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Security companies decry proposed charges for calls


BETHESDA -- Security companies operating in Montgomery County are sounding an alarm over a proposed law that would require them to use a pay-per-call number and be charged a fee each time they report a break-in or other emergency to the police.

The proposed legislation is designed to reduce the more than 37,000 false alarms reported to police last year, says its sponsor, Montgomery County Council member, Gail H. Ewing. She says false alarms put a strain on law enforcement resources and cost county taxpayers about $1 million.

The fee would be refunded, she says, if there were signs of a break-in when the police responded to an alarm. Although the exact amount of the fee has not yet been set, both sides agree that it will be $25.

Members of the Montgomery County Citizens for Safety, a newly formed ad hoc organization made up of representatives of alarm companies, business users and homeowners, called a news conference at the Holiday Inn here last week to denounce the measure.

The "900" number system penalizes the use of alarm systems, not the abuse of alarm systems, the group claims. It favors an alternative proposal that would penalize commercial establishments or homeowners for false alarms. They also advocate an annual permit for a home system that might cost $25 and a cutoff of police response to a site after a specified number of false alarms.

The organization also suggests that all security companies be required to offer a verification service in which the monitoring company calls a customer's home to see if there was a false alarm before notifying the police.

Eighty-five percent of false alarms result from customer error, industry sources say. In most cases, the customer forgets to turn the system off when entering the house.

Patricia M. Smith, president of Security Inc. in Bethesda and head of Montgomery County Citizens for Safety, says the pay-per-call fee imposes a financial burden "that could put a lot of alarm companies out of business."

Mrs. Smith explains that the proposed law imposes the charge on the security companies because they are the ones that call police. Even in cases where a refund or credit is due, she says, there would be a need for a another full-time worker to process the paperwork. She is concerned about putting security companies in the position of trying to collect the fee from their customers.

Although there are some giant companies in the alarm business, including Westinghouse Electric Corp., Brinks Inc. and ADT Inc., Mrs. Smith says the industry is filled with small, family-operated companies like her own, with five to seven employees.

She says that Ms. Ewing's bill would boost their cost of doing business while reducing the number of potential customers by raising the cost of home security systems.

Mrs. Smith and other security company officials are also opposed to the involvement of the local telephone company in the county's proposed fee system.

She says that regional phone companies have already expressed interest in moving into the security-monitoring business. Her concern is that the phone company's involvement in the proposed Montgomery County system could give the utility access to a security company's proprietary information, including the address and the phone number of its customers.

"If this passes in Montgomery County," Mrs. Smith said of the proposed system, "it will spread like wildfire across the country."

A public heading on Ms. Ewing's proposal is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. March 10 in the County Council building in Rockville.

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