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How to Avoid Paying the High Price of False Alarms

Posted by Jay Thomas on Feb 21, 2020

Have you ever had a false alarm in your office or apartment building? It’s quite a common problem. In fact, research from the Arizona State University Center for Problem-Oriented Policing reveals that between 94 and 98 percent of alarm calls are false. (The number varies based on jurisdiction. It’s higher in some.)

The International Association of Chiefs of Police states that false alarms are a significant issue for over half of the police departments that responded. IACP indicates that false alarms cost police departments up to 6.5 million personnel hours.

According to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing research report, preventing false alarms in the U.S. would free up 35,000 police officers’ time to be better used elsewhere. That is a lot of hours that could be better spent on actual calls. When there’s a false alarm, it’s cause for … well … alarm.

The Consequences of False Alarms

First of all, false alarms needlessly scare employees and tenants. In most cases, it’s not a prankster or a malicious incident as these only comprise 6 percent of the calls.

Second, respondents in IACP’s survey say false alarms significantly impact the following:

  • Officer safety
  • Patrol resources and staffing
  • Volume of calls
  • Costs
  • Complacency

A REMI article gives an example of an apartment building that had two false alarms because of thefts in its parking garage. The perpetrators set off the fire alarm to steal bikes and exit the locked parking garage. This took firefighters away from actual calls where their services were needed.

Not only that, but these false alarms can compel tenants to feel unsafe in the apartment or office building. This affects lease renewals. Some locations may charge businesses if they fail to maintain the alarm system.

If the building has multiple false alarms, then residents and employees may not exit the building the next time the alarm goes off. It’s a situation of the boy who cried wolf. They think it’s yet another false alarm. Imagine what would happen if it’s a real alarm.

The cost of false alarms varies by location. REMI’s story discloses that the average false alarm fee in Canada for large apartments and condos is almost $1,400 per dispatch. For smaller apartment buildings, it can cost close to $500 per responding vehicle.

Some U.S. cities don’t charge for the first false alarm. They will, however, charge for any alarms that follow, with the price increasing with each incident.

How False Alarms Affect a U.S. City

Here’s a look at the City of Memphis. In 2016, the Memphis police department responded to almost 63,000 alarm calls. Of those, only 458 or 0.8 percent, were valid calls. More than half of the 63,000 calls came from commercial properties.

These false alarms cost the city more than $1.7 million and almost 64,000 hours in response time. This is just for one year. False alarms cost Memphis $5.1 million and it has only collected $1.9 million in fees and fines. That’s a $3.2 million loss for the city because police spend an average of 37 minutes in responding to alarm calls.

The City of Memphis has increased its false alarm fines to cover the losses. It also drove the city to change the ordinance requiring businesses to renew permits themselves instead of through their alarm companies. After making this change, the city’s false alarms fell by 20 percent. In 2018, there were approximately 52,000 false alarms. The number fell again to 48,000 in 2019.

The Daily Memphian says the first false alarm is free for those who have a permit, but any subsequent false calls are a $140 fine and recovery fee. Those without a permit pay on the first violation.

What Causes False Alarms?

Data from The National Fire Protection Association shows fire department false alarm response by type of call for 2018:

  • Almost half of the calls are unintentional.
  • One-third of the calls are the result of a system malfunction.
  • The remaining 22 percent or malicious or other false alarms, such as bomb scares.

Notice none of these have anything to do with fires. These are the types of incidents that can happen with burglar alarms and security systems.

The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing lists the following as the main causes of false alarms:

  • User errors, such as not closing the door completely, entering incorrect keypad codes, or errors from insufficient employee training.
  • Faulty or poorly selected equipment
  • Poor installation

Other causes for false alarms include bad weather, dust, insects, and animals. That’s why it’s important to do system health checks and train employees.

What Can You Do to Reduce False Alarms?

If you conduct alarm testing in your office building or apartment, call the fire and police departments to let them know. They suspend responding to an alarm for a set time. This allows you to test without worrying about being charged for a false call. Your security service provider may offer this service. If so, keep a record and associated receipts of all the work they do. This way, if there’s a false alarm, you have proof that you took steps to prevent them.

Train employees on how to operate the building’s security system. This training addresses how to correctly open or close the building, how to operate the system, how to cancel an accidentally triggered alarm, and what to do when certain scenarios happen.

If the security system code or process changes, then they need to be communicated to employees. One commercial building’s alarm went off when an employee opened. It turns out the alarm code had changed, and the employee didn’t get the memo.

Property managers of apartment and office buildings will want to post a fire safety plan around the building and in an online community. It’s valuable to hold fire drills to ensure employees and tenants know how to respond to an alarm. Reinforce the need to always react to an alarm to stave off complacency.

The Importance of Visual Verification with Video Surveillance

In the REMI story, the City of Toronto fire department recommends installing security cameras to reduce false alarms. Video surveillance helps verify the legitimacy of the alarm prior to calling the police department. This cuts down on false alarms. The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing research confirms cities that require verification saw false alarms drop by an estimated 90 percent.

Salt Lake City enforced an ordinance requiring visual verification prior to calling emergency. It significantly reduced calls requiring an officer to respond. This resulted in decreasing the workload of dispatchers, reducing response times for other calls, and gaining the equivalent of five police officers.

It helps to work with a security company that has a partnership with emergency services. For instance, when Stealth Monitoring’s trained operators get an alert of a potential problem with a commercial property, they check the cameras for visual verification. If there’s suspicious activity or a crime in progress, they contact the police department.

The police dispatcher knows a call from Stealth Monitoring is not a false alarm. They tend to move up such calls on the priority list. In turn, this increases the chances the police will arrive while the suspects are still on the property.

Stealth also offers regular system health checks. This ensures the system doesn’t trigger false alarms and continues to operate. The security monitoring company relies on a combination of analytics and human intelligence to maximize security while minimizing costs.

Artificial intelligence watches for specific activities and notifies the security operator as soon as something pops up. The monitoring operator checks the activity on the cameras and responds as needed.

Finding a video surveillance system that won’t trigger an alert every time something moves is key to minimizing false alarms. Flying tree branches and grocery bags, loose animals, and strong winds can trigger some video surveillance systems. Like false alarms, false positives waste resources.

Some video surveillance systems come with sensors that detect water leaks and temperature changes. If these trigger the surveillance system, the operator reviews the activity. In the case of a water leak, the monitoring operator can notify the property manager to inspect the water leak. This can prevent flooding or at least stop it before it causes thousands or millions of dollars in damage.

Remote video surveillance helps spot smoke in an apartment building. A quick-acting security operator contacted the fire department that arrived on-site and battled the fire for several hours. This fire occurred in the middle of the night while residents were sleeping. Thankfully, no one got hurt. Although tragic, it could’ve been worse as lives could’ve been lost. While video surveillance is designed to deter crime, it was invaluable in preventing injuries and death in this apartment fire.

Vagrants trespass on commercial properties in search of a place to bath and sleep. On cold days, they tend to start fires for warmth. Video surveillance can catch and report these vagrants. They’re not only trespassing but also potentially causing damage to the property. Their appearance can also affect the property’s reputation as people may deem it unsafe with unwelcome visitors present.

Pick up this free remote video surveillance guide to learn how it can deter crime and more while providing a fast ROI. If you’d like to discuss your specific requirements or meet with a security consultant, please contact us.