• Center for Problem oriented policing

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Understanding Your Local Problem


The following groups have an interest in the false burglar alarms problem and ought to be considered for contribution they might make to gathering information about the problem and responding to it:

  • Community members who do not own alarms
  • Alarm owners
  • Private security companies
  • Local government finance officials
  • Public building managers
  • Private alarm companies

Asking the Right Questions

The information provided above is only a generalized description of false alarms. The first step to address your communitys false alarm problem is to analyze it. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your community's problem. Careful analysis will help you design a more effective response strategy.†This analysis should, at a minimum, answer the following questions:

† For an example of how one city analyzed and responded to its false burglar-alarm problem, see Salt Lake City Police Department (2001) [PDF].

  • What proportion of your department's call-for-service workload involves responding to alarms?
  • What proportion of the department's alarm calls is false?
  • What proportion of the department's alarm calls are burglar alarms, and what proportion of those are false?
  • What proportion of the department's noise calls relate to alarms, and what are the call-taking costs for these?
  • What is the department's true cost of responding to alarms (police departments should locally determine the average time spent responding to alarm calls; see "The Costs of False Burglar Alarms", above)?
  • How many residential and commercial alarm systems are operable in your jurisdiction, and what is the anticipated growth rate for alarm installation?
  • At what rate do police catch burglars at alarm calls?
  • What are the numbers of false alarm calls from businesses, residences, and governmental, public, or semipublic premises (such as schools, city labs, museums, and city storage yards)?
  • Are there any identifiable patterns for commercial alarm calls, such as at opening and closing times or during the holidays? (This indicates that alarm companies must educate specific groups of alarm owners.)
  • Are there any identifiable patterns for residential alarm calls, such as the frequency of alarm calls that are cancelled by the owner (or alarm company) within 15 minutes of the initial activation? (This indicates the alarm company's responsibility for educating owners about proper alarm operation.)
  • Do some alarm companies have higher false alarm rates than others?
  • What does a review of websites for alarm companies in your area suggest about the accuracy of their claims when trying to gain new customers?
  • What does a review of alarm company policies and contracts suggest about alarm companies' obligations to alarm owners?
  • Has your department identified jurisdictions that have successfully reduced their total number of false alarms, not just their rates per system (see "Responses to the Problem of False Burglar Alarms," below, for examples)?
  • Has the department interviewed alarm company personnel to determine their perspectives on the false alarm problem, and their openness to new solutions? Has the alarm industry done an analysis to determine the most failure-prone parts of the systems installed in the area, or why so many alarm users make mistakes in activating and deactivating their alarms?
  • Has the department interviewed groups of property owners (with and without alarms) to determine their perspectives on the false alarm problem, and their openness to new solutions?
  • Has the department met with police union or police association leaders to determine their perspectives on the false alarm problem, their openness to new solutions, and their willingness to support a new approach?

‡ Do not include vehicle alarms, as they are a different alarm problem requiring seperate analysis. 

Measuring Your Effectiveness

You should take measures of the false alarm problem before implementing responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after implementing them, to determine whether the responses have been effective. Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the desired results. For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems. The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to false alarms:

  • Reduced number of alarm calls
  • Reduced false alarm numbers for various types of premises—commercial, residential, and governmental (such as schools, city labs, museums, and city storage yards)
  • Reduced number of false alarm calls at high-risk times, such as at business opening and closing times, during stormy weather, or during the holiday seasons
  • Reduced number of personnel hours devoted to handling false alarm calls
  • Reduced percentage of the police department's call load devoted to false alarms
  • Increased percentage of uncommitted time for officers to engage in problem-solving concerning actual crime and disorder problems
  • Reduced costs of handling false alarm calls
  • Reduced false alarm rates of individual alarm companies
  • Increased rate at which police catch burglars at alarm calls (if false calls are minimized and response times are improved, burglar apprehension rates should rise).
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