Looking at False Alarms Behind the Badge

With November 2001 now behind us, so too is yet another National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (NBFAA)-sponsored False Alarm Prevention Month. A lot of attention is focused on the problem of false alarms throughout the year by the NBFAA, but the topic is especially hot each November when it’s covered extensively by several leading trade publications, including Security Sales & Integration. But is it making a difference?

In magazine articles and on its Web site (www.alarm.org), the NBFAA indicates it “has initiated a multifaceted plan to educate alarm dealers about false alarm issues and foster cooperation and communication with law enforcement.”

As a municipal law enforcement manager who oversees false alarm prevention efforts, I was curious about the net gains reaped by local alarm ordinance managers and fellow members of the False Alarm Reduction Association (FARA), one of the two organizations partnering with NBFAA in this annual effort. FARA is composed of government and law enforcement personnel who work in local false alarm reduction units.

Unfortunately, while some alarm coordinators enjoy ongoing and fruitful relationships with local alarm dealers, the direct results from this month-long, nationwide campaign were less than encouraging. A survey of FARA members showed that no new inroads were made with local dealers during False Alarm Prevention Month.

Somehow, some way, alarm dealers must become more proactive in addressing the false alarm problem, and soon. Otherwise, police departments around the country may institute verified-response policies.

Success Stories Are Few and Far Between

Big cities with comprehensive false alarm reduction programs like Seattle, Sacramento, Calif., and Tampa, Fla., reported no additional contacts with alarm company representatives in November. While some FARA members from smaller jurisdictions reported similar results, others enjoy excellent relationships. Mike Thoelke of the Kansas City (Missouri) Police Department says: “We have a wonderful working relationship with the local NBFAA chapter. Members teach our False Alarm User Awareness Classes and most appear to be concerned about their customers’ false alarm records. Several of the companies even take proactive approaches to the problem and staff members contact the customer personally after each false alarm so they can determine the cause. Some go so far as to offer incentives [free monitoring, etc.] to customers who attend our false alarm class.

If such stories were more commonplace across the country, the false alarm problem would probably be no problem at all. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Denise Shaw of the Charles County (Maryland) False Alarm Reduction Unit says her agency sponsored several activities in recognition of False Alarm Prevention Month. County commissioners, the sheriff, and chiefs of fire and emergency medical services attended a local ceremony. Bill stuffers were sent out in regular alarm-related mailings, and utility bills and a press release were distributed to local news media—all about November being declared False Alarm Prevention Month.

However, for all her efforts, when asked how many phone calls she received from local alarm companies concerned about the false alarm problem, Denise replied, “I never received any.”

Sellers Fuel Expectations, Ignore Other Measures

Michael Betten, CPP, of the Overland Park (Kansas) Police Department’s Crime Prevention Unit raises a number of concerns about the public’s expectation of police response; how some companies sell alarms as a panacea against home invasion attacks and the potential of verified response.

“So many of our false alarm reduction class participants have such unreasonable expectations of police services; it’s aggravating,” says Betten. “But law enforcement is partially to blame. We have allowed the alarm industry to sell its services without any accountability. Law enforcement should take a proactive response in educating alarm users or go to verified response.”

Betten’s belief that a more holistic methodology to residential security is more effective than an alarm-only approach is supported in the book, Securing Home and Business: A Guide to the Electronic Security Industry (1997, Butterworth-Heinmann). Drs. Erwin Blackstone and Simon Hakim note, “Effective protection of homes requires both a burglar alarm and three or more security precautions,” such as interior and exterior lighting, a dog, a car parked in the driveway, and deadbolt locks.

Security salespeople who walk into a home through an unreinforced front door to pitch only the sale of a alarm system without considering what additional steps the homeowner can take to “target harden” a home are doing the homeowner a disservice. It takes only seconds to defeat a standard door or window, and no alarm system can protect a family or business in that situation.

Furthermore, there is only a 46-percent chance that a mass-marketed alarm will detect an intruder before entry is made, and such systems offer no protection against fire. Security salespeople say that a free or low-cost alarm system is 100-percent better than no alarm system at all, but do these same salespeople mention to prospective clients that the odds of detecting an intruder before they are actually inside their home is only 50-50?

Users Are Often Not Properly Instructed

Crime Prevention Technician Kim Kiley of the Blaine, Minn., Police Department has not had any contact with local alarm companies and is particularly concerned about the effectiveness of end-user training.

“I find that most of the residents have little or no idea about how their system functions or operates, or how to maintain it,” he says. “Just plain old operating instructions are severely lacking.”

Results from a survey of alarm users in Oxnard, Calif., echo Kiley’s concerns. In 2000 and 2001, the City of Oxnard Security Alarm Survey was distributed to residents and businesses known to have alarm systems (a copy of the survey is posted on the Oxnard Police Department Web site www.oxnardpd.org/alarmsurvey.htm).

A total of 108 surveys were tabulated as part of this study. Most of the respondents (65 percent) learned how to use their alarm through instruction conducted by the alarm dealer or installer; one-quarter (23 percent) learned by reading the owner’s manual; and 3 percent learned how to work the alarm from a third party. Surprisingly, 5 percent admitted they did not know how to use their system at all.

Only five percent of alarm owners indicated they learned how to operate their alarm or enhanced their operating skills by watching a video.

Customers in the Dark About Licenses, Fines

Oxnard Security Alarm Survey respondents were also asked specific questions about their contact with the alarm salesperson regarding alarm permits and false alarm fines. Fifty-eight percent of customers were not told that an alarm permit was required; 12 percent did not receive instruction on how to cancel an accidental alarm; and 63 percent were not told of the potential for false alarms fines.

The results of this survey indicate a general lack of honesty and information sharing by alarm salespersons with prospective clients, along with a failure to follow-up on potential false alarm problems. Local ordinances and the ramifications stemming from improper use of an alarm system must be openly discussed with potential buyers. Central stations have to work more closely with alarm installation companies in order to better track and address false alarms at the outset.

Technology Could Help Lessen False Alarms

According to the NBFAA and other sources, alarm system owners and users cause 76 percent of all false alarms. If this is true, the problem might be that, for<

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