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False alarms get more costly for residents, businesses

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Sacramentans who protect their homes and businesses with fire and burglar alarms may soon pay more for chronic false alarms and see alarm permit fees nearly triple.

The Sacramento Fire and Police departments each presented proposals to the City Council’s Law and Legislation Committee Tuesday that would change the current policy on fire and burglar alarm response – and increase penalties for multiple false alarms.

The proposed changes to police alarm response will do two things: require alarm companies to step up efforts to verify legitimate alarms, and change the current three-year permit structure to an annual permit.

The changes to fire alarm response includes incrementally increasing fines for multiple false alarms.

Members of the Law and Legislation Committee unanimously approved both proposals Tuesday.

“This will allow the (Police Department) to focus on legitimate priority needs of the community,” Police Capt. Jim Maccoun told the committee Tuesday.

According to Maccoun, alarm installations throughout the city have increased by 4,000 since 2008, resulting in an increased demand for police services.

At the same time, police staffing has decreased by 29 percent over the last several years.

In years past, alarm companies sent private security personnel to respond when alarms were set off. As the economy shifted, many alarm companies either downsized their operations or moved out of state and eliminated response by private security personnel.

Alarm companies have private contracts with customers but use a public agency to service the contract – transferring the responsibility to respond to alarms to the local police.

Residents who do not have an alarm system essentially subsidize those who do by paying taxes to support the overall costs of police response to alarm calls, according to a police staff report presented to the committee.

Sacramento Police Department has responded to an average of 26,000 calls per year – that’s 72 alarm calls per day – over the last three years. Ninety-seven percent of those were false alarms, Maccoun said.

The report also stated that alarm calls involