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Responses to the Problem of False Burglar Alarms

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies, police reports, and news articles. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. The responsibility of responding, in some cases, may need to be shifted toward those who have the capacity to implement more effective responses. (For more detailed information on shifting and sharing responsibility, see Response Guide No. 3, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems).

This guide assumes that the alarm industry has the responsibility to improve the quality of its equipment, install devices more accurately, improve its advice to consumers about the suitability of different types of systems for different types of homes and businesses, and increase user knowledge of its products. The responses described below have some potential to reduce false alarm calls. Police policies that stimulate the alarm industry to improve its products' overall reliability are strongly preferred so as to minimize the burden on police in the effort to reduce the incidence of false burglar alarms.

Specific Responses to Reduce False Burglar Alarms

1. Requiring alarm companies to verify alarm legitimacy before calling the police (commonly called "verified response"). Under this approach, alarm monitoring companies must verify the legitimacy of alarms (except holdup, duress, and panic alarms) before calling the police. Verified response typically involves visual on-scene verification of a break-in. Verification may also be established by remote video surveillance. Audio intrusion detection technology is also available.† However, it is not nearly as effective as visual on-scene or video verification at this point.‡ As for in-person verification, it is usually conducted by private security personnel who travel to the location, assess the situation, and if necessary, contact police.§ By requiring alarm monitoring companies to screen alarm activations, police response is reserved for true break-ins, actual attempts and holdup, duress, and panic alarms. Under this approach, only holdup, duress, and panic alarms require permits, whereas burglar alarms do not, reducing the administrative costs associated with a police-staffed false alarm program.20

† Audio intrusion detection technology relies on sensors that, when activated, transmit a signal to the alarm company whereby an operator listens to live audio from the location and decides whether to notify the police.

‡ London's Metropolitan Police Service (2006) found that audio verification false alarm rates were 80 percent. Several cities in the United States, including Fremont (California), Salt Lake City, and Burien (Washington), have also examined audio verification versus visual/video verification and found significant false alarm rates for audio monitoring. The Fremont Police Department (2006) found a 96 percent false rate with audio monitoring in an analysis of one years worth of audio alarms. The Salt Lake City Police Department (2006) found an 82 percent false rate on audio monitoring over several years, although the number of audio alarms calls was modest. The Burien Police Department (2006) found a 92 percent false rate on audio alarms in its review of nearly seven years of audio calls that were made from the unincorporated areas of King County ,Washington, and 13 contract cities in King County.

§ Private security forces in the United States outnumber sworn police officers by about four to one (Betten and Mervosh 2005). The Private Sector Liaison Committee of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, collaborating with alarm industry organizations, published guidelines for private security response but noted, "the alarm industry does not support response by other than sworn police officers, except as a final step in an escalating series of sanctions for alarm system abusers or as a supplement to response service provided by local police." [International Association of Chiefs of Police n.d.(c)].

Cities adopting verified response have found enormous decreases in the number of alarm calls, typically around 90 percent, which improves police response times to other types of calls. In 2000, Salt Lake City, Utah, adopted verified response using visual verification. By significantly reducing the number of calls to which officers needed to respond, the Salt Lake City Police Department gained an equivalent of five full-time officers, decreased the workload of call-takers and dispatchers, and decreased the response time to other calls for service. Area alarm industry representatives cited increased revenues (as a result of the service charge applied for verification) and similar sales levels to those before the verified response policy.21

This approach may be most feasible in more populous areas: jurisdictions with few alarm customers scattered over a large area may have difficulty securing a private resource that can deliver satisfactory and cost-effective response times.22 However, in all likelihood, police in those jurisdictions have long response times to these alarm calls. In cities adopting verified response, insurance companies continue to provide discounts to alarm owners, as it is the monitoring itself, not whether it is done by police or private security, that appears to matter.23 Over the past few years, between 20 and 25 U.S. cities have adopted this approach, and several police agencies in Canada have done so as well.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police (supported by the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association and the Central Station Alarm Association) recommends an approach to reducing false alarms that includes, among other things, telephone (or other electronic) verification by alarm companies and notification to alarm owners every time their alarm activates.24 The difference between this approach and verified response is that the latter requires the alarm company to make visual or video verification, eliminating the police response to almost all false alarms. Common arguments against using alarm company personnel to verify alarms are that the public expects a police response and police are better trained than private security to respond to such situations.25 In addition, some mass media reports of verified response policies are characterized in a light unfavorable to police, creating the impression that police are providing less effective service.

