Wichita revises false-alarm ordinance

Wichitans loudly objected to being billed $25 annually by the city to register their security systems each year.

Tuesday, the City Council cited complaints from residents as it voted to waive that fee for those who go a year without a false alarm.

"Sometimes good ideas come later rather than sooner," council member Janet Miller said after the 5-0 vote to change the ordinance that was revised last summer. Council members Paul Gray and Lavonta Williams were absent.

The city used to have a one-time $10 registration fee for new security systems. But few people were aware of it because the company that installed the system collected the $10 and passed it on to the city, police Capt. Joe Dessenberger.

To help recoup the city's cost of responding to false alarms, the council approved a change in June that increased the fee to $25 and made it an annual registration. The change went into effect in August and the bills for $25 went out in September for all those who have had their alarm systems for at least 13 months.

"When a lot of people received their re-registration fees in September," Dessenberger said, "they thought it was bogus because they didn't realize they were registered in the first place."

That's when the cries of foul went out to council members and city staff. And that prompted the change that was approved Tuesday.

"We started hearing from residents," City Manager Robert Layton said. "It didn't seem like we were taking the right approach. Let's not penalize people who aren't having a false alarm."

Now the ordinance gives people incentives to make sure their security systems are in working order and puts more of the costs on those who don't, council member Jeff Longwell said.

"We have to get on top of the false alarms," he added. "The reality is the community is not as safe when we have the level of false alarms we have."

City fire and police respond to about 25,000 alarms a year, and 98 percent of those are false calls. The cost to the city for those false alarms is about $3 million annually.

The revised ordinance will take effect Sept. 1, 2011.

The waiver applies to a renewal where the owner of the system doesn't have a false alarm in the previous year. The annual period is based on the original registration date.

Because the previous process called for a one-time registration, the city has given most system owners a registration origination date of September 2010.

The city spends about $335,000 annually to manage the alarm system. The $25 fee was expected to generate an estimated $328,000 each year.

With waivers, that amount will decrease.

But police say the difference will be made up by not spending so much on chasing false alarms. And fewer false alarms will also mean the city will pay less to the vendor that does the billing for false alarms, AOT Public Safety Corp. of Maryland.

"The goal is to reduce false alarms," Deputy Chief Nelson Mosley said.

The annual registration process will also allow police to get a handle on how many alarm systems there are in the city. In part because of the previous one-time registration system, Dessenberger said it's hard to get an accurate count.

"Right now, Sedgwick County 911 has 66,000 alarm systems (listed)," Dessenberger said. "But we know that one-third of those don't exist."

Not only will annual registration help correct that, but so will a requirement that alarm system companies give police a list annually of all their customers.

"Their database should be updated," Dessenberger said, "so that should clean up our database."

A graduated fee for false alarms should also help fund the administrative cost.

There's no charge for the first false alarm, whether police or the Fire Department are responding.

But the second false alarm brings a $40 fee if police respond and $100 for fire. For 10 or more false alarms, it's $350 each for police and $750 for fire.