A Clear-Eyed View in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City officials were loaded for bear. The hunt was on to quash the rampant false alarms that beleaguered the police department.

So, in 2000, quoting statistics that less than 1 percent of alarm calls result from actual crimes, Salt Lake City passed a measure that catapulted it to notoriety as America’s first major city to adopt a verified response ordinance.

Advocates within the police department defended the policy (also called non- or no-response) vigorously, saying the city was saving almost $500,000 annually by no longer having to respond to false dispatches. Area alarm dealers fought back with equal force to defend industry practices that had already provided Salt Lake City with some of the nation’s lowest false dispatch rates at that time.

If the period leading up to the passage of the ordinance was contentious, the ensuing years of seemingly endless fallout were downright bitter — and misleading.

Volleys of statistical data buttressing the efficacy of verified response or, conversely, shooting it down cold, flew back and forth as the fractured camps touted one study over another. But one piece of data, released by the police department soon after the ordinance was implemented, hit like a lightening strike: Police heralded verified response for an “immediate and unprecedented” 90 percent reduction in alarm responses.

Hailed as proof positive the Holy Grail of alarm reduction had been demonstrated, Salt Lake City would become the rallying cry for cities across the nation seeking to ease the burden of responding to false alarms.

The central tenet of verified response in Salt Lake City — require dealers to pay for private guards to investigate each alarm and confirm a crime before police will respond — moved to the fore and assumed the bully pulpit. Silenced were the dealers’ contentions that their well-established methods without verified response were proven, if only law enforcement would continue to participate.

To every foreground there is a background, and it is there in the recesses of the fray that the alarm dealers would continue their conscientious, community-based work outside of Salt Lake City to reduce false dispatches.

In the wake of the 2000 policy adoption, the dedicated work of alarm dealers in and around Salt Lake City is only now coming in to full view for the rest of the country to witness. Having forgone efforts to reverse adoption of verified response in Salt Lake City, dedicated dealers are restoring the good name of alarmed security without their deserved recognition.

Storm of Controversy Descends Over City; Reality Obscured
Leading up to the infamous ordinance vote, the Utah Alarm Association felt compelled to take out full-page ads in two local newspapers to inform residents that police departments outside of Salt Lake City around the Salt Lake Valley were deliberating behind closed doors to pass verified response policies.

The ad was replete with stark, declarative language: “Burglary is not just a property crime. Murder, rape, assault, and arson often accompany burglaries. Women and children are most often the victims.” More statistical information was bared: “Less than 1% of locations with alarm systems have even one burglary attempt. In 1999, Salt Lake City’s 1,148 alarmed sites had only 23 burglary attempts. Those without alarm systems had approximately 3,000 burglaries.”

Ed Bruerton, president and founder of Sandy City, Utah-based Anchor Alarm, says the ads were an 11th-hour attempt to alert an unapprised public. “This was an effort to head off what was already going on behind everybody’s back,” he says. The battle lines were hardened.

Shanna Werner, Salt Lake City Police Department alarm administrator and a principal advocate of verified response, responded vehemently to the ads. In a letter to the editor that was published on the heels of the association’s ad, she opened with:

“I found the full-page ad paid for by the Utah Alarm Association to be highly sensationalized and a last-ditch effort to keep police officers responding to the 99-percent false alarms prevalent in my city. This article used tactics typical of this industry to scare, bully, threaten and make people feel as if they are not providers or protectors of their family if they don’t install an alarm system. I wasn’t aware that private industry dictated policy to police departments.”

And Werner closed with more stats, and a barb or two: “Only 17 percent of the population are causing the other 83 percent of the citizens to pay half-a-million dollars for the 8,000 false alarms officers responded to in 1999. I don’t mind paying taxes for police response, but let the alarm users pay for their upgraded response. I get free television channels, but if I upgrade to cable, I have to pay for the extra service. Alarm systems should get the same treatment.”

Then in 2005, Peak Alarm Co. sued the city of Salt Lake City, its police department and Werner. The civil lawsuit, which is set to go to before a jury some time in the fall, says the constitutional rights of Peak Alarm Central Station Manager Jeff Howe were violated and defamed when a criminal charge of making a false alarm was filed against him in 2003 under the city’s verified response ordinance.

The case, in which Howe faced six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, was dismissed by a judge in April 2004. Howe had been accused of making a false alarm in dispatching officers to a reported break-in at a school. The lawsuit cites several comments, letters and E-mails made by Werner, including a letter published in the June 2002 edition of Security Sales & Integration, as examples of her “painting a broad and damaging brush” of the alarm industry.

