The city of Sandy Springs’ latest amendment to its false alarm ordinance will go into effect June 19.
Despite the city giving alarm companies a year to adjust to the change, the battle between them and Sandy Springs, including its police department, wages on, including legal action.
Over the years the law has been amended several times, but the biggest change came in June 2018. At that time the city council approved additional changes to the ordinance requiring alarm companies to provide true, confirmed verification through audio, video or in-person confirmation on intrusion (burglar) alarm activations before calling 911.
“We think requiring all alarms to be verified prior to police dispatch is not a good idea. We’ve seen this tried in other cities and not work out well. Most recently it was tried in San Jose, California, and they saw a significant increase in criminal activity and decided to roll back their ordinance that required verification,” said Scott Hightower, president of the Georgia Electronic Life Safety & Systems Association, an organization whose membership includes about 80 alarm companies in the state.
Alarm companies’ side
According to a news release from the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, a Frisco, Texas-based group advocating for alarm companies nationwide, in January San Jose, California, become the 11th U.S. city to drop the verified-response portion of its false alarm ordinance. The decision came partly due to a 17% increase in burglaries and a 3% hike in crime overall.
“Dallas did the same thing in 2007. Dallas went away from requiring (enhanced) verification and they’re prioritizing alarm calls that have been verified. They are still responding to all alarm calls,” Hightower said.
The news release stated Sandy Springs is the only municipality in Georgia the coalition knows of that is amending its ordinance so it includes verified response.
In March 2018, after the council approved amending the ordinance to shift the fines for false alarm violations from the customers to the alarm companies for the false alarms they reported to 911 on behalf of their customers, the companies and association filed a federal lawsuit against the city.
The companies claimed the ordinance violated their constitutional rights by fining the alarm companies for the false alarms. The lawsuit was dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge in December, and it is under appeal. Brad Carver, a lawyer with the Atlanta firm of Hall Booth Smith who represents the alarm companies and association in the lawsuit, said the plaintiff filed its reply brief in May.
“We’re waiting now for the court to grant oral arguments on our appeal,” he said.
The city of Sandy Springs has revoked the registration of 38 alarm companies operating within the city due to delinquent payment of fines for violations of the Sandy Springs false alarm ordinance. Alarm companies which do not have a current, valid registration with the city are not eligible to request emergency personnel response in connection with their activated intrusion (burglar) alarms systems within Sandy Springs.
Carver said the alarm companies don’t have a problem with two calls being made prior to a police officer being dispatched to an alarm call, which is state law, but they oppose the enhanced verification portion of Sandy Springs’ ordinance.
“The industry still maintains the best course of action for local governments is not requiring what Sandy Springs is requiring,” he said. “Instead, we recommend the Georgia model ordinance that the Georgia Police Chiefs Association has endorsed. The city of Marietta is a good example, and they’ve seen a 70% reduction in false alarms. We agree false alarms tie up (public safety) resources. But we disagree that their ordinance is the best way to address the issue, and we think it is unconstitutional for several reasons.”
Sandy Springs Police Capt. Dan Nable has led the department in its changes to the ordinance over the past few years. Nable said this latest amendment is paramount to vastly reducing the city’s false alarms, which total about 10,000 a year and account for 99.6% of all alarm calls for Sandy Springs’ 14,080 registered alarm users.
“It’s important because it will reduce the amount of time officers waste on non-law-enforcement matters, (including) false alarms, and give them the opportunity to be more productive with their time and engage in true law-enforcement functions. … It will also reduce the workload on the 911 call center,” he said.
The city has educated residents on the change through public outreach, meetings and even a public service announcement video.
Nable said the biggest challenge in year leading up to this latest ordinance change “is making sure citizens know all of the different options that can be employed to verify the validity of an alarm signal.”
“The city council wanted it to be a full year to take effect to make sure there was plenty of time for alarm companies to be compliant and come up with solutions for their customers,” he said. “Even though we had two meetings last year, in September and November, to work with alarm companies (on) solutions to offer their customers, not all (acted swiftly).
“Some alarm companies are only just now going to their customers to say, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do for you as a Sandy Springs resident.’”
Once the ordinance change take effect, Sandy Springs will be the first municipality in metro Atlanta to have a verified response component to its false alarm law, but there are several ones across the country that have it, Nable said. He added there are some rumors spread around the city about the amendment.
“There is a little bit of misinformation on what the ordinance says, what verification is to be eligible for (regarding) police response to an alarm (call),” he said. “That’s been a little frustrating, too. It can be a bit confusing, but not so confusing for alarm companies where verified response is in place.”
The amended ordinance will require many customers to upgrade their system with audio and/or video equipment or an alarm service that includes a security guard that would qualify as the in-person component for compliance. Hightower said most customers don’t have either an in-person service or the audio or video equipment needed, so the costs are definitely going up.
“We did some calculations and it could be in the millions of dollars for Sandy Springs residents,” he said. “By far the majority of owners don’t cause the false alarms. You’re asking a very large number of people to upgrade their systems to be in compliance with the new ordinance.”
Nable said he urges customers to compare different companies’ services and prices to find the best one for them.
“What fits one family and one lifestyle doesn’t fit everybody, both in pricing and in equipment and then also (in) what self-monitored systems are acceptable,” he said, adding the police will respond to all legitimate alarm calls, even with non-compliant equipment.
Hightower, who was interviewed June 10 for this article, said even though the city gave alarm companies a year to adjust to the ordinance’s amendment, the association “would like to see a delay (in the effective date) and work out a better solution with the city.”
“From the anecdotal evidence we have as an organization, there is a very large number of alarm system owners who don’t have the new equipment and will not be able to have their alarm systems verified,” he said. “There’s a risk of having what is happening in San Jose happening in Sandy Springs, telling criminals you’re open for business because the police won’t respond.”
Time will tell if the ordinance change was the right move.