When a burglar alarm call comes in at the city police department, chances are good that it’s not a real burglary.
But officers are required to respond as if they’ll find a break-in in progress when they arrive.
A new city law is on the books to fine businesses and homeowners that have multiple false alarms in a year in an attempt to reduce the number of false burglar and fire alarms in the city.
“The vast majority of the alarms we get are false alarms,” Assistant Police Chief Chris Cole said of the burglar alarms.
Usually a burglar alarm trips because someone typed in the wrong password or a family member arrived home or an employee got to work and didn’t realize the alarm was on.
“There will be a type of business where there’s a lot of people coming in and out of the building and everybody has a key and people forget to dismantle the alarm,” said Ron Kim, commissioner of public safety.
Officials hope charging fines for multiple false alarms will free responders up for real emergencies.
“It does cost the city money, particularly the fire trucks, to drag them out,” Kim said. “And there’s always the risk that as somebody’s going to that alarm, that equipment is going to get smashed or somebody’s going to get hurt.”
Also, emergency responders may get complacent when they respond to multiple false alarms at one location and then not take those calls seriously, officials said.
“We don’t want a ‘boy who cried wolf’ scenario,” said John Betor, assistant fire chief.
Most of the false alarms occur at businesses and apartment complexes downtown, although some new homes, especially those east of the Northway, are also outfitted with alarm systems.
The false alarm fines are not meant to penalize people who make so-called “good intent calls,” such as when someone thinks a neighbor’s home is on fire but it turns out that the neighbor just has a charcoal grill belching smoke in the backyard, Kim said.
“We want to make sure that people don’t hesitate to call upon the emergency services when they’re truly needed,” he said.
Rather, the law is designed to spur building owners to fix systems that are improperly installed, to take greater care with their alarms and to keep people from pulling alarms as a prank.
“It’s understandable that once in a while these things are going to happen. What we’re gearing toward is the repeat offenders,” Cole said.
“There will be some opportunity for people to get used to it,” Kim said of the new law, which took effect Jan. 1.
Previously, the city could bring criminal charges against a building owner who repeatedly had false alarms. But that local law didn’t really meet the city’s needs, so city officials decided to decriminalize false alarms and levy fines instead, Kim said.
Some alarm systems automatically call local emergency authorities when they go off, while others route to the alarm company’s switchboard, which calls authorities.
Most new alarms are silent, so someone entering the building doesn’t know an alarm has gone off.
To prevent false alarms, building owners should make everyone — family members if it’s a home or employees if it’s a business — aware that the alarm is on, Cole said.
Windows and doors should be kept closed and locked when the alarm is on, he added.
“We’re just asking people to be more careful,” he said.
Kim said he hopes this year to work on getting building owners to register their alarm systems with the city so authorities know where the alarms are before they go off.
“We don’t necessarily know everybody who’s got alarms,” he said.