DennisBeaverApril 29, 2006 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Have you recently purchased — or are you considering — a home or business alarm system? Does the alarm company want you to sign a long-term contract? If you have signed such a contract, can you get out of it if there are problems? What if there are false alarms due to equipment or installation problems?

Those are the questions anyone considering an alarm system should ask, but which northern California readers Ron and Sharon did not until they received a bill from their local police department for over $2,000 — a bill for Responding to False Alarms. They asked that I did not mention the city that is involved, but I can say that it is one that has the typical False Alarm Ordinance in effect.

An alarming ordinance

Chances are good that you have never heard of a very cool little piece of legislation that deals with the enormous problems caused by false alarms. A number of California cities have adopted False Alarm Ordinances in an effort to reduce the number of false alarms and to be reimbursed for the cost of responding. In my opinion, these are necessary and reasonable steps taken by local governments, and it is important for anyone who owns an alarm system to be aware of what these laws require. The Hanford, ordinance is typical, and Deputy City Manager Tom Haglund describes it this way:

“These statutes have two sections, Registration (Alarm Permit) and Enforcement. Typically, when you are sold an alarm system by a reputable dealer, permit application forms will be provided and the better firms help you fill them out. Once completed, they must be sent in to local enforcement, along with a modest registration fee. Hook up your alarm system without being registered, should a false alarm be sent in, a penalty will be assessed.”

“While some people feel this is another way government is just trying to tax the public even more, that is not the case at all. Having this information assists law enforcement in locating a business or homeowner whose alarm has gone off. It makes it possible to not just find them, but once located, to turn off the alarm, something the neighbors generally appreciate” he points out.

The real cost of a false alarm

“It is hard to imagine, but the real dollars and cents cost in responding to false alarms for a town the size of Hanford (population about 50,000) is the equivalent of hiring two more police officers. Over a 24 hour period of time, the police respond to over 10 false alarms. Yearly, we are talking over $150,000, what it literally costs to hire, equip, train and support two police officers. We understand that there will be false alarms, and that it is better to have an alarm system than to not have one, but a lot of added, unnecessary work for police departments is the direct result of often preventable false alarms,” Mr. Haglund stressed.

Alarms are priority calls

If you speak with the officers and support staff who work at your local police department, they have strong feelings about the consequences of false alarms. “These are high priority calls, requiring two police cars and at times three officers to arrive on the scene. Statistically, a huge percentage of these alarms are false, and preventable. And, it is this fact — that most are false — that can lead to officers becoming complacent with safety tactics, as they expect it to be just another false alarm, opening the door to tragedy,” is the way Lt. Len Johnson of the Eureka Police Department sees these issues.

Proper training essential

Both Hanford’s Tom Haglund and Eureka’s Len Johnson underscore the importance of training employees in the operation of the alarm system and especially in how to turn it off. “Many people do not understand that motion detectors are extremely sensitive to balloons and pets moving about the structure, setting off the alarm. Surprisingly, something as small as a spider in a sensor can create false alarms, as will faulty wiring. That’s why you need to have the system inspected and tested on a regular basis,” they told me.

P.D. should notify of false alarm

Hanford’s Tom Haglund believes that it is good practice for a police department to notify the homeowner or business that a false alarm report came in. “Most cities do not charge for the first false alarm, but if you alarm keeps on tripping, from an initial charge of, for example $50, you could easily see $200 per false alarm, as the Ordinances have a built in progressive scale — a scale that goes higher and higher the more false alarms you have, he cautions.”

Tom added that, “It is not that uncommon for a business to incur more than $4,000 in false alarm fees, in virtually all cases preventable! We have had some homeowners with bills over $1,000, again, preventable. A correctly installed and functioning alarm system does not turn in an alarm unless there is some very good reason. But you would be surprised at how many alarm owners are unaware of testing procedures or of what can set an alarm off — and how you can prevent it. We must never forget that police officers take these alarm calls seriously, travel at high speed which is obviously a safety risk for the officer and public.

Pick a good company

Tom Haglund also has very strong feelings about the importance of selecting a good company. “There are roving bands of high pressure sales people who go door to door, traveling in vans with all of their equipment, selling you a system, with no support at all. They are going in a few days, and the homeowner is left with an alarm system that is more likely than not to give a false alarm. Get bids from several companies, and begin with those who have ads in the phone book, as this suggests they are going to be around for the long term. The big issue is after-sales-support, just as with a computer.”

As with any major purchase it is critical, get a business card, a sales contract, verify location of the business if possible, and insure that you are dealing with an established company.

In my experience in dealing with unhappy alarm customers — who purchase on-line or from companies located hundreds of miles away — you should deal only with local merchants who have an actual, physical address, and who you have checked out through the BBB. When I say local, I am of course including nearby communities that you can physically visit.

Finally, as Tom Haglund recommends, “Test your alarm. You can test it without incurring a false alarm. Test the various zones in your house, and do this in cooperation with the monitoring company. You should not pay more than $30 a month for unlimited service. You do not need to own the equipment, and I would caution staying away from any contract over a year.”

Next time: Be careful of that looooong contract! Can you get out of it? Who pays for the false alarms if you never knew about them?

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.