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Cutting down on false alarms

Posted on 08/22/2018

By Leah Kraus, Digital Content Coordinator

If you ask someone what’s at the top of their list when it comes to buying or renting a property, the first thing they’ll probably tell you is safety. For many people, that means buying a security system for their home or business.

The security alarm goes off if an intruder enters, alerting police and anyone who may be inside at the time. However, the alarm that’s meant to keep you safe can end up costing you even more if it goes off when it shouldn’t.

In 2016, the Memphis Police Department responded to 62,494 alarm calls. Of those, just 458 were valid. The rest – all 62,036 – or 99.2 percent were false.

A little over half of these calls – 51.8 percent – were from commercial properties, including restaurants and convenience stores.

A false alarm can be caused by many things including pets, power outages, or even faulty equipment. Regardless, handling these false alarms costs the City money and manpower. In fact, in 2016, false alarm calls amounted to more than $1.7 million spent and 63,952 hours in response time.

The same police officers responding to a false alarm because a cat walked in front of a motion detector are the same officers that should be responding to actual emergencies.

The problem doesn’t just stop there. False alarms take a toll on the Memphis 911 dispatch center, where the calls are handled. This, of course, is the same dispatch center where calls for actual emergencies, such as shootings or robberies, go. If an operator is busy handling a false alarm call, it may take them longer to get to a person who is actually in need.

After reviewing these issues, the City’s Metro Alarms office revised an existing ordinance, created in 2003, to help deal with the wasted time and money in false alarm calls. This included increasing fines for false alarms.

Starting July 1, 2017, fines increased to $140 for false police alarms (after two strikes, where the person gets off with a warning) and increased fines for false fire alarms to $300 (after one strike.) Every July 1, the person starts over with a clean slate.

Increasing those fines paid off. Tiffany Collins, the administrator with Metro Alarms, said there has been a 20 percent reduction in false alarms since the new ordinance went into effect, meaning less time and money wasted by false calls.

“We don’t want to collect any fines,” Collins said. “The goal is to have officers on the street responding to immediate needs. We want to get everyone to the point where their alarm system is functioning properly and people understand how to prevent false alarms.”

Money from the fines, whether it is fire or police, goes back to those same departments to help repay the costs from those resources. Collins says that this year Metro Alarms will be able to reimburse police for the total amount of money spent shy of about $100,000.

Still, there’s room for improvement, especially in asking citizens to use a proactive approach in understanding their security system to help reduce false alarm calls.

Security provider ADT says to make sure you and any authorized users know the code to your home security system. Make sure windows and doors are shut and locked before turning the security system on and keep wandering pets away from motion detectors. Additionally, be aware of objects hanging by or around motion detectors – even a window curtain blowing in a breeze can be enough to set off some alarms. Test your batteries to see if they are in good condition and if you discover you have faulty equipment, notify the service provider before problems arise.

Testing your alarm system once a month to make sure it’s functioning properly is also recommended. Make sure your alarm is renewed every year and that the correct address is on file.

Finally, be aware of power outages. Make sure your security system has a working backup battery so that it can keep functioning in the event that the power goes out. Be prepared that once the power comes back on, it may inadvertently set off the alarm.

In the case that a person is fined but doesn’t believe they should have to foot the bill, Collins says there are steps you can take to appeal, and sometimes the bill may be forgiven. If a break-in actually did occur, Metro Alarms usually requires some form of documentation such as video footage, pictures, or a police report to prove a crime occurred.

In some cases, the false alarm is caused by the service provider – and in that case, the person should contact the provider and the provider may pay the fine for them.

For more information visit metroalarms.org
You can also contact their office through Email at metroalarms@memphistn.gov