The majority of police agencies that adopted verified response had to withstand significant resistance from the alarm industry. The alarm industry has defeated verified response proposals in many other cities. Adopting a verified response policy requires an investment in educating political leaders, the public, and interested parties (alarm companies, police unions, and the media) about the costs and benefits of a modified response. It also requires alarm companies' availability for initial response to alarms.

2. Charging a fee for service for all false holdup, duress, and panic alarms. When an alarm is personally activated (as in a holdup, duress, or panic alarm), gaining additional verification before dispatching a police officer is unrealistic. Even though these calls would seem the most likely to be true, many will also be false. As a result, a fee for service is charged for false holdup, duress, and panic alarm calls both so that police do not have to absorb the costs of false calls and to encourage responsible handling of these alarms. Salt Lake City, Utah, has adopted a fining approach to reduce the number of false holdup, duress, and panic alarms. In the United Kingdom, a combined approach of fines, eventual loss of police service, and device reengineering is used to reduce technology-related false alarms.26 Each department should conduct a separate analysis of holdup, duress, and panic alarms to identify the size and scope of the local problem.
3. Responding to holdup, duress, and panic alarms only if they come from a building. This approach is intended to stem the burgeoning use of mobile personal alarms and should be used in addition to the strategies discussed above.† New technology has prompted entrepreneurs to market mobile alarms: some handheld, some worn on clothing, others in automobiles. If police response is promised as part of these advances, the volume of false alarm calls could increase dramatically. To combat this potential problem, police agencies can adopt policies providing for police response only when an alarm originates from a building. Salt Lake City's ordinance includes a section to address this problem, but again, a separate analysis of this problem is recommended.‡

† Those panic devices police provide to victims of ongoing crimes, such as stalking, may be exempted.

‡ False duress calls from cell phones are similar to the problem of false mobile personal-alarm calls. With the advent of E911 Phase 2, which reveals the location of cell phone users calling 911, police agencies will face the dilemma of whether to respond to cell phone hang-up calls to 911. Most of these hang-ups are the result of unintentionally dialing 911. The 911 operator hears no caller and has to decide whether to dispatch an officer. In essence, these are the equivalent of false burglar alarms. For more information about this particular problem, see the POP guide titled Misuse and Abuse of 911.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

4. Establishing an ordinance requiring owners to obtain alarm permits and to pay escalating fines for false alarms. Many police agencies rely on a local alarm ordinance to guide policy and establish false alarm fines.† Some ordinances provide for fixed fines, others include escalating fines against repeat abusers, and a few apply a cost-recovery system. Typically, fines are allocated to the general fund and not to the police budget. Invariably, alarm owners are not fined until they have several false alarms (usually three or four). Many ordinances also require alarm owners to obtain a permit. In theory, alarm permits help police departments to track and fine alarm abusers and to notify the most chronic abusers of the suspension of police response. However, some jurisdictions have found that some alarm companies do not make their customers aware of the permit requirement, and many alarm owners do not apply for required permits, which severely compromises this response's effectiveness.27 This approach is administratively costly and requires continued officer dispatch (except in the most chronic cases).‡ Some residents resent police fines for services, as they mistakenly believe their taxes cover them. As a result, it may be difficult to collect fines; collection rates can be as low as 60 percent without significant follow-up.28 Finally, some jurisdictions have experienced initial reductions in the number of false alarms after an ordinance has been passed, but in general, these initial decreases do not endure over the long term.29

† The National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association and the False Alarm Reduction Association offer guidance for jurisdictions wishing to draft an ordinance providing sample language, including definitions; registration requirements; duties of users, installers, and monitors; fines; notifications; suspensions; appeals; and reinstatement. Further, the guidance includes checklists for installers and users, and guidelines for setting fines and fees (National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association and the False Alarm Reduction Association 2001).

‡ In 2004, the city of Dallas, Texas, spent upwards of $650,000 administering its false alarm-reduction program involving fines and collections (Dallas City Council 2005).

