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Alarms cost taxpayers money
AREA — False alarms generated by electronic systems are costing local taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars, but law enforcement officials say that there is no simple answer.
"I've thought about it for almost 30 years," said Oxford Police Chief John Tibbetts. "There's no easy solution."
One of the biggest alarm companies in the world is ADT, which claims that it handles 93,000 alarms every day for more than six million North American customers.
Nationwide, a Department of Justice study found that up to 4 percent of alarms were actual instances of trespass, but in rural Maine, even fewer alarms are legitimate.
Tibbetts says that there are about 100 alarm-equipped structures in Oxford. Most of the alarms are rarely, if ever, activated, but an estimated pool of about two dozen structures resulted in 157 calls for the Oxford Police Department.
Of those, says Tibbetts "157 were false alarms."
That's not unusual. Over the course of his career, says Tibbetts, "less than 1 percent have actually been the real thing. And that's probably being generous."
Tibbetts estimates that the calls take up about a half-hour of officer time each, at a total cost of nearly $1,200 to Oxford taxpayers.
Norway has experienced 121 alarms over the past 12 months, all of which were false alarms. Chief Robert Federico says that they cost officers a minimum of a half-hour of time, "if not an hour," because a report has to be generated for each incident.
In 15 years, Federico says that an estimated 1,800 alarm incidents in Norway have alerted police to only two burglaries, both of which involved businesses.
Despite the vanishingly small return on the investment of time, Tibbetts says that the officers have no choice but to make an appearance.
"The one we don't respond to will be the real thing," he said.
False alarms, absent keyholders
False alarms can mean an equipment malfunction, such as a sensor that registers motion in an empty, still room.
Or, it could mean that there's a pet wandering into the face of a camera. Or a piece of paper that flutters every time a heat register is engaged.
A recurring false alarm can also lead to hard feelings between law enforcement officials and property owners, the vast majority of whom, says Tibbetts, would rather let officers respond multiple times in a single night than drag themselves out of bed.
"My pet peeve is to go to an alarm and have dispatch tell me there's no key holder," said Tibbetts. "Now I'm out in the cold checking your building which has an alarm on it, and you can't get out of bed and come down and assist me."
Federico says that in Norway, the alarm is less of an inconvenience, because municipal police are on the streets around the clock anyway. When a sheriff is called out of bed to respond to a false alarm, that officer is paid a minimum of three hours overtime.
When the owner doesn't materialize, there is often no way to stop the alarm from going off again.
"A lot of times, when we go to an alarm and there's no keyholder, we're almost guaranteed to have that alarm go off again that night, because usually, if there's an alarm, there's a problem," said Tibbets. "There's a banner inside, there's a bird inside, there's a mouse inside, there's something inside that is going to set it off again."
Barry Jordan, a local representative for ADT security, says that repeat calls in a residence is unlikely.
"I don't think that we have that happen, because if we get a repeat alarm at the same house, then we'll go out and move the sensor if it happens to be a pet issue," he said.
Chief Federico says that he only sees three or four repeat offenders in Norway.
Tibbetts says that most of these situations can be resolved with a little effort on the part of the property owner.
"The biggest thing I can say is to maintain your alarm," said Tibbetts. "If you own a piece of property, the alarm company is going to call you and tell you that your alarm is going off. ... You know your alarm went off. If it goes off twice in a month, you've got a problem. You need to call your alarm company."
When the alarm company is called, says Jordan, a technician will replace a faulty sensor, or make other adjustments. The visit, says Jordan, resolves most false alarm situations.
Jordan says that most alarms are nipped in the bud, before law enforcement agencies are contacted.
"Most companies, including ADT, participate in a false alarm program," said Jordan.
Jordan says that, under the program, the alarm company attempts to contact the homeowner, who is often on the premises and able to verify that no security threat exists.
The program, says Jordan, was a response to this very problem.
"Law enforcement today, they're getting to the point where they don't want to go to your house repeatedly for false alarms," he said. "This program ... eliminates most false alarms."
For now, Oxford is not attempting to pass on the costs of the alarms to the problematic property owners. Tibbetts says that the department sees it as their duty to respond to each call.
Other towns aren't so kind to the alarm owner.
Jordan says that many communities charge hundreds of dollars per call to homeowners who have nuisance false alarms.
The town of Polk City, Florida, passed an ordinance requiring alarm holders to identify an individual who can respond to the alarm. Multiple false alarms result in a series of escalating fines, starting with $50 for the third false alarm, and topping out at $500 for the tenth, and subsequent, incidents in a one-year period.
Bridgton has had a similar ordinance on the books for 20 years. Their rules require both residents and businesses to pay an annual fee for each alarm, and impose a fine for generating more than three false alarms in a 12-month period. The fee is "not more than $200."
Federico says that such a structure was discussed in Norway, but that the town's Board of Selectmen ultimately decided to take a different point of view.
"They're all taxpayers," said Federico. "Unless it becomes absolutely ridiculous ... part of their taxes are paying for us to check these."
More sophisticated systems can help to eliminate false alarms, but those systems come with a higher price tag for the individual home owner, says Jordan.
"We also have the inside cameras, the Pulse system which are live cameras," said Jordan. "You can view them with any Blackberry, I-phone, laptop computer or computer anywhere in the world."
Such a system can be used to view a room in which an alarm is being activated. If the room is demonstrably empty while the alarm is being engaged, then the alarm can be ruled out, says Jordan.
This is a solution that won't become universal any time soon.
"Some people just simply can't afford that," said Jordan.