January 16, 2010 in Washington Voices

Alarming statistics

Valley hopes fines will cut number of false calls
By The Spokesman-Review

By the numbers

Annual registration fee: $25 for residences, $35 for businesses. Drops to $15 per year and $25 per year, respectively, if there are no false alarms.

False alarm fee: $85 for residences and $165 for businesses.

Discounts are available for low-income residents.

In 2008 Spokane Valley Police responded to more than 1,000 false alarms, wasting valuable time in the process. With a new alarm ordinance in place, police are hoping to reduce the alarm calls and spend more time patrolling the streets.

Each alarm call requires at least two officers. “We can’t predict what he’ll find when he gets there,” said Lt. Bill Rose. Even if an alarm turns out to be false, it takes from 30 to 45 minutes for officers to respond, check the premises and then do paperwork for the call. It all depends on how far away the officers are, the weather and the size of the building to be checked, Rose said. “It can also take more time. Those two guys are out of circulation.”

The reason for a false alarm can be anything from a person accidentally setting it off, to faulty batteries. Alarm systems with motion detectors are susceptible to something as simple as helium balloons set swaying by a forced-air heating or cooling system, or pets. “I’ve been to a lot of those,” Rose said.

The police department looked to the city of Spokane, where a similar ordinance reduced false alarm calls by more than 80 percent. “It’s been very successful,” he said. “That’s hard to argue with.”

Under the old system, the first and sometimes the second false alarm were free; then the city would start charging an ever-increasing fee for subsequent false alarms. Under the new system there are no free false alarms, but the fines of $85 for residential alarms and $165 for businesses is a flat fee. The new program will actually be cheaper for someone with multiple false alarms.

The new ordinance also requires that homeowners and business owners register their alarms for an annual fee. That gives police and alarm companies a way to make sure contact information for owners is up to date. That’s not always the case now and there’s nothing more frustrating than responding to a real burglary and the alarm company doesn’t have current contact information, Rose said. “We need that information and we need it to be accurate,” he said.

There will not be a fee if the alarm is genuine and there has been a break-in. The new ordinance does not apply to fire alarms, personal safety alarms or car alarms.

There is a bit of leeway in the alarm ordinance that can save someone from a fine. A person will not be charged for a false alarm if police response is canceled while the officer is en route, even if he is literally getting out of the car, Rose said. Under the old system people were charged if police had been en route for more than 10 minutes.

Rose said he will be happy if the new ordinance doesn’t result in a lot of fines. The new ordinance is more about encouraging responsibility. “It’s to make sure they just don’t blow off a false alarm,” he said. “If it doesn’t impact us we have a tendency to ignore the problem. Consequences are what really keep us in line.”

People with alarm systems have been getting letters telling them about the new ordinance that took effect Jan. 1 and the registration requirement. People can register online at www.spokanevalley.org.

Some people have been complaining about the registration fees, but they cover the cost of the new program, Rose said. The city has contracted with The Cry Wolf program run by Public Safety Corp. “This isn’t a money-making proposition despite what people may think,” said Rose.

The company also will handle all the paperwork associated with a false alarm call, freeing up the officers and dispatchers who used to have to do it. “It really is a good deal for our taxpayers,” he said. “It’s freeing up our time so we’re better using the taxpayers’ dollars.”

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