In recent times, however, the battle of statistics, wits, personalities and philosophical indifference has slowly subsided. The clanging discourse quieted. The alarm industry, says Bruerton, an active participant in the Salt Lake City debate, fought the good fight but it’s over for now.

“The biggest reason why we’re not doing anything now [in Salt Lake City] is just because we’re moving on,” he says. “It doesn’t hurt the alarm companies to have no-response. It hurts customers. We stuck up for them. We did the best we could, and now that’s fine.”

An Untold Success Story Begins to Emerge From the Heated Abyss
Law enforcement statistics. Association statistics. Government and academic studies. Surveys, number crunching and analysis by the ton. Suffice to say, both sides of the verified response debate come to the table with reams of data in support of their purview. Some of it is compelling. Some of it is slanted. Some of it is transparently flawed or so the camps argue. Spreadsheets and opining aside, maybe the best way to judge success of an effort to stem false dispatches, and to find clarity, is to look to the outlaying communities of Salt Lake City where some of the same dealers are practicing the same methodology they were preaching during the Salt Lake City clash.

Example: Sandy City in Salt Lake County, which has a population under 95,000. Sitting at the foot of the Wasatch Mountains, it is Utah’s sixth largest city. In 2006, coordinated efforts between local law enforcement and alarm dealers won the city the right to boast the lowest false-alarm rate in the nation, according to survey results collected by the Utah Alarm Association and the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC).

The combined average rate of false alarms between residential homes and businesses in Sandy City that police officers respond to is .27 per year, says Duff Astin, an alar
m coordinator with the Sandy City Police Department who oversees the alarm program. He reports that each of the city’s more than 5,100 alarms will have a false alarm once every four years. The national average is roughly .5 false alarms per year.

A homebrewed program incorporating a strategic combination of several of the following reduction methods can put a notable dent in the false dispatch rate, supporters say: monthly documentation of false alarms, enhanced call verification (ECV ), endorsement of CP-01 compliant control panels and an alarm ordinance that fines habitual violators and requires alarm permits.

“CP-01 panels, better systems and a more informed citizenry all contribute to the drop in false alarms,” says Astin, a civilian employee, who also sits on the state Burglar Alarm Licensing Board. “The neat thing about it is that the alarm companies discuss problems openly. If a company is struggling, we talk about it. Everything is brought out.”

Education is paramount. The need, Astin says, is for alarm companies to teach their customers the simple things: how to turn a system on and off, and how to cancel a tripped alarm. With 80 percent of all false alarms caused by human error, it’s the little things that bring the big reward.

The fruits of Sandy City’s concerted efforts to reduce false dispatches provide grist to the alarm industry’s story that the scourge of false alarms can be curtailed nationally with grassroots engagement with local clientele – a proven tool not implemented in verified response. To appreciate the strides made by dealers in Sandy City and in other Salt Lake Valley communities, it is helpful to look back in time and understand the distance traveled before success could be attained.

Joint Efforts and Creative Thinking Go a Long Way to Achieve Success

In 1989, when Salt Lake City’s false dispatch rate was a throbbing 2.64 (averaging more than 2.5 false alarm signals per system for the year), Salt Lake alarm companies and law enforcement officials joined forces to launch a collaborative initiative known as the Police and Alarm Cooperative Task Force (PACT).

Conceived and organized by Salt Lake County Sheriff Larry Maxwell and hosted by the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department, the first meeting was well received with more than 40 alarm companies attending.

Having met on a monthly basis since then, PACT has provided local law enforcement and alarm dealers a forum in which to express concerns and discuss trends regarding the false dispatch rate, as well as brainstorm solutions calculated to achieve further reduction in false dispatches.

Kevin Smith, national accounts executive with Siemens Building Technologies (SBT), and active in Salt Lake City’s reduction efforts in the years preceding verified response, says he remembers the enthusiasm of many alarm companies for the early PACT meetings. “ADT, Peak Alarm, Anchor Alarm and many others attended regularly. The people who attended represented 75 percent to 80 percent of the alarm users in Salt Lake City.”

The alarm coordinators from the attending police departments provided information gathered from their permitting issues with people who had an inordinate number of alarms. “We then worked with users who had the highest number of false alarms and, over the years, Utah has achieved one of the best, if not the best, alarm ratio per customer in the country,” adds Smith.

