Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn said false alarms keep officers from real emergencies and cost taxpayers money in wasted fuel and time.
“Alarm calls are very manpower-intensive. A single alarm call takes roughly one hour for two officers,” he said.
An hour might seem like a short amount of time to engage a public servant, but multiplied by the 10,000 alarm users in the city and a 99 percent false alarm rate, it became a hot button issue.
The city of Marietta and Cobb County got so fed up with their cops making unnecessary stops, they passed laws against it in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Austell enacted a similar ordinance in 1995, and Kennesaw in 1998.
Fine and punishment
The laws may be aging, but the punishment is ongoing to security system owners who don’t arm or disarm their alarms in time.
In 2012, the county took in almost $340,000 for a sliding scale of offenses, ranging from $50 for the third false alarm to $300 for 10 or more.
Another $63,000 came in just in January and February.
The first steps in alarm management are free. Registration is complimentary, but the county law imposes a $100 fine for each false alarm activated by non-registrants.
“It is mandatory that people register their alarms,” said county police spokesman Officer Mike Bowman.
For registered users, the first two false alarms are free.
The third can be free, too, if alarm users take an “alarm user awareness class” or an online test.
A learning curve
John Loud, founder of Marietta-based Loud Security and president of the state alarm association, helped write the Cobb and Marietta laws.
Homeowners feel the pinch of the fines, he said, and that’s the point.
“We don’t want your money, we want you to be a better user of how you maintain, update or learn to use your system,” Loud said about the police departments’ rationale.
Fines start at $50 and can soar to $500 in Marietta, where false alarms fell 65 percent after the law went into effect.
“The false alarm ordinance has been incredibly successful since its inception,” city police spokesman Officer David Baldwin said. “The amount of false alarms that the police department deals with is significantly lower than before we went online with the program.”
In the county, the rate fell a similar 63.5 percent in four years.
“A homeowner is not going to want to get that letter anymore,” Loud said. “They’re going to change behavior.”
Fines decreased by $43,000 between 2011 and 2012.
Lights, cameras, locks
The amount will fall further even though the number of users is increasing, Loud said.
Already at an estimated 90,000 in Cobb, more security systems will go online as potential customers learn their friends or neighbors had break-ins.
“When you get a down economy, people are going to protect themselves no matter what,” Loud said. “They’re going to get alarm systems when someone they know has had a concern.”
The trend is going to include more than protecting lives and property, he said.
“It’s going to be about lifestyle,” Loud said. “You can use it for energy management, remotely turning lights on and off. You can activate security cameras. You can unlock the door from your phone.”
That phone is the key to having fewer false alarms despite more users, Loud said.
Subscribers have to list two numbers that 911 can call to verify the alarm before dispatching a patrol car.
It’s called Enhanced Call Verification, and it may become state law this year.
Loud said his company has been practicing it for 10 years.
“We had a drastic reduction in false dispatches. In the vast majority of cases, the homeowner leaves and they can’t hear the alarm,” he said.
The usual suspects
It’s not just homeowners.
Businesses, including government buildings, schools and churches, are also guilty — at three times the rate of residents.
“Most alarm offenders are businesses,” Loud said. “The reason for that is if there’s no direct accountability, an employee is not going to worry about it.”
David Persson, who owns The School Box chain of stores, said his 280 employees are different.
“Our turnover is very low, so I’m not having to continuously train our employees how to arm and disarm our system,” he said. “The key holders who have the codes are consistent employees who know what they’re doing.”
Still, the Kennesaw store has had multiple false alarms — due to a system failure, which has since been corrected.
“We had one of the first magnetic card access systems (Loud) put in,” Persson said. “He was having issues with the magnets losing their charge. The doors would open and set off the alarms in the middle of the night.”
That was 2002, so it was prior to the new codes going into effect, Persson said, and he was not fined.
Even so, there was a price to pay.
“I had to get up and drive over there,” said Persson, an Acworth resident.
He said he accidentally set off his home alarm system “three or four times,” all without fines.
“A lot of that has to do with the instruction you activate with the alarm company. If they call the house and can’t reach you, they’re going to call the police,” Persson said. “If they dial the house and you say, ‘We’re so sorry, we didn’t get to the keypad in time,’ they don’t.”
An incident left him glad to pay a fine if it had been levied.
“My children set off the alarm when I was not home, and they did not answer the phone,” Persson said. “The police showed up. That would be worth the $25, or whatever, to have that peace of mind.”