Hoping to save millions of dollars in squandered police time, Baltimore County will become the latest combatant in a national crackdown on false alarms.
Starting Dec. 14, businesses with more than two false alarms will face fines, and next year, the law will cover homeowners as well. Last year, police say, 83,000 false alarms cost the county $5 million.
Baltimore County is not alone in wasting time and money on the spectral wails of alarm systems set off by misuse, carelessness, wind, rain, pets -- even helium balloons. In the last decade, false alarms have strained police resources all over the United States.
As the cost of alarm systems dropped dramatically in the late 1980s, the number of homes and businesses buying them skyrocketed. Nationwide, the number jumped from 1.5 million in 1985 to more than 17 million this year, according to the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, which represents the $14 billion-a-year alarm industry.
The county joins several hundred cities, counties and towns that have imposed fines for repeated false alarms -- among them Philadelphia, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New Orleans. Phoenix has even created an "alarm school" for repeat offenders.
Under the new county law, a third false alarm will cost $50, a fourth $100, and the penalties will increase by $50 up to $1,000 for 14 or more offenses.
In Maryland, Montgomery County's false-alarm law became a national model after it reduced false-alarm calls 32 percent in three years.
Montgomery police handle about 44,000 alarm calls a year, said Norma C. Beaubien, director of the police department's False Alarm Reduction Unit. Such units have become so prevalent that Beaubien presides over a national association with 200 members in the United States and Canada.
Prince George's County, which had 80,000 false alarm calls last year, began fining repeat offenders and learned some surprising things, said Charlynn Flaherty, director of the false-alarm reduction unit.
"We had a lot of parents calling saying they used it as a baby-sitting service," she said. Parents would deliberately not give their adolescent children the alarm code, she said -- and when the children came home from school and triggered the alarm, police would respond and parents would be sure their children were safe.
"It wasn't one or two people," Flaherty said. "It was a lot of people."
Howard and Anne Arundel counties, facing an increased number of false alarms, are considering laws that punish repeat offenders. Harford County has a system of progressive fines.
In Baltimore City, which has no false-alarm law, police responded last year to 130,000 alarms. Ninety-three percent of them were false, said Sgt. Andrew Snakovsky.
"We are working on a law," Snakovsky said.
Safety is one of the biggest reasons that police officers and even the alarm industry support fines for repeat offenders.
A series of false alarms can create a dangerous complacency for the officer responding to an alarm call, Sheridan said. "Maybe the officer decides, 'I'm not going to rush over there' -- or maybe they get there, and it's the real thing."
Baltimore County's law will focus first on businesses, which represent a significant portion of the false alarm calls, police said. Frequently changing personnel and large numbers of lTC people coming through a building tend to produce more false alarms.
At present, the county police have no way of counting how many false alarms are residential and how many are business. But starting Dec. 14, businesses that sell alarm systems and the businesses that buy them will be required to register -- a move Sheridan hopes will help pinpoint where the problems are.
"We don't know where the problem is -- we just know we have a problem," he said.
Next year, residential alarm system users will be required to register with the county -- and face fines for more than two false alarms. Like Phoenix, the county will waive a fine once for an offender who attends a one-hour class.
"This is not about anything but changing behavior," said Sheridan, who said his home has an alarm system. "False alarms are the result of human error."
Pub Date: 12/04/98