The chief draw of the PACT meetings is the circulation of printouts detailing each jurisdiction’s false dispatch rate. Participating cities include West Jordan, South Jordan and Sandy City. Every police department in attendance distributes its monthly statistics on alarm dispatches in its jurisdiction, allowing alarm companies to know how they stand in comparison to their peers.

“Because everybody knows what everybody is doing, some companies want to be the best and so they work at it,” says Bruerton. “Some just want to be above average, and others are satisfied if they’re anywhere in the middle, and that’s fine. But nobody wants to be last, so everybody has to keep shuffling forward or be left behind.”

Beginning with the average false dispatch rate of 2.64 in 1989, alarm dealers with systems in Salt Lake City worked diligently alongside local law enforcement to develop new practices and standards and to educate alarm owners on how to properly operate their systems. Under the auspices of the innovative program, Salt Lake City’s false dispatch rate underwent a dramatic transformation, eventually plummeting to 0.74 in 1999, or only one false alarm per system for every 17 months.

“And no one is there [at the meetings] trying to steal the other alarm companies’ customers,” Smith says, alluding to the apprehension some alarm dealers might have about making their customer base vulnerable to raids from other companies. “What we’re trying to do is maintain a viable working relationship with the municipalities. Everything we do benefits the other companies.”

Industry Collaboration With Law Enforcement Ended Abruptly

The mutually beneficial relationship between alarm dealers servicing the Salt Lake City area and the police  department eventually came to an abrupt end. The last full year the city participated in the PACT meetings was 1999, plus a portion of 2000, before the city council voted 4-2 in favor of verified response.

Bill LaRochelle, president of the Utah Alarm Association and district general manager of HSM Electronic Protection Services in Salt Lake City, recollects how bewildered he was by the city’s sudden change of heart. “Salt Lake City turned around and hit us with this out of nowhere,” he says. “It was a complete blindside.”

Werner says the Salt Lake City Police Department engaged the collaborative meetings for five years. In that time, she says, the city’s false alarm rate did not reduce sufficiently enough, precipitating a retreat from the collaborative efforts. “So, with verified response, we have shifted that burden of verification back to the industry who can control the problem,” Werner says.

When Salt Lake County stopped hosting the PACT meetings, alarm coordinator Astin inherited the project to continue the mission. Linda Ferguson, treasurer of the Utah Alarm Association, notes how instrumental the PACT meetings are in cultivating productive relations with law enforcement agencies today.

“If Duff has a problem in Sandy with an ADT customer, he’s not hesitant to call me at all,” says Ferguson, who also works for ADT. “Being interactive and getting to know each other has really made a positive effect in the area.”

Asked what Sandy City’s official stance is toward verified response, plain-speaking Astin gives an unadorned answer: “We respond.” In August 2006, to recognize their success as posting the nation’s lowest false dispatch rate, Sandy City dealers and law enforcement were joined by their brethren in area cities for a celebratory party.

Salt Lake City Alarm Dealers Keep Hope Alive With Cooperation

But the alarm industry knows that without participation from police officers and the city, it’s difficult to sustain a systemic and long-term downward trajectory in the false alarm dispatch rate.

“Without the cooperation of law enforcement it’s almost impossible to pull together any real stats because you have no idea what alarm companies have accounts there,” says Ron Walters, director of field operations for SIAC and a former city of Miami burglary detective. “If you have the police involved, they can serve as the clearing house for every alarm company. With a good, aggressive program working in cooperation with law enforcement, and with the right ordinance in
place, you can get a reduction between 80 and 90 percent. But it doesn’t happen in the first year.”

At least one dealer agrees that patience is key to enlisting other communities in the battle against both nonresponse and the false dispatch rate. A veteran of several nonresponse ordinance battles waged across the Salt Lake Valley, Bruerton looks ahead to a future time when two groups of professionals committed to public safety can reconcile for the common good.

“I would like two things before I get out of this industry,” he says. “I would love to see Salt Lake City reverse itself, and I would love to see the industry do what we’re doing here in Utah, because it works.”

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About the Author


Although Bosch’s name is quite familiar to those in the security industry, his previous experience has been in daily newspaper journalism. Prior to joining SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION in 2006, he spent 15 years with the Los Angeles Times, where he performed a wide assortment of editorial responsibilities, including feature and metro department assignments as well as content producing for latimes.com. Bosch is a graduate of California State University, Fresno with a degree in Mass Communication & Journalism. In 2007, he successfully completed the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association’s National Training School coursework to become a Certified Level I Alarm Technician.

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