Howard County police will soon have a new tool to fight one of their biggest nuisances: false alarms.
Following an example set by many municipalities across the nation, Howard County adopted an ordinance last year aimed at reducing alarm calls by issuing citations and fining offenders $50 or more if police receive more than two false alarms from the same source in a year.
Howard police have kept track of false burglary alarms on their own for about a year, but they recently spent nearly $60,000 on a computer program that will help them track the more than 20,000 alarm calls they receive each year - almost all of which are false.
Cities from Phoenix to Hartford, Conn., have adopted false-alarm ordinances during the past decade as they try to preserve police resources. Although most depend on the warnings and fines to reduce the number of false alarms, the Las Vegas Police Department won't even answer alarm calls unless they first have been checked by a security company.
As more municipalities monitor false alarms and fine repeat offenders, they need outside help to keep track of them, experts say.
"False alarms are becoming a hot issue ... and these [computer] programs are a lot easier to work through," said David Johnson, director of government affairs for the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association in Silver Spring.
Howard's program is CryWolf. Its Waldorf-based manufacturer, AOT-Public Safety Corp., says it is being used by nearly 20 law-enforcement departments across the country, including those in Calvert, Frederick and Baltimore counties.
At a cost of $25,000 to several hundred thousand dollars, the program monitors the number of alarms at each address in a database that can be accessed by police dispatchers. It can also create bills for repeat offenders.
Even without CryWolf, Howard County police have seen a reduction in the number of alarms.
In 2000, the year before the ordinance went into effect, the county received 24,013 alarm calls. Last year, it received 22,601.
Nearly 99 percent of the calls were false alarms, according to Cpl. Lisa Myers, a police department spokeswoman.
Although most of the erroneous calls were easily addressed - old batteries, cleaning crews and inclement weather can set off alarms - they required a lot of manpower to investigate, Myers said.
Two officers are generally sent to each alarm, which can "eat up a lot of time" depending on the size of the building, she said.
"It's really not the best use of our resources," she said.
Police officials said they will install CryWolf in the next several months and hope it will lead to a further decrease in false-alarm calls.
"Anything we do to reduce them and keep officers out on legitimate calls is positive," Myers said.