Last year in Wichita, 93 percent of the nearly 20,000 police and fire alarms reported by an alarm company to 911 were false.
About 12 percent of the city’s nearly 38,000 alarm permit holders were responsible for multiple false alarms and owe more than $800,000 in penalties, according to police figures.
But beyond the heavy financial price tag they create, false alarms also put others at risk because safety resources are being used unnecessarily, police say.
Police want to do something about it by putting more teeth in a city ordinance.
During a City Council workshop Tuesday, police proposed a replacement ordinance that would suspend response to habitual false alarm locations – residential and business – and those who fail to pay false-alarm penalties.
To underscore the need, Capt. Doug Nolte noted that false alarm numbers haven’t changed much in recent years.
In 2010, there were 19,458 false alarms. After significantly increasing penalties with an ordinance change that year, the city saw a slight drop to 17,814 in 2011 and 17,997 in 2012.
But the numbers began to increase again last year, climbing to 18,461. Raising penalties even higher doesn’t appear to be the answer, Nolte said.
“Right now, we haven’t gotten compliance from existing accounts,” he said, “so raising rates isn’t necessarily going to change that.
“We need to take the first step and put non-response into play, a non-response that’s understandable. Right now, there’s not a lot of teeth in what we’re doing.”
The council would have to vote on the ordinance at a regular meeting, but Tuesday’s response to the presentation indicated the members would be supportive.
Councilman Jeff Longwell suggested the city go a step further and research whether false alarm violators could be held liable for pulling resources away from legitimate needs.
“We have some who are thumbing their noses at you guys,” Longwell told Nolte. “We have to find a way to fix that.”
Since an alarm ordinance was first put in place in 1999, it has been revised every four to six years to keep up with the industry, Nolte said.
The current ordinance includes a part about not responding to alarm abusers, but Nolte told the council the wording wasn’t very clear and didn’t hold violators accountable.
The proposed ordinance was clear.
Law enforcement and fire would not respond to a location if it had more than six false alarms during the current 12-month registration period. All locations that use an alarm company are required to register with the city annually.
In addition, there would be no response to locations that have failed to pay fees or penalties for false alarms.
No set dollar amount triggers that non-response. If even one $40 false alarm fee hasn’t been paid, law enforcement and fire will not respond to the alarm, police said.
“We’re not out to raise fees to get more money,” Nolte said. “Our goal is to reduce false alarms.”
Currently, 1,369 of the city’s 37,768 active alarm permits would qualify for discontinued response.
Of those, 1,210 would be for not paying the $819,800 currently owed for false alarm fines and penalties. Another 159 accounts would have responses stopped because they have exceeded six false alarms during their current, one-year registration period, police figures show.
“So when we talk about non-response,” Nolte said, “there’s a large number that could be impacted.”
The majority of the false alarms come from businesses, but police said residential owners of alarm systems account for most of the unpaid fines and fees for false alarms.
Alarm companies and locations would be notified within 30 days by certified mail that response was being cut off, according to the proposed ordinance.
Last year, police saw about 17,500 false alarms to a burglary system. Fire saw about 1,000 false alarms.
Fire response, however, is far more costly with $400 for each truck. Police responding to an alarm is $40 for each unit.
A house fire calls for one or two trucks to respond, while a hospital fire draws a minimum of six trucks, according to police figures.
While 88 percent of the city’s alarm permit holders don’t have a false alarm on their records, the rest keep police and fire busy.
Wichita follows the national trend of 60 percent to 70 percent of its false alarms being triggered by user error or faulty equipment.
Sometimes it’s a matter of a user not knowing the password for their key pad.
“Then the alarm goes off and they get totally flustered,” Nolte said.
Other times sensors on doors aren’t set properly or need to be reset after a building or house settles.
The new ordinance would require a process for a location to be eligible for response. Included in that process is alarm users and employees – if it’s a business location – to receive certified training.
The alarm equipment would also have to be certified as operating correctly.
Alarm users should be better educated about their systems, and have their equipment checked regularly, Nolte said.
Under the proposed ordinance, those who have been cited with a false alarm would continue to have access to an appeal process.
The amounts for registration fees, penalties and fines would also remain the same.
The current ordinance calls for false security alarms triggering fees ranging from $40 for the second one up to $350 for each violation of 10 or more. False fire alarms start at $100 for the first one and go up to $750.
There’s also a $150 penalty fee for failing to register annually.
Those who don’t have a false alarm during one registration period have the annual $25 fee waived the next year.