Policing activities. Nevertheless, fees for registration of alarms and excessive false alarms were relatively high the first year (2008) and leveled off in the second year (2009) as the community became accustomed to the ordinance. Marietta projects that annually, fees will level off and remain close to the 2009 rate.
Marietta Charged Alarm Fees/Fines
Tried and true methods such as those in place in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Marietta and other communities are significantly reducing police dispatches, generating additional revenue for cities and providing response by well-trained law enforcement professionals which citizens consider a core police service. Through these kinds of efforts, members of the community, alarm owners, law enforcement agencies and the alarm industry can make a positive impact by collaborating and requiring the responsible and responsive use of alarm systems.
These best practices should be considered when developing alarm management and alarm response policies to best serve the community.
• Agency accepts cancellations
• Strict enforcement of alarm ordinance
• Requiring registration/alarm permits
• Meaningful fines
• Restricting response to chronic abusers
• Requiring Enhanced Call Verification by the alarm company
• Notification to user of all dispatches
• CP-01 on all new and upgraded alarm systems
• Alarm user training classes
Facts About False Alarms
More than 80 percent of false dispatches are related to user error by 20 percent of alarm users.
• Voluntary compliance by dealers to fix problem accounts yields the fastest reductions.
• About 80 percent of all false dispatches are related to error (correctable).
• Most users will take corrective action when properly educated on the issue.
• Users are more willing to take corrective action when notified by law enforcement.
• Prompt notification to user encouraging corrective action on every false dispatch will reduce further dispatches.
• Restricting response to chronic abusers is necessary because some users would rather pay fines than take corrective action.
• Commercial systems run about three times higher dispatch rate than residential systems.
• Banks, schools, municipal buildings experience higher dispatch rates than residential.
• Including an ordinance process yields positive results.
• Virtually all systems are fixable given time and proper resources.