Article for Medill: False alarms cost police

Glenview Police responded to 2,706 false alarms from Jan. 1 to Nov. 16 of this year, endangering officers by conditioning them to expect all alarms to be false, Commander Don Hohs of the Glenview Police Department said Monday.

The 2,706 false alarms were 3.2 percent more than the number of false alarms that occurred in the same period last year, according to police statistics.

Repeated false alarms can leave officers complacent and unprepared to handle dangerous situations and criminals associated with legitimate alarms, Hohs said. In 2002, 99.9 percent of alarms were false and in 2001, 99.8 percent of alarms were false.

“At any given time out of all of those alarms, you’ve got to be ready for anything to occur,” he said. No Glenview officers have been killed or wounded as a result of complacency encouraged by false alarms, he added.

False alarms also consume police officers’ time and contribute to wear and tear on police vehicles.

A patrol officer spends an average of 15 to 30 minutes responding to an alarm, Hohs said. The department requires two patrol officers – each officer in his or her own vehicle that is undergoing unnecessary wear and tear along the way – to be sent to each alarm.

With two officers each spending 15 minutes responding to each alarm, a total of 30 minutes of work time is consumed. Using this estimate, Glenview officers spent about 1,353 work hours responding to false alarms through Nov. 16 of this year. A patrol officer’s median wage of $27.22 per hour means that the Glenview Police Department has paid its officers roughly $37,000 to respond to false alarms for this period.

Preventive patrolling, when police drive around an area to create the crime-deterring perception of a heavy police presence, can be compromised by false alarms as well, Hohs said.

Police cars responding to false alarms cannot patrol, and the result is a less pronounced police presence. That may encourage people to commit crimes they would not commit in an area with a more pronounced police presence, Hohs said.

Glenview, like many other municipalities, has attempted to control false alarms by fining the businesses and residences that generate them.

Homes are allowed three false alarms before the village begins to collect – $50 for the fourth through eighth false alarm, and $100 for every false alarm beyond that. Commercial properties are fined $25 for every false alarm beyond three.

If the police department responds to more than 10 false alarms within six months at a single property, that property’s alarm system may undergo “system revocation proceedings,” which means it may be stopped from alerting police. No alarm system in Glenview has ever been considered for revocation, officials at the police department said.

Alarm system companies are also fighting false alarms, said Ken Hohs, president of Norshore Alarm Company Inc., a company that has installed about 150 alarm systems in Glenview homes and businesses. He is a distant cousin of Commander Don Hohs.

While Commander Don Hohs mentioned electrical storms as one cause of false alarms, Ken Hohs said many false alarms are caused by a small percentage of alarm system owners who often commit user error.

User error includes owners forgetting to lock their doors; the wind blows the doors open, triggering the alarm, Hohs said. Other people trigger the alarms themselves and forget the codes and passwords to turn the alarm off.

Hohs said to reduce the number of false alarms, alarm system owners should make sure every window and door of their house is closed and locked before setting their alarm. If alarm system owners have any questions about the operation of their alarm, they should call their alarm system company.

He also said that many of the businesses and residences he works with have their alarm system alert a private switchboard before the police are contacted. An operator at the private switchboard will attempt to contact someone responsible for the activated alarm system in order to verify the alarm’s legitimacy before calling the police.

”We don’t like false alarms any more than anyone else,” Ken Hohs said.

Commander Don Hohs said false alarms are a “constant problem” he expects to worsen from year to year as more people acquire alarm systems.

National spending on electronic security products and services is growing at 8.6 percent per year, according to the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association’s Web site.

In 1998, American police departments spent $1.5 billion responding to approximately 38 million alarms, 94 percent to 98 percent of which were false alarms, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

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