Ringing Out the False Alarms


Harford County's new law that levies escalating fines for false burglar alarms goes into effect this week and none too soon, for both the protection and financial benefit of the community.

In a world panicked by the spread of crime and vandalism, the proliferation of private security alarms has been an inevitable response, particularly in homes that employ security alert services (up 40 percent in the U.S. since 1987). Yet with Murphy's Law in full force, the systems seem bound to misfire with disturbing frequency.

Last year, the Harford sheriff's department responded to 5,000 false burglar alarms, or 95 percent of the total alarms, at a taxpayer cost of $140,000. That takes deputies away from legitimate policing duties.

"We basically have become a security service," says DeWayne Curry, spokesman for the sheriff's office, because deputies dutifully respond to alarms from homeowners or businesses, even when the property owner isn't concerned enough to check it out, he notes. Some alarms go off every night at the same time, and the owner does not bother to fix the malfunctioning system.

The number of home security alarms tied to commercial services has added to the potential problem, but officials say the business alarm that is never fixed is a more common occurrence.

The new fine system allows three false alarms in one month, or eight in one year, without penalty. After all, the purpose of the alarms is to prevent crime. Following the third false alarm in a month, the fines range from $25 to $75 each. After the eighth false alarm in a year, each subsequent misfire costs $150.

In a related action this week, Baltimore County enacted a law permitting the fire department to issue citations with fines (like traffic tickets) to owners of fire alarm systems that repeatedly produce false alarms.

Baltimore County firefighters respond to about 600 false alarms a year that are traced to malfunctioning systems, as opposed to mischiefmakers who are subject to criminal penalties. (Baltimore City and Montgomery County are among jurisdictions that have the ticketing system, which avoids the lengthy delays of taking violators to court.)

Tougher fines for false alarms in Baltimore and Harford counties should force property owners to correct their balky alarm systems more promptly. That will increase security for all of us, through more effective use of our public safety resources.

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