Bulk of false alarms caused by a few

February 02, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

o Alarm calls take up deputies' time

To avoid penalizing responsible security alarm-system users for a false-alarm problem caused by a few, the Washington County Sheriff's Department has dropped its request that alarm users be assessed a permit fee, Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said.

The department is still proposing a system of fines that would penalize users whose alarm systems summon deputies for nonemergencies three or more times in one year. A public hearing on the proposed ordinance and fine amounts is Tuesday.

The ordinance was designed to cut down on false alarms from malfunctioning systems, codes entered incorrectly, and other forms of accidents and negligence, which make up about 98 percent of security alarm activations and cost deputies thousands of hours each year, Mullendore said.


The Sheriff's Department initially proposed that, in addition to fining repeat false-alarm offenders, the county collect a one-time permit fee of $30 from residential users and $60 from nonresidential users. The money would have gone toward the cost of processing and maintaining permits, and administering the false-alarm fine system, Mullendore said.

An analysis of last year's alarm calls revealed the false alarm problem stemmed from a small number of users.

Most of those users are businesses, Mullendore said.

Out of about 4,000 registered alarm users, only 338 had three or more false alarms in 2008, and only 38 of those were residential alarm users, Mullendore said.

Under the proposed fine system, those users would have faced fines starting at $30 for the third false alarm for residential users and $60 for the third false alarm for nonresidential users. After that, the amount of the fine would increase by $20 for each offense for residential users and by $25 for each offense for nonresidential users.

If those fines had been in place last year, the county would have collected about $75,000, Mullendore said. That, combined with the savings from any reduction in false alarms, would probably be enough to pay for the administrative costs, without the permit fees, he said.

"It's going to be pretty close," he said.

For a handful of alarm system users, the fines could get especially costly. The Kellogg Co. distribution center on Newgate Boulevard was the county's top source of false alarms last year, with a total of 35, Mullendore said. Under the proposed system, that would have cost the company more than $15,000.

Together, the top eight offenders would have paid about $50,000.

With the ordinance in place, deputies hope those chronic offenders would have an incentive to fix the problem before the numbers ever got that high.

Most of the worst false-alarm offenders are establishments with large buildings and many employees.

"With those, part of the problem is the large volume of people that work there," Deputy Tracey Peyton said. "Not everyone is familiar with how the alarm system operates and which doors are alarmed at which time."

Warehouses also are prone to problems, Peyton said. There, maintenance is often a factor, particularly with garage doors, he said. If a garage door is slightly misaligned, it can cause an alarm to not set properly or to become supersensitive, activating upon the slightest movement, he said.

At Robinwood Medical Center, which was tied for third with 22 false alarms last year, human error and maintenance cause problems, facilities manager Jim Nipps said. The most frequent sources of the problem are people who are not trained and therefore use the key entry inappropriately, Nipps said.

Robinwood and its parent organization, Antietam Health Services, understand what is motivating the county to develop the new regulations, Antietam Health Services spokeswoman Maureen Theriault said. In fact, when Robinwood officials are called out for false alarms, they pass along a $100 fine to the tenant as an incentive to better train employees, she said.

Other repeat offenders said they didn't think the fines would do much good.

At Kmart in Valley Plaza, which had 17 false alarms last year, Manager Dan Klein said the store has already tried to cut down on alarm activations, but the situation is often out of his hands. For example, some of the false alarms occur when a bird is in the building and sets off the motion detector after-hours, he said.

"To fine us isn't really going to help," he said.

Deputies acknowledge it might be impossible to cut out all false alarms, and the proposed ordinance includes exemptions for several situations. Signals would not be treated as false alarms if they are activated by severe weather conditions or other "acts of God"; if they are activated during the first 60 days after installation; if all appropriate emergency agencies are notified of a test ahead of time; or if the alarm company calls to cancel the alarm before police arrive.

If you go ...

What: Public hearing on security system false alarm ordinance

When: Tuesday, 11 a.m.

Where: 100 W. Washington St., room 227, Hagerstown

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