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6.4.23 – Arkansas Democrat Gazette – FAYETTEVILLE

City leaders hope to make the ordinance about false security alarms fairer and simpler.

The City Council on Tuesday will consider adopting some changes to the ordinance, enacted in 2007. It imposes financial penalties to property or business owners for having too many false security alarms police have to respond to within a calendar year. It also requires owners of security alarms for properties to register with the city and provides an appeal process for anyone who believes they were wrongly penalized. Registration is free.

There’s a separate ordinance for fire alarms.

The proposal the council will consider Tuesday would lower the dollar amounts charged to offending property or business owners. A $250 penalty for failure to register a security alarm would be waived if the owner provides police a copy of an application within 10 days of a violation notice.

The ordinance created a resident panel reviewing false alarm appeals. Its members originally were appointed by the police chief, but under the proposal, the mayor would choose the members. The makeup would change from five to three members. A $25 appeal fee also would be waived under the proposal.

The panel can consider four reasons to reduce or eliminate penalties for false alarms: if the false alarm was the fault of the security company; if it was caused by a power outage; if it wasn’t actually a false alarm; or if a police officer didn’t respond in a timely fashion. The proposal would add any “other good and sufficient reason not to assess a fee” to the list.

The proposal also would do away with certain sections.

For instance, city code makes a distinction between burglary and robbery alarms. Burglary alarms are for when someone breaks into a property. Robbery alarms are ones banks have if a teller is being robbed. Each type has a different set of penalties imposed for false alarms. The proposal would make them the same.

Right now, property and business owners aren’t penalized for the first false security alarm in a calendar year. Upon the second offense, the penalty is $75, a third is $100, a fourth is $150, a fifth is $200 and six or more false alarms in a year costs $250 each time.

Under the proposal, the first two false alarms would have no penalty. A third offense would carry a $50 penalty, a fourth $75, a fifth $100, a sixth $125 and seven or more would cost $150 each time.

Sprucing up code

City Attorney Kit Williams said he ended up becoming intimately familiar with the false alarm ordinance when the city got sued over it in 2018. A Little Rock law firm sued the city, Hot Springs and Little Rock in a class action lawsuit over their false alarm ordinances. The firm was seeking a refund of all fines, fees, late fees and any other money paid under the city’s false alarm reduction ordinance for the previous three years, along with compensatory damages and legal fees.

A Washington County Circuit Court judge dismissed the case against Fayetteville with prejudice.

Williams said after reviewing the ordinance, he decided to get together with the Police Department to make some improvements. He said he felt the dollar amounts for the penalties were too high.

“I did not like the fees,” he said. “We’re not wanting to collect money.”

The city plans to hire a new company to administer the ordinance once the council approves the changes. It contracted with Cry Wolfe since 2008. However, Cry Wolfe’s parent company, AOT Public Safety Corp., was sold to a different company, CentralSquare Technologies.

The new company made mistakes and generated a lot of resident complaints, Deputy Police Chief Jamie Fields said. The city notified CentralSquare Technologies in February it would end the contract within 60 days. The city will seek proposals from a new company to register alarm users and track, bill and collect the fees associated with the ordinance.

A media representative for CentralSquare Technologies declined to comment on the contract with the city.

Any penalties imposed on a property or business owner come from the contractor, Fields said. Police don’t issue tickets for false alarms, and the matters are civil, not criminal, in nature.

The Police Department has an administrator who goes through alarm data from the dispatch system to parse out anomalies. The administrator takes out calls caused by weather or power outages, as well as calls where the officer was called off before getting to the address the alarm came from. If it’s a false alarm and dispatch tells the officer in time, the property or business owner won’t be given a false alarm.

Police responded to about 2,200 security alarms last year, about 98% of which were false, Fields said. However, that’s an improvement from before the city adopted the ordinance. Police were responding to nearly 4,000 false alarm calls a year before the ordinance.

By that measure, the false alarm ordinance has been a success, Fields said. The nature of security alarms has changed in recent years, she said. When the ordinance was first adopted, most alarm calls came from businesses. Now that home security systems can be easily purchased in stores and installed at home, most of the alarm calls police respond to are at residences, she said.

The appeals committee hasn’t met in several years because the department’s alarm administrator has been settling the appeals on the front end, largely in the favor of alarm users, Fields said.

Testing is key

Springdale and Rogers have similar ordinances dealing with false security alarms. The two cities don’t require registration to have a security alarm, but do impose penalties for false alarms.

Springdale allows up to five false alarms in a calendar year. A $50 penalty is imposed on alarms six through 10. After 10 false alarms, the dollar amount increases to $100 each time.

Rogers allows three false alarms in a calendar year without imposing a penalty, but sends a warning letter after the first one. The penalty is $50 for the fourth through seventh alarms and goes to $100 for the eighth and each subsequent false alarm.

Joshua Jones, owner of Sharp’s Lock & Alarm on College Avenue in Fayetteville, said the best way to avoid having false alarms is to test the system regularly. Users can put their systems on test mode and trigger it without having police notified, he said.

Jones recommended testing a security alarm system at least quarterly. A good practice is to set the alarm with a door or window left open intentionally so the user can familiarize themselves with what the alarm will do when there’s a problem. Systems older than 10 years can still function well, as long as they’re tested regularly, he said.

The most common cause of false alarms is user error, Jones said. It’s important for the user to understand how the system works. He recommended having a licensed professional install a security alarm system, even if it’s a self-install model.

Motion sensors also can be a common cause of false alarms if there are objects in the way of the sensors. Mice and other varmints sometimes can get into the wiring of a system and cause a false alarm, he said.

“Those customers who routinely test their systems, they are the customers who never have any trouble and they really understand their system,” Jones said. “If anything does start acting wonky, they know about it before it causes a problem.”

   Joshua Jones, (right) owner of Sharp’s Lock & Alarm, and alarm technician David Carr install a stand-alone storefront access control system Friday June 2, 2023 at a Fayetteville business. Fayetteville is considering changes to its ordinance dealing with false security alarms, including reducing the fees property and business owners can get for having too many in a year. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today’s photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)

   David Carr, alarm technician at Sharp’s Lock & Alarm, installs a stand-alone storefront access control system Friday June 2, 2023 at a Fayetteville business. Fayetteville is considering changes to its ordinance dealing with false security alarms, including reducing the fees property and business owners can get for having too many in a year. Visit nwaonline.com/photo for today’s photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. Wampler)