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Police chief addresses problem of false alarms

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by Lynn Rowe

for the Business Journal

I want to make you aware of a problem that is having a serious impact on the ability of Springfield police to respond to legitimate calls for service, ask you for your input, and propose a solution for discussion. I felt that the best way to do this was to write an open letter to the Springfield business community.

The problem I want to discuss is false alarms. In Springfield, 91 percent of all alarms reported to police are false. Adding weather-related activations brings the figure to 98 percent. The type of alarm I am referring to is the burglar/intrusion type system, not fire or manually operated (holdup) systems.

In Springfield, false alarms represent 6.5 percent of our total calls for service. That means our officers respond to more than 6,300 false alarms each year. As you can imagine, that creates a serious problem for people who genuinely need help from the police.

About two years ago, we began strict enforcement of a system of fines for excessive false alarms, and we found some disappointing results. The dollar amount of the fines we collect went up about 400 percent, but there was almost no decrease in the number of false alarms.

The conclusion that we drew from this experience is that the businesses who abuse the system (anywhere from six to 44 false alarms per year) see those events as a business expense, rather than a serious draw on the emergency service capability of the police.

National statistics indicate that about 70 percent of false alarms from businesses are the result of operator error, vs. 30 percent from the malfunction of the alarm system itself.

In Springfield, there are 39 businesses that have turned in more than 12 false alarms each in the last 12 months. This means that a large portion of the problem centers on a small number of businesses who either don't train their staff to operate their systems properly, or don't maintain their systems in good working order.

After some research into remedies used by other cities, we propose to upgrade the current ordinance as follows:

1. Increase the fine to $50 (from $25) for the fourth and subsequent false alarms, and $100 (from $50) for the eighth through the 12th. This would not include weather-related activations. The intent would be to influence businesses with multiple false alarms to train their personnel and/or have the alarm system fixed.

2. Establish a point at 12 false alarms within 12 months where we would discontinue initial police response. Police would only respond when there was an independent verification by a responding security service (as contracted by the business) or management that the alarm is legitimate. The discontinuation of initial police response service would be for one year.

3. If an alarm service provides more than 50 alarms for the dwelling units at one location (large apartment complexes), the alarm service or management would be responsible for the initial response to an alarm activation. We have received up to 88 alarms (all false) from up to 67 different apartments in a single large complex. That has been our experience in several complexes.

Our intent is to provide the highest quality police service to our business community. In order to do that, we need to minimize abuses of our time.

The solution we propose continues service to the businesses that handle their alarm systems responsibly, and ultimately withholds initial response to the ones that don't.

We think that the result will be a significant reduction in the number of false alarms to which officers respond. That translates to more timely service delivery by the police.

We would like your input on this issue. We plan to make a proposal to City Council in about a month. Please address your responses to Springfield Police Department, c/o Capt. Hal Smith, 321 E. Chestnut Expwy. 65802.

(Lynn Rowe is chief of police for the city of Springfield.)

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