Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Summary of Responses to False Burglar Alarms

The table below summarizes the responses to false burglar alarms, the mechanism by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they ought to work best, and some factors you should consider before implementing a particular response. 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.

Response No.

Response

How It Works

Works Best If…

Considerations

Effective Responses

1

Requiring alarm companies to visually verify alarm legitimacy before calling the police, also called “verified response”

The alarm company responds to the scene of an alarm and calls the police only if a crime has occurred or been attempted. If the alarm company is in visual contact with the alarm site, such as through CCTV, and can verify a crime or an attempt, police will respond

…holdup, panic and duress alarms are exempted; alarm companies are prohibited from classifying an alarm call as duress when it isn’t; and combined with responses 2 and 3 below

Requires educating the public, police union and media to enable police leaders to establish departmental policy, or to encourage local (and sometimes state) legislators to enact ordinances

2

Charging a fee for service for all false holdup, duress and panic alarms

Used in combination with response 1, keeps these types of alarm calls from becoming unmanageable

…the alarm industry is prohibited from classifying ordinary burglar alarms as “duress” alarms, and combined with responses 1 and 3

Requires permits for holdup, duress and panic alarms, as well as false alarm reduction management to monitor trends in such calls

3

Responding to holdup, duress and panic alarms only if they come from a stationary building

For an example, see the Salt Lake City ordinance at www.slcgov.com/police. Exceptions may be made for panic alarms given to high-risk domestic violence and stalking victims by police

…publicized so that mobile-alarm manufacturers know the police will not respond

Requires outreach to mobile-alarm manufacturers

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

4

Establishing an ordinance requiring owners to obtain alarm permits and to pay escalating fines for false alarms

Requires permits for alarm owners and escalating fines for false alarms

…all alarmed premises obtain required permits; the community has an extremely low number of false alarms, and officers have sufficient free time so that responding to false alarm calls does not impede their ability to work on actual crime problems

Involves significant administrative resources; collection rates may be low; may involve taking legal action against non-payers

5

Setting a cost-recovery based fee for all false alarm calls

The city calculates the true cost of false alarm response, including the lost-opportunity costs for police

…the political climate is more supportive of fees for service than “verified response”

Involves billing and follow-up with customers who fail to pay; may involve taking legal action against non-payers

6

Charging permit fees and fines directly to alarm companies

Reduces the number of contacts police must make to recover costs and ensures all new alarm system owners obtain permits

...alarm companies recognize the value of reduced administrative workload for police

Requires cooperation from alarm companies

7

Outsourcing the administration of permits, fines, and fees

Private companies are contracted to manage the administrative burden of permitting, noticing and collecting fines and fees

…permitting, fine and fee transactions are automated

Manages, but does not solve, the false alarm problem

8

Requiring alarm monitoring companies to make two calls to owners of activated systems prior to calling police

Provides an additional opportunity to verify the validity of an alarm by contacting owners who are not on the alarmed premises when alarm activates

…alarm monitoring companies are diligent in applying policy; alarm owners have multiple contact numbers

Monitoring companies serving multiple jurisdictions may have difficulty applying multiple policies correctly; some alarm companies fear liability if police are not called immediately

9

Accepting dispatch cancellations

The alarm company verifies (usually by telephone) that the alarm was false, and then calls police, who cancel their response

…established by ordinance, and alarm companies follow through

Increases the number of incoming calls dispatchers must handle

10

Alerting alarm companies about false alarm abusers

Police sort records of false alarm abusers by company, and notify the companies

…accompanied by sanctions for noncompliance; or alarm companies, along with individual alarm owners, are charged for costs

Requires police staff time to sort records, and alarm company cooperation in dealing with alarm owners

11

Setting criteria for temporarily suspending police response

Police response is withheld for properties with chronic false alarms or for those premises without a valid alarm permit; can be combined with a modified “verified response” police

…police have quick access to database containing the number of prior false alarms and permit status; alarm owners are notified of the intent to suspend police response

Requires significant administrative effort to maintain current records of prior false alarms and permit status

12

Publishing alarm companies’ false-alarm rates on websites or elsewhere

Police post alarm companies’ false-alarm rates on department websites or elsewhere

…police alert alarm companies that they are going to do so, and give them time to reduce their false-alarm rates before publication

Requires accurate and regular updating, perhaps quarterly. In the U.K., an inspectorate monitors companies’ false alarm rates. For those companies unwilling to reduce high rates, the police do not respond to alarms without evidence of a crime in progress†

13

Conducting alarm users’ education classes

Police hold classes for alarm abusers to reduce the number of errors made activating and deactivating the system

…classes are taught by the alarm installation and monitoring companies and provide on-premises instruction so users receive hands-on training

If police lead classes, they must develop expertise in typical alarm systems and their false-trigger patterns; must lead to a dramatic reduction in the number of false alarms to be cost-effective; unclear what responsibility police should have for educating users of a private consumer product

14

Lowering the call priority of alarms

Police code alarm calls as “low priority” for dispatch purposes

…police have sufficient resources to respond to alarm calls, and local legislators are unwilling to address the problem in any other way

Does not address the underlying causes of false alarms; does not reduce the number of incoming calls to police dispatchers

Response Not Recommended

15

Responding “priority one” to alarm calls

Police treat alarm calls as actual emergencies, despite extensive research findings

to the contrary

…the community has few crime problems, and police have sufficient resources to do so

Assumes police desire full responsibility for false alarms or the community and legislature are unwilling to accept extensive research concerning the percentage of false alarms

† Association of Chief Police Officers (2000).