5. Setting a cost recovery-based fee for all false alarm calls. A fee for service would cover all costs associated with responding to false alarms. These include lost-opportunity costs for officers responding to false alarms rather than proactively working on reducing crime and disorder problems.§ A fee for service differs from a fine in that it is not punitive; it is meant only to recover costs. It is unclear whether a fee for service reduces false alarms, though it does reimburse the city for providing a police response to calls that are almost always false. Any cost-recovery policy would need to incorporate follow-up action against nonpayers.

§ Calculating lost-opportunity costs might be less difficult for departments engaged in problem-oriented policing. Line officers in these departments proactively address specific crime and disorder problems.

6. Charging permit fees and fines directly to alarm companies. To lessen the administrative burden inherent in strategies requiring alarm users to obtain permits and to pay fines in the event of a false alarm, some jurisdictions charge these fees directly to the alarm installation or monitoring company. Not only does this practice ensure that all new alarms are registered with police, but it also greatly reduces the number of contacts that police alarm administrators must make. Rather than contacting thousands of alarm owners, alarm administrators make contact with a much smaller number of installers and monitoring companies.
7. Outsourcing the administration of permits, fines, and fees. Administering permits, fines, and fees can be cumbersome and, if not implemented properly, the deterrent value of an ordinance is lost. Automation is essential to reduce the alarm administrator's workload.† These administrative duties can be outsourced to a private firm in exchange for a portion of the fees.‡ Even with outsourcing, collection rates may be only about 60 or 70 percent.30 However, it is important to recognize that this response only manages, but will not solve, the problem.

† The Central Station Alarm Association developed a software package, False Alarm Analysis Program, to assist jurisdictions with the cumbersome task of administration. The software creates invoices and bills, tracks payment delinquency, and provides reports that analyze individual alarm users' false alarm rates and those of customers of individual monitoring companies. The software package also has online training. See www.csaaul.org/faap.htm. However, "off the shelf" software packages may not suit every jurisdiction's needs (Kanable 2001).

‡ The Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina) Police Department outsourced the administration and tracking of ordinance enforcement to a private company (Mowrey n.d.). The company launched a media campaign to encourage users to register alarms and also set up a toll-free telephone number to answer questions about the local ordinance (Kanable 2001).

8. Requiring alarm monitoring companies to make two calls to owners of activated systems before calling police. Most jurisdictions require alarm monitoring companies to make a single contact with the owner of an activated alarm system to learn whether the alarm was inadvertently set off during routine operations (e.g., arming or disarming the system). A practice labeled "enhanced call verification" requires monitoring companies to attempt contact using two or more phone numbers (for example, an owner's home phone and cell phone) before calling police. Jurisdictions adopting this strategy have noted modest reductions (around 25 to 40 percent) in the number of false alarm calls to police.31 Customer satisfaction may increase because fines for police response to false alarms are avoided. However, because alarm monitoring companies generally handle customers from many jurisdictions, they may have difficulty applying multiple policies correctly. Furthermore, not all alarm companies comply with these directives, fearing liability if police are not called to the scene when a crime is in fact occurring. It is important to note that these efforts to contact the alarm owner are not the equivalent of verification. The person called may be out of town or away from the location and would have no idea if their premise was being burgled. Finally, police cannot verify or enforce the "enhanced call verification" approach.
9. Accepting dispatch cancellations. Some police agencies will cancel a dispatch upon request by an alarm company. The alarm company cancellation is usually based on telephone, not visual, verification. This approach can lead to decreases in the number of alarm calls, but it also inadvertently increases the number of incoming calls to dispatchers, because cancellation calls must be fielded and dispatched.†

† An evaluation of Memphis, Tennessee's, Alarm Office found that, while some alarm companies did indeed cancel alarm calls before dispatch, the practice did not have a measurable impact on the overall number of false alarms to which police were required to respond (Forde and Hellman 2004 [PDF] ). Similarly, since Montgomery County, Maryland, enacted its alarm ordinance in 1995, alarm monitoring companies cancelled 24 percent of all requests for dispatch. While this reduced the number of false alarms to which police responded, it also increased dispatchers' workload (Montgomery County Police Department 2004).

