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Police Resources Diverted by False Burglary Alarms

Ramsey and Catania Urge Stiff Fines for Repeat Calls

By Allan Lengel and Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 7, 2004; Page C01

The security system at the Brink's armored car office sounded 103 times in the first six months of this year. But every time police pulled up to the fortresslike building on 17th Street NE, the outcome was the same: a false alarm.

At 1620 I St. NW -- a 10-story office building downtown -- police responded to 92 alarms during the same period. Each was false.

Officers Johnson and Washington and security specialist Tim Ellis investigate a false burglary alarm in the 2000 block of K Street NW. (Dudley M. Brooks -- The Washington Post)

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Throughout the city, patrol cars scramble every day to answer alarms at businesses and homes, and officials said about 98 percent prove false. These calls divert too many patrol cars from more pressing matters, police said. And the assignments are time-consuming: It can take nearly a half-hour to scour a high-rise for signs of intruders.

"It's a big problem because it ties up resources," D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said. "We've got some locations where the alarms go off regularly."

The city has about 4,600 burglaries a year, officials said. D.C. police get about 60,000 false alarms a year -- more than half of them from businesses. Ramsey said the city needs to impose "stiff fines" on those responsible for repeated false alarms.

The District has a law that calls for fines of $100 to $800. But the long-standing law has been virtually unenforceable because it created no system to collect the money, police officials said. The D.C. Council, though, might correct that problem soon.

Council members are considering proposals to fine homeowners and businesses that generate three or more false alarms a year. The city would hire a private contractor to collect the fines. Owners of alarm systems also would be required to register with the District and pay annual fees.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) is among those pushing for the penalties. He said police are losing thousands of hours because of faulty alarm systems and other problems. False alarms are 10 percent of all calls handled by D.C. police, officials said.

Many suburban jurisdictions already have cracked down. Officials in Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties have sharply reduced false alarms by levying fines and encouraging alarm companies to cancel the police run if they discover no emergency exists. In Montgomery, authorities have issued about $500,000 in fines annually, which officials said has contributed to false alarms declining by half in just more than a decade.

Merlin Guilbeau, executive director of the Silver Spring-based National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, which represents 2,400 alarm companies nationwide, said jurisdictions need rigid rules to battle the problem.

False alarms are triggered in various ways. In office buildings, mistakes by cleaning crews or employees unfamiliar with the systems sometimes set off alarms. Other false alarms stem from old and faulty equipment, inclement weather or power outages, police said.

They also can be caused by the slightest movement, which occurred in at least some of the 52 false alarms at A & D Auto Rental on Bladensburg Road in Northeast during the first half of this year, said Reggie Seifu, chief operations officer.

Seifu said the alarm company told him at one point that a bird inside his shop triggered the movement sensors. But in other instances, Seifu said, the alarm company sent inexperienced people to repair the faulty system, which went off seven times Feb. 21.

"They should fine them, not us," he said.

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