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Alarming trend.


When police are dispatched to answer a security alarm in Little Rock, chances are that nine out of 10 times they're wasting their time. A burglar is no where to be found, and there's no visible sign of forced entry.

The reason?

There was never a thief to catch or a crime committed. The call for police is often generated by a false alarm. Even the most conservative estimate place the false alarm figure at 80 percent.

The Little Rock Police Department doesn't keep tabs on false alarms, but the number is high. For example, the incident report filed for Wed., Sept. 27 indicates that police officers responded to 35 false alarms.

Of those, 21 were alarms at businesses. Two of the incidents classified as alarm/unknown cause were at Breckenridge Village in west Little Rock.

Two of the 14 residential calls that day were also repeats. A second alarm sounded at each of the homes within an hour of the first one.

"We have to respond to them all like their good," notes Lt. Kenneth Haltom, former shift commander at the Little Rock Police Department.

More affordable security systems and the city's Top 20 ranking in burglaries per capita have contributed to the growing number of homeowners installing alarms. That trend represents a business boon for security companies and a corresponding increase in the number of false alarms.

The Main Culprits Cry Wolf

Human error, improper installation and equipment failure are identified as the main culprits for triggering most false alarms.

Whatever the cause, there is a growing movement across the nation and in Arkansas to control this problem through some form of legislated accountability.

Opinions are divided on whether the laws, typically dubbed false alarm ordinances, do more harm than good.

"I don't see false alarms to be a problem," remarks Rick Edwards, president of Triple S Alarm Co. in Little Rock. "To say that an ordinance is a deterrent, no. People pay taxes for police protection whether right, wrong or indifferent.

"I think the industry can clean it up, and we don't need more regulation."

Little Rock had a false alarm ordinance that included a fine for repeat offenders. After several years, it was repealed in the late 1970s after opponents argued successfully that the fines represented an unfair method of revenue enhancement.

That viewpoint notwithstanding, David Ratliff and others are in favor of resurrecting the law once again.

"I believe that in the next 10 years Little Rock will adopt some type of false alarm ordinance," observes Ratliff, VP/GM for Little Rock Alarm Co. "It'll have to be done. The city is growing, and more and more people are putting in security systems. The police department is understaffed and just doesn't have the resources to handle all the false alarms and answer other calls as well."

Different Applications

The false alarm rate in Fort Smith stood at about 98 percent when the city approved an ordinance in January. The number of false alarms has dropped by 1,358 as of Sept. 30, representing nearly a 27 percent reduction.

The new ordinance has helped curtail the sheer volume of false alarms. However, Fort Smith Police Chief Don Taylor views the law as a partial victory at best.

"I'd like it to be where we don't have any, but that isn't going to happen," Taylor says. "Even with the ordinance, we've still got too many."

From January through September, the Fort Smith Police department responded to 3,688 false alarms compared to 5,038 for the same period in 1989.

The law allows citizens three false alarms per month. After the third one, the police department sends out a certified letter warning that a $30 charge will be levied for each additional false alarm they investigate at that address during the month.

The Fort Smith ordinance would've had even more teeth if the police department had its way. The original proposal called for only three false alarms per year, followed by a warning and a $30 charge for each one after that.

Political muscle from alarm companies and the business community was responsible for watering down this version and led to the compromise ordinance now on the books.

"This is the best we could come up with and live with," Taylor sighs.

North Little Rock Clamps Down

North Little Rock instituted a law in May 1989 after tallying a false alarm rate of 92.8 percent in the first three months of the year. That ordinance allows three false alarms per month followed by a written notice and stair-stepped fine schedule for each successive false alarm that month: $25 for each of the next three false alarms, $50 for each of the next three and $100 for every one after that.

It also carries a 30-day grace period for a residence or business to work out any kinks after a new security system is installed.

New Braunfels, Texas, a city of 30,000 near San Antonio, adopted a tough false alarm ordinance in 1984. The outcry from the community stung by its stiff penalties prompted an amended version in 1987.

The current law permits five false alarms per year without penalty and a fine of $25-$50 for each one after that. In the earlier ordinance, the penalty started at $50 and increased by $50 for every false alarm over the yearly limit.

The carryover shock value from the initial ordinance and the law on the books these days are helping keep false alarms in check in New Braunfels.

"There's more alarms in town now, but our rate of false alarms are still down," reports John Wommack, patrol lieutenant of the New Braunfels Police Department.

Monitoring Alarms

Depending on how elaborate the security system is, the price ranges from a few hundred dollars into the thousands. The technology includes infrared sensors, motion detectors and photo-electronic beams.

Besides the installation fee, security firms also charge a monthly fee ranging from a few dollars to nearly $100 to monitor homes and businesses. Some security firms phone the customer back before contacting the police in an effort to reduce false alarms. A code number is used as part of the verification process to prevent wily criminals from circumventing the system.

Security cameras are perhaps the best method of establishing the validity of an alarm, but it is expensive. Audio is also an effective means of augmenting other techniques and screening alarms.

The audio approach is the bread and butter technique for Sonitrol Security Systems in Little Rock, and it has proven to be lucrative for franchiseholder Rod Koberg.

"We're not going to do a million dollars this year, but we will next year," the cigar nibbling businessman reports.

Koberg held the Sonitrol franchise in San Antonio before selling to the British conglomerate Racal Chubb, the largest security firm in the world. He is a strong advocate for a false alarm ordinance.

"We've helped catch more burglars than all the alarm companies combined," Koberg boasts. "The facts exist that we don't aggravate the false alarm rate, and we have a higher apprehension rate."

The question remains whether policymakers can formulate a Little Rock ordinance that would be palatable to law enforcement officials while addressing the fiscal concerns of businessmen and residents who might be fined for repeated violations.

"I think it would be a good idea, but I don't think the city board will go for that," points out Lt. Wommack of the LRPD.

PHOTO : THE WALLS HAVE EARS: Rod Koberg's Sonitrol Security Systems in Little Rock uses audio security equipment to help alleviate false alarms. When an alarm is triggered, the tape recorder rolls and employees listen in for the sounds of forced entry and burglar banter.
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Title Annotation:false security alarms in Little Rock, Arkansas
Author:Waldon, George
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Oct 22, 1990
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