Craig vetoes bill to increase fines for false fire alarms

The Baltimore Sun

A bill that would have raised fines considerably for false fire alarms in Harford County was vetoed Tuesday by County Executive David R. Craig, in a move that overturned a 6-1 County Council vote.

Craig wrote in a message accompanying his veto that there is no data to demonstrate that increases in fines and penalties would act as a deterrent.

Councilman Dion F. Guthrie, who introduced the bill, disagreed.

"I read his veto message, but I don't see any substance at all," Guthrie said. "To say that it is not a deterrent is ridiculous. All fines are a deterrent, at all levels, or they wouldn't have them."

In July, Guthrie introduced the false fire alarm bill along with another bill aimed at raising fines for false alarms to the Harford County Sheriff's Office. Both bills passed the council with 6-1 votes, with Councilman Richard C. Slutzky, who had wanted an exemption for schools, the lone dissenter.

Craig signed the bill relating to sheriff's office calls but vetoed the fire bill.

Craig said that although Guthrie had introduced the bills together, they were different issues, as the fire service bill affected a volunteer agency.

In his veto message, Craig pointed out that there has been a 62 percent reduction in false alarms in Harford County during the past two years, and that the county is on target to lower that another 9 percent this year.

"The people who do have false alarms do generally have a willingness to fix them," Craig said. "They really do want to comply."

Guthrie said Craig's veto "doesn't make any sense."

"Both bills are basically the same, they are to increase the fines with false alarms, and they are fines that we don't want to collect. Our objective was for the bill to be a deterrent," Guthrie said.

The increase in civil fines for false fire alarms would have been raised to $100 for the second violation within a year, $500 for the third, and $1,000 for each subsequent violation in that 12-month period. Those fines could still go up if the council overrides the veto, with five of seven members voting to do so.

Albert Bair, president of the Harford County Volunteer Fire and EMS Association, said volunteer firefighters had long sought stiffer penalties for false fire alarms.

"We're all plain discouraged about it," Bair said of the veto. "We fought for so long."

Firefighters often respond to repeat false alarm calls from the same places. One Harford County hotel had 30 false alarm calls in June, and two within two hours last week, Bair said. A higher penalty would motivate such locations to maintain systems properly, he said.

"The population is growing, and the number of alarms is growing," Bair said. "We're putting more of the public in jeopardy, in the number of false responses we have to make."

Bair said he wanted to work with the council and administration to craft effective legislation.

"We have to have something," Bair said. "Whether it's this bill or something else, we need one with enough bite to get people to realize how big of an issue this really is."

Sun reporter Madison Park contributed to this article.

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