Lesson Learned From Milwaukee Is Need to Communicate Better With Law Enforcement

In the last months of 2004, the Wisconsin Burglar and Fire Alarm Association (WBFAA) fought to retain police response in Milwaukee after the city’s police chief announced a verified response policy.

We hope our battle will raise the awareness of how ordinance campaigns surface and what we can do as an industry to help influence local alarm ordinances and policies. Alarm companies, installers and monitoring centers are critical to the process because they serve as the first source of information. Our ability to get involved in these debates and succeed in getting our message across is heavily contingent on working cooperatively with local officials early in the process and receiving accurate information.

Fighting Through Public Relations
In late July, the police chief in Milwaukee announced officers would no longer respond to burglar alarms after Sept. 19. The WBFAA fought this policy in a coordinated manner with support from the Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC). A concerted public relations campaign ensued that included mobilizing customers, writing letters to the editor of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, radio and television interviews with industry officials, and meetings with the mayor, police chief and city council members. Despite our efforts, the police chief did not budge and a nonresponse ordinance went into effect.

Throughout our efforts in Milwaukee, one thing has become painfully clear: With few exceptions, the alarm industry has done a poor job of maintaining relations with law enforcement. While we disagree with the Milwaukee Police Department’s recent policy change, it is hard to argue with the chief’s assessment that the rate of false alarms has been unacceptable and a waste of police resources.

Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that the alarm industry was never involved in the decision-making process that led to this policy. While it’s true a couple of recent attempts to communicate on our part were ignored, it is also a fact that very little, if anything, was done during the past six to eight years to give any indication that we cared. And for that, we have only ourselves to blame.

Prepare Better for Ordinances
Our experiences in Milwaukee tell us we must better prepare for future ordinance activities that may arise in other communities. Several major lessons should guide us as we address alarm management issues elsewhere:
1) Build relationships: Know your police chief, mayor and city council members. Get to know them personally if you can.
2) Follow what is going on locally in the media – newspaper, TV, radio. Pay attention to alarm issues in particular.
3) Stay involved in the NBFAA and your local state alarm association.
4) Forward any emerging alarm management issues to the leaders of your state association.
And most importantly…
5) Do all you can to minimize unnecessary police dispatches.

Industry Needs to Be Responsible
The security alarm industry will not be able to change every negative ordinance that affects our business. However, we will be able to change an ordinance to more closely reflect positions that work effectively for customers, the community and the industry if we are aware and engaged with local officials. Your support and involvement are critical in this process.

Milwaukee isn’t the only police department facing tough budgetary constraints. And false alarms are on the minds of police chiefs and sheriffs across the country. Yet to be determined is whether the alarm industry will truly learn from this experience. It’s easy to pull together when there’s a crisis, and we’ve done that well. But what matters even more is how we respond once the dust settles.

Many of us have signed pledges to reduce false alarms. This was a necessary, albeit symbolic step. The true measure of our resolve will be determined by how we live up to our promises. Law enforcement, alarm owners and alarm companies all share responsibility in reducing false alarms. It’s time for the alarm industry to stand up and be accountable for its part. Status quo is no longer an option.

Mike Horgan has been the president of the Wisconsin Burglar & Fire Alarm Association (WBFAA) since May 2004. He is the president of Horgan Sales & Service in Stevens Point, Wis., founded in 1959. Horgan can be reached at (877) 230-5110 or by E-mail at president@wbfaa.org

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