The city of Schenectady isn't alone in having a false-alarm problem. Fire departments in this and other countries typically respond to more non-fires than actual ones. But in Schenectady, the rate of false alarms is higher than most places (four out of every five fire calls), and the fiscally distressed city has less ability to absorb the wasted cost, estimated at $1.1 million in 2012.
Not all, even most, of the false alarms are done with malicious intent. The great majority are due to defective equipment: automatic fire detection systems in multi-unit apartments that landlords have failed to maintain and that automatically call the Fire Department when they mistakenly sense heat or smoke. Once these malfunction, unless fixed, they cause repeated false alarms .
These false alarms are expensive. There were 2,228 of them in 2012 (compared to 537 fires), at an average cost of $508 per call, according to Fire Chief Michael Della Rocco. The cost consists of such things as gasoline for the fuel-inefficient vehicles, wear and tear on them, insurance costs, and salaries (it's true that the firefighters are on duty anyway, but the Fire Department staffs to meet demand; if there were fewer false alarms, fewer personnel might be needed).
The Fire Department can't not respond, even when the address has a history of false alarms . This one might be for real, and with the city full of wooden houses, close together, there's the potential for many properties, and perhaps lives, to be lost. Because of their size and populations, the biggest response in terms of equipment and personnel is for schools, which have their share of false alarms, and the county jail, which Della Rocco says has regular false alarms due to a system that needs upgrading.
What to do? Since last year the city has been fining building owners who have repeated false alarms, but the fines don't start until after the fourth one. And often the owners wait until they are fined before doing something about the problem, even though they know they're putting their properties and tenants at risk.
The city should allow just one "free" false alarm. After that, it should impose a fine. In addition, it should require the owner to fix the system in a reasonable time - say, 10 days - with a permit. Then an inspector should come and check to make sure the work was done. Alternatively, the city could start billing for the cost of the call.
This is also an argument for the rental inspection program that so many landlords oppose and refuse to participate in. Faulty systems would be quickly discovered by code inspectors.