10. Alerting alarm companies about false-alarm abusers. Some police agencies contact alarm companies with the names of customers who are false-alarm abusers. This practice can reduce false alarms if alarm companies work with alarm owners to remedy the abuse.32 This approach depends on the alarm company's willingness to follow up with its customers, and its capacity to bring abusers into line. It works best if both the alarm companies and the abusers are charged for costs. Alerting alarm companies requires police administrative staffing and police response to all alarm calls, and it may necessitate additional police resources as the number of alarm systems rises. In addition, some alarm companies may not be willing to share customer lists with police.
11. Setting criteria for temporarily suspending police response. After a predetermined number of false alarms, some jurisdictions withhold police response to subsequent alarm activations.‡ Other jurisdictions will not dispatch police to locations that do not have a valid alarm permit on file. Proper implementation requires quick access to the number of prior false alarms and the permit status of the location, adding responsibilities to police call dispatchers. This response can be combined with a modified verified response policy so that either the police or a private security company respond to all alarms. Alarm owners should be warned of the intent to suspend police response and should receive official notification of the suspension of services. Many jurisdictions allow owners to appeal the suspension decision and to "earn back" police response after some time. This approach can involve significant financial costs for the police in accommodating the administrative and appeal work this approach requires.

‡ In 2004, the Los Angeles (California) Police Department restructured its response to burglar alarms by 1) increasing fines, 2) suspending service after two false alarms in a rolling 12-month period, and 3) requiring alarm verification for all calls after suspension. In 2005, these changes reduced the number of alarm calls by about half, led to approximately the same cancellation rate, and required approximately half the number of alarm dispatches (Los Angeles Police Department 2005). The approach requires a significant amount of administrative work, including alarm permitting, false alarm classes, appeals processes, and use of a collection agency for past-due accounts [Los Angeles Police Commission, Alarms Section, Board of Police Commissioners (n.d.)].

12. Publishing alarm companies' false alarm rates on websites or elsewhere. Police can calculate and publish the false alarm rates of individual alarm companies to help potential buyers make informed decisions. This could prompt companies with higher false alarm rates to improve their practices, but requires significant police administrative work.
13. Conducting alarm users' education classes. Some police agencies hold false-alarm classes for abusers, usually with some success. These classes typically offer information on the scope of the false alarm problem in the local area and the basic functions of alarm systems, along with maintenance procedures and other practices that can help to reduce false alarm activations.† Many jurisdictions waive the fine incurred for a false alarm if the alarm owner attends the class. While some jurisdictions such as Phoenix, Arizona, and Bellevue, Washington, claim that as few as 10 percent of attendees have a subsequent false alarm, other jurisdictions such as Memphis, Tennessee, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, have not experienced the same success level of success.33 The most effective alarm education efforts are done by alarm monitoring and installation companies providing on-premises instruction so that users receive hand-on training with their own equipment.34 Most often, however, police teach the alarm reduction classes offered. Representatives from alarm companies, arguably the group most knowledgeable about reducing false alarm calls, sometimes choose not to even attend. In general, alarm users' classes must lead to a dramatic reduction in the total number of false alarms in a given jurisdiction to pay for the personnel and administrative costs of operating the program.35 Further, it is debatable whether police should bear the responsibility for alarm education efforts required for using a private consumer product.36

† The False Alarm Reduction Association and National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association created guidelines for establishing an alarm users' awareness school (False Alarm Reduction Association and National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association 2000 [PDF] ).

14. Lowering the call priority of alarms. Avoiding the political issues involved in disagreeing with the alarm industry or in battling with city or county legislators, some police agencies have simply lowered the call priority for alarms (other than holdup, duress, and panic alarms). Other jurisdictions simply issue a general alert, allowing officers on patrol to respond at their discretion. This does not reduce the number of false alarms, nor does it reduce the number of alarm calls coming into a police dispatch center.

Response Not Recommended

15. Providing an emergency police response to unverified burglar alarm calls. A number of police agencies still respond to alarm calls with their highest priority, often referred to as "priority one," authorizing the swiftest response to the call. The research does not support this level of response due to the high rate of false alarms. In addition, this approach does nothing to address the underlying causes of false alarms.
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