Every 11 minutes a burglar alarm goes off in the District of Columbia. And each time, District police are required to dispatch to the scene at least two police cruisers, one of them a specially trained K-9 unit.
But 99 times out of 100 the alarms turn out to be false.
This year alone D.C. police are projecting a total of 45,000 alarms -- a level so high that they say it's interfering with their efforts to catch criminal suspects.
"False burglar alarms are a major problem for us," said inpector Clay W. Goldston, communications director for D.C. police. "They're quite a drain on us. We have to send the same number of units as it it were a real alarm."
Police are not alone in their agony. Last week Patrick Duffy, operations superintendent for the Sears store at 911 Bladensburg Rd. NE, climbed out of bed in the middle of the night for the 97th time this year to check on an alarm at his store.
"The record to date is 92 false alarms and five break-ins," said Duffy. He met police at the store and found another malfunctioning alarm. "I'm surprised they keep coming . . . they always act like it's the real thing," said Duffy.
Police say they have no choice but to cover every burglar alarm, but they are angry about it.
Some stores use the alarm just to call police to remove a drunk or handle some other routine matter, claims Inspector Goldston. The reason: "They know we will give the alarm a higher priority than a disorderly run."
After five years of lobbying, the D.C. police last week got the City Council to pass a law that will allow them to issue tickets -- with a $10 to $25 fine -- for a false alarm.
The law, which has to be signed by the mayor before taking effect, will be one of the toughest of its kind in the country. It will allow police to hold alarm owners responsible for equipment malfunction, accidental triggering or attempts to use the alarm to summon police in non-emergency situations.
Only Prince George's County among area jurisdictions has a similar law. Police in Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties and Alexandria all report false alarm rates that exceed 90 per cent and all say they would like legislation to deal with the problem. But in Arlington, the County Board squelched such a proposal two years ago when business groups strongly opposed it.
In Washington, few are as unhappy about the alarm problem as members of the city's K9 Police Corps. Because their dogs are trained to search buildings, members of the corps must go on every alarm call.
"It is very rare when the cause of an alarm is a burglary," said Third District K-9 Officer Deborah Weinsheimer. "When it's a residence, the people sometimes come out and apologize. They never can understand why their alarms went off. But when it's a business place, they act like they don't care. They refuse to fix their alarms because they know we have to respond.
In his eight years as a second district K-9 officer, Jim Tarantella says he has answered two legitimate burglar alarms. "Those alarms don't prevent burglaries," he said. "They just make the thief move a little quicker to get in and get out."
Fifth District K-9 Officer Paul Wyland is more blunt. "Neither the companies nor the alarms are worth a damn," he says.
Bob Scott, general manager of the Gangplank Restaurant in Southwest Washington, is inclined to agree. "We spent in excess of $15,000 to detect intruders," he said. "So far, no intruders just a lot of false alarms."
Bill Greer, the public relations man for the National Burglary and Fire Alarm Association, concedes that false alarms "are the number one problem in the industry." But he adds, "We say the figure is closer to 70 or 80 percent" instead of the D.C. police figure of 99 percent.
Greer says his organization is working on an industry-wide guide to reducing false alarms. "There are so many people involved. Human error is the culprit in false alarms," he said.
Local company representatives side with Greer.
"Most of the false alarms are set off by people, not the equipment," said Bob Schotta of American District Telegraph Company, a major alarm firm.
"Seventy-five percent of the false alarms are people-related and the rest is equipment-related," said Bill Cigic, salesman for Capitol Hill Alarms Inc. whose company specializes in residential alarms.
"False alarms can be a real headache," allows Nick Hornbuckle of Rollins Protective Services. "We try to keep them down by servicing equipment every eight to 10 weeks."
Despite the problems, there has been a booming demand for alarm systems, especially those designed for homes. Travis Pace, a retired government worker, speaks for many home alarm owners when he says the devices are worth any trouble they cause.
Pace remembers the day he left his Takoma Park home for an hour to go to the grocery story. "When I came home, they'd broken in," he said. "I was tormented that it would happen again. I bought in alarm system and now I feel secure. I can sleep at night."
His peace of mind cost him about $1,000 -- $500 less than the average system costs in the District. For that amount, a homeowner or small businessman can get either a silent alarm or one which will ring, yelp, buzz or beep if a door or window is disturbed.
For more money, a property owner can buy a system which reacts to noise or movement in the room.
For a monthly service fee of $15 to $30, the alarm system can be connected to a central monitoring station including, in some cases, maintenance checks.
How quickly the monitoring station will react to a sounded alarm is heatedly debated by the alarm companies and the police. Most companies claim that the alarm is read immediately at monitoring stations -- some as far away as Chicago -- and that a call is placed to the appropriate police department within 30 seconds. But some police officers say the lag time between the alarm sounding and the police arrival can be 30 minutes or more, not the five to 10 minutes response time alarm companies claim.
The new D.C. legislation is expected to go into effect this fall, assuming Mayor Marion Barry signs the bill.
One of the people who expects to be directly affected by it is Councilman Dave Clarke whose Judiciary Committee introduced the bill. 'I'm one of the people to be regulated," he said. "After we had two burglaries and I was stabbed one time, we decided it was either an alarm system or move out."
Clarke says his alarm has sounded a few times accidentally. We have a 150-year-old house and the windows don't fit tightly in the track. So, if the wind or something rattles them, the alarm goes off," he said. "But the system works . . . we haven't been burglarized."
The prospect of tickets for false alarms doesn't trouble him. "I'd expect I'll be paying the tickets just like anybody else," he said.