Special Report: False Alarms

Non-response - the repercussions could be far reaching and wide
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Sunday, June 1, 2003

LOS ANGELES - One of the biggest topics concerning the industry in recent months is the controversial decision by the Los Angeles Police Commission to adopt a verified response policy.

Ever since the commission ap-proved the policy in January, alarm industry representatives have been actively opposing the policy, and have recently filed an injunction in California Superior Court seeking to block the Los Angeles Police Department from implementing it.

However, the decision of the Los Angeles Police Commission could have repercussions that extend far beyond Los Angeles.

According to reports, a number of cities across the country are considering some sort of verified response policy, and it is the feeling of many in the industry that many of those cities are waiting to see what happens in Los Angeles before attempting to implement similar policies.

According to Mel Mahler, president of the Central Station Alarm Association, verified response is “the biggest issue facing the industry.”

In fact, some in the industry say that if verified response becomes widespread, it could cause problems for the alarm industry as consumers question the value of alarms without police response.

Stuart Howe, a California-based regional branch manager for Emergency 24, which offers monitoring services in all 50 states, said verified response would have a negative impact espically if “subscribers decided there is little value left in an alarm system and decide not to have one at all.”

David Saddler, director of marketing and communications for the Security Industry Association, also feels that verified response could lower the value of an alarm system in the eye of the consumer.

“I think the knee-jerk reaction is yes,” Saddler said. “I think (police response to alarms is) how they present a lot of value of the system to the customer.”

Besides curtailing the amount of new security systems being sold, some in the industry feel that verified response could have longer-term financial effects as more customers consider canceling monthly monitoring contracts because police will no longer be responding to the alarms.

“Unless people see value in an alarm, then they won’t purchase alarms, and thus they won’t have need for an alarm monitoring center,” Howe said.

“That’s why we ought to work as hard as possible so that municipalities make good decisions,” added Saddler.

In addition, the trend of nonresponse could impact the current monitoring contracts that companies have with their subscribers.

Les Gold, an attorney who has been working closely with the industry regarding this issue, said that most contracts are written to say that the monitoring company will make every effort to contact the appropriate authority upon receiving an alarm.

Even though the contracts do not specify the police as the appropriate authority, in a case such as is proposed in Los Angeles where the police cannot be notified unless the alarm is verified, “this is where the issue comes up with the contract,” according to Gold.

Gold believes what would ultimately happen is that monitoring companies would enter into an agreement with the customer where they would dispatch a unit to verify the alarm. “(But that) puts an economic burden on the company,” said Gold, adding the extra cost would likely be passed to the subscriber.

While that solution would work for those who could afford the extra costs, Gold said it would be a burden that some subscribers may find too tough to bear. “There’s a cost issue,” he said.

Los Angeles is not the first major city to consider a nonresponse policy. In December 2000, Salt Lake City approved a policy that required alarms to be verified by an outside source, such as a private guard agency, before police will respond to an alarm.

While the Salt Lake City police have called the program a success, Jerry Lenander, executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Security Alarm Association, cites statistics from the Salt Lake City police department showing burglaries increased by 3.8 percent in the city since the verified response policy went into effect.

According to Lenander, the rise in the burglary rate shows that when the police do not respond to alarms, an alarm system loses its effect as a deterrent. “The effectiveness of an alarm system is directly related to the response policy of the local law enforcement agency,” said Lenander.

“If burglars know you’re not going to respond, crime rates go up,” agrees Mahler.

According to Mahler, about 70 to 80 cities, mostly concentrated along the West Coast, are looking at policies similar to the one being considered for Los Angeles. With the Los Angeles policy headed for a court test, Mahler feels those other communities may wait and see how the court rules before moving on policies of their own.

This delay will give the industry time to continue its efforts to work against verified response. “(The court action in Los Angeles) should slow the momentum down and give time for lots of positive approaches,” Mahler said.

According to Mahler, statistics show that a majority of false alarm dispatches come from a minority of users.

“Eighty percent of the false dispatches were coming from 20 percent of the alarm users,” said Mahler, adding that a very small number of alarm dispatches came from residential accounts.

While some cities may decide to abandon verified response if the court challenge is successful and Los Angeles does not implement verified response, Mahler said that some cities might still attempt to go that route.

The primary reasons that communities cite for going to verified response are financial ones, said Mahler.

“There’s so much pressure today on city governments regarding budgets and the easy answer is to stop responding,” Mahler said. “It’s an immediate fix, albeit the wrong fix, to save some money.”

If that happens, it is his opinion that statistics showing that homeowners account for a very small portion of all false alarms will become well-known, and those policies “will last as long as it takes to get the word to the public that the wrong action was taken.”

Mahler feels that education is the best way to rally support against verified response, a position shared by David Green, past president of the Arizona Burglar & Fire Alarm Association.

Green, who is working with authorities in Tucson, Ariz., against the implementation of verified response there, said that in addition to education, the industry needs to work with law enforcement to develop ordinances that target chronic false alarm abusers.

“I think we need stronger ordinances and less free false alarms to take the load off the police department,” Green said. “Every time you go to a nonresponse, you penalize 80 percent of the populace that use their alarm system properly, all because of the 20 percent (who don’t).”

”Nonresponse is not the right answer,” Green said. “It’s not the right answer politically, it’s not the right answer for the constituents, but a much stronger ordinance, one that is enforced by both the alarm companies and the city, will go a long way to reduce those false dispatches.”