Changes sought for false-alarm measure


A task force is searching for ways to fine-tune Baltimore County's false-alarm ordinance, a law that police say is working, but that some business owners say unfairly penalizes them.

The task force, composed of 11 business owners and county councilmen Joseph Bartenfelder, Vincent J. Gardina and John A. Olszewski Sr., will offer proposals that would allow businesses to avoid fines by alerting police to false alarms. "I don't think they are looking to do away with the system. ... We are looking for consistency," said Olszewski.

Every time a burglar alarm goes off by mistake, county police say, it takes about 16 minutes for an officer to investigate - time that would be better spent preventing or fighting crime.

That's why the County Council established fines in 1998 for businesses that issued repeated false alarms. Fines for homeowners took effect last year. Fines are levied after a home or business issues three false alarm calls in a year, and range from $50 to $1,000.

Police say the system has worked. Alarm calls dropped 18.5 percent in the year ending June 30, compared with the same period one year earlier, officials said. During the former, the county levied $2.2 million in fines on residents and businesses.

But business owners say often they are fined because of circumstances beyond their control: a faulty alarm system or a new employee who does not know how to cancel an alarm. "We have opened several new businesses, and have had to bring in a lot of new people. It's an ongoing training issue," said Kellie Rychwalski, vice president for operations at six branches of Baltimore County Savings Bank. "We just have had several problems on things that we feel are out of our control."

"One mistake can cost you a lot of money," said Rychwalski, who said she has paid several thousand dollars in fines.

Businesses and homeowners are not fined if they alert police to a false alarm before an officer arrives to investigate. Olszewski said the task force might propose establishing a time limit during which a cancellation call must be made as the criterion for issuing fines, rather than automatically issuing them if officers arrive to investigate.

"If [an officer] is on the scene within one minute, the individual doesn't have the opportunity to say it's a false alarm," he said.

But county police said any time officers spend investigating an alarm call takes them away from patrolling neighborhoods and fighting crime. "Once an officer is there and out of his car, he is diverted from his other duties," said police spokesman Bill Toohey. "It's a very large problem. We need to find a way to make sure the false alarm doesn't go off in the first place. This proposal doesn't do that."

From July 1, 1999, through June 30, officers responded to 67,762 alarm calls, compared with 83,132 the preceding 12 months. That decrease came as the number of alarm systems installed in the county was increasing by 6 percent, police said.

Authorities estimate that 98 percent of those calls were false alarms. False alarms account for the calls county police receive most frequently. The calls represent close to one-fifth of all calls received in 1999. Police said there was a 34.8 percent increase in the number of calls canceled by residents reporting false alarms: 6,121 cancellations during the year ending June 30, compared with 4,542 the previous year. No fines are imposed for canceled calls, provided an officer has not arrived to investigate.

Steven R. Heggemann, manager of the police Alarm Reduction Team, said that since the fines were instituted, many businesses have updated or checked their alarm systems to ensure that they are working properly. "A lot of employers have really worked to train employees," he said. "It means that people are getting the message."

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