By Stephanie Ramage

In 2010, the Atlanta Police Department responded to more than 73,000 commercial and residential alarms. A staggering majority, 54,700, were false, eating up hundreds of personnel hours and dragging officers away from fighting real crime.

With the APD stretched thin already, false alarms present a dangerous waste of police resources, a problem Atlanta shares with other cities.

North of Atlanta, at the Sandy Springs Police Department, Lt. Steve Rose says suburban traffic ensures an alarm call takes about 45 minutes for each officer who responds, and sometimes longer. The SSPD gets between 800 and 1,200 calls for alarms each month. Most, he says, are false, which creates hazards that go beyond mere inefficiency.

DeKalb County Police received 74,452 alarm calls in 2009 (the most recent numbers available), of which 73,136, or 98 percent, were false.

“Nationally, we know that about 99 percent of all alarms are false,” says Marietta Police Chief Dan Flynn, chair of the alarm management committee for the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police (GACP). “It is an enormous problem for police.”

Alarms, he says, both false and valid combined, account for about 10 percent of the demand on police across the country.

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“You have to send two officers to check out an alarm,” Flynn said. “And they have to notify the property owner and then sit and wait for him to get there or send someone. It can take hours.”

On average, checking on an alarm takes Flynn’s officers about an hour. That adds up, so Flynn says his city has made changes to cut its false alarm numbers by two-thirds.

Similarly, the APD is in the process of trying to reign in Atlanta’s faulty residential and commercial alarms. In January, the APD sent Maj. Erika Shields to the GACP’s alarm management committee meeting to learn more about tightening enforcement of the city’s revamped alarms ordinance.

Shields acknowledges the toll false alarms take on taxpayers.

“The expense associated with these calls is comprehensive; from 911 receiving the call, to the dispatcher handling the call, to the officer responding to the call and the ‘lost opportunity’ costs that are incurred,” explains Shields, via email. “Lost opportunity cost” refers to those periods of time when the officer could be handling another 911 call or initiating some other level of activity.

Two things Atlanta may take from the GACP’s model alarm ordinance are, first, requiring property owners to register their alarms with the city, which will help authorities collect fines for false alarms, and, second, “enhanced call verification,” which requires the alarm user to provide two phone numbers to authorities where he or she can be reached to help verify whether an alarm going off is a valid one.

According to the original city ordinance, the first three false alarms sounded on a property in the same calendar year got no fine whatsoever, with the fourth false alarm garnering a fine of $75 and the fifth bringing a fine of $100.

In 2009, the Atlanta City Council hiked fines to $100 for the second false alarm, $200 for the third, $300 for the fourth, $750 for the fifth and sixth, and $1,000 for each false alarm thereafter in the same calendar year. The increases were supported by a report from consulting firm Bain & Co. that showed the city had failed to collect almost $4.5 million in fines for false alarms.

According to APD statistics, the department gives citations for fewer than 1 percent of alarms although most are false.

APD Zone 2, which includes Buckhead and a small sliver of Brookhaven, dwarfs its closest contender among the city’s six zones for alarm calls. Last year, the area saw almost 20,000 alarms. That’s nearly 6,000 more than second-place alarm-sounder Zone 4, located in the southwest corner of the city.

A glance at the number of alarms in Zone 2 between Jan. 1, 2010, and Aug. 31, 2010, as compared with the number of burglaries and robberies, shows an alarming discrepancy: There were 13,176 commercial and residential alarms, but only 536 commercial and residential burglaries. Other types of crime can also set off alarms, but the statistics paint an eye-opening picture for residents.

“There are so many false alarms, the sheer number of them is so overwhelming as compared with real alarms, that police officers become complacent,” said Sandy Springs’ Rose. “It becomes the boy-who-cried-wolf.”

In December 1980, Rose lost a fellow police officer to an alarm that was assumed to be the run-of-the-mill probably false kind.

“It was real,” said Rose. “He was killed.”

It was a Sunday morning at a business on Roswell Road and when the cop was downed by the criminal’s bullet, the officer who was covering him went in after him. She was also shot.

She recovered but never returned to duty.

The Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC) is working with the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police to shape legislation for next year’s General Assembly session that will require alarm companies and police departments throughout the state to work together to clamp down on false alarms.

Marietta began working with SIAC to change its approach to alarms in 2007. The MPD’s policy changed to require that alarm users register with the city, that alarm companies attempt to contact alarm users before calling police, and the city upped fines for false alarms.

“While enforcement of the new ordinance was delayed until Jan. 1, 2008 in order to ensure the community had ample advance notice as well as ample time to register alarms, the community rushed to register,” Flynn wrote in a report for the GACP. “In order to avoid false alarms, many alarm users began making a determined effort to learn to use their alarms more carefully and others upgraded or repaired faulty alarms. Due to the immediate changes in the behavior of alarm users, months before Marietta began issuing citations for excessive false alarms, the overall number of false alarms began a sharp decline.”

In 2006, the MPD saw 9,287 alarms. After the city tightened its alarm policies and practices, that number steadily dropped to 3,254 in 2009, a 65 percent decrease. The city also saw the total of fines collected drop as residents and business owners became more savvy about preventing false alarms.

“We don’t do enforcement to make money by collecting fees for false alarms,” he says. “We needed to do it because we needed officers to be more proactive in addressing crime and you need time to do that.”