Thirty-nine security companies – including some of the industry’s top brands — are partly banned from doing business in Sandy Springs until they pay overdue fines, with police no longer responding to their burglar alarms.

Fire alarms and panic-button type alarms will still get a response, and a direct call to 911 always will, too, officials said at a April 3 City Council meeting. But two city councilmembers expressed surprise to hear their home security companies are on the list, and there was talk of other citizens feeling fear and confusion, especially as every offending company is publicly named. Police Chief Ken DeSimone offered cold comfort: He says virtually all alarms from old-school systems wired to call 911 are false and that in 30 years as a police officer, he has never caught a burglar due to an alarm call. The real danger, he said, is that police will be tied up with a false alarm and be unable to respond to a real emergency.

Sandy Springs Chief Ken DeSimone

“Any type of 911 emergency, you’re competing with 11,000…false alarms,” he said, citing a city statistic from last year.

The ban or, technically, revoking of company registrations – done alongside a press release publicly naming each company  — is the latest salvo in a war with the industry over false alarms.  The ban fell on security companies with overdue fines under a controversial new ordinance that puts the industry, rather than individual customers, on the hook for false alarms. Police say the ordinance is working, dramatically cutting false alarm responses. An industry group and two Georgia companies are suing the city, claiming the ordinance is unconstitutional. One of the plaintiffs, SafeCom Security, is among the 39 hit with the ban.

The following is the full list of companies on the no-response list for burglar or “intrusion” alarms, as provided by the city (companies listed with “sic” had names that could not immediately be confirmed and may be misspelled): Ackerman, Actio Security, ADT, AFA Protective Systems, Atlanta Alarm,  AlarmForce, Banner Security, Callaway Security, Consumer Security, Convergint Technologies, Ede Systems, Hometronics, Interlink, LiveWatch, Mid South Security, Nationwide, New Georgia Security, Nichols Security, Owen Security, Paragon Systems, Patterson Security, Phoenix Systems, Protection Concepts, Protection One, SafeCom Security, Rock Solid Security, RTA Security, Safe Security, Safe Home Security, Security Sal [sic], Security Cen [sic], SimplexGrinnell, Stanley Security, Strong Security, Sonitrol, Sunbelt Technology, Twelve & Associates,  Tyco Integrated, and XFINITY Home Security Systems.

Councilmember Tibby DeJulio had a reaction to the ban that many citizens may share. He said he uses ADT for his home security and asked whether this means he is now paying the company for nothing.

“That’s the beauty of the free enterprise system,” replied DeSimone, saying that DeJulio could switch to a company that is not on the list.

Councilmember John Paulson suggested a two-week delay in the ban to allow the public to learn more about it. “It’s kind of weird – we’re kind of punishing customers who think they’re safe,” he said. But DeSimone said immediate action is needed.

“We need to do this now,” DeSimone said. “The more we wait, the more jeopardy I think we put our citizens in” due to false alarms tying up officers. He even raised the specter of a fire truck causing an accident while responding to a false alarm.

“My alarm company is on the list, too,” said Councilmember Steve Soteres. He has said he has a “duress” code to call for police in a panic-type situation and asked whether it will still work. DeSimone said yes – but added that even most or all of panic-button alarms to the Sandy Springs Police are false anyway as well.

“When somebody really needs help, they don’t run across [the room] and press a keypad,” but instead pick up the phone and dial 911, DeSimone said.

A major thrust of the city’s argument is that it is forcing an outdated, archaic industry to modernize. Asked recently by the Reporter what type of security system he uses himself, DeSimone pulled out his phone and showed live video of his own front doorway – via the Ring alarm system, which allows residents to directly see whether someone has broken in rather than an automated system calling police to do so.

In fact, DeSimone told the council at the April 3 meeting, the city aims to further tighten the alarm ordinance eventually – including by requiring alarm verification by a human being directly or by audio or video.

Last year, the city instituted the major legal shift to put alarm companies, rather than alarm-users, on the hook for registration and fines – a move that the city of Brookhaven followed and other large cities are reportedly considering. The ordinance requires the company that installs and services the alarm to register it, and puts that company on the hook for false-alarm fines. Those fines escalate quickly: $25 for a first offense; $250 for the second and third; and $500 for all subsequent offenses. In addition, a location will go on the non-response list if it has four false alarms within any two-year period. Direct calls to 911 from those locations would still receive a police response.

In addition, any companies with fines that are more than 90 days past due go on the no-response list. That’s what led to the 39 registration revocations.

Alarms are considered false when they come from devices that use automatic systems or call centers to contact 911 about a fire or crime emergency that turns out to be nonexistent. False alarms are a perennial and significant problem in the industry, especially because residents or business owners may accidentally trigger their own alarms in a variety of ways. The problem is common enough that a private company created a program – called “CryWolf” – to help cities register and track false alarms, a service that Sandy Springs uses.

The city says it spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year responding to false fire and burglar alarms in terms of staff time and vehicle maintenance. However, many security companies representatives attended that council meeting last summer to say fining companies isn’t the answer and could drive them out of business.

At a March 6 City Council meeting, DeSimone said that since the ordinance took effect in October, false alarms were down significantly – from 99 to 49 in February – due largely to the no-response list and companies had been fined a total of $428,000, of which $135,000 had been collected. If the currently banned companies pay up, they can do business again; however, DeSimone said he has heard that some companies are charging customers the amount of the fine but not paying it to the city.

And companies continue to produce false alarms, said DeSimone. He said that for the week ending March 30, the city received 135 burglar alarm notifications, all of which were false. The Fire Rescue Department received 20 false alarms in that period, he said, though he did not say how many valid alarms came through, if any.

The industry’s lawsuit was not discussed at the council meeting, but DeSimone’s report about the ban and related items clearly was partly a response to it. One claim in the lawsuit is that the false-alarm fine appeal system is unfair, and the city was especially angered by a related industry press release that likened the Sandy Springs Police to the small-town brand of justice in “The Andy Griffith Show.”

In his report, DeSimone said the city has heard many appeals, granting 135 of them and denying 117.

Update: This story has been updated with the correct name of Owen Security, which was incorrectly identified by the city in its original press release.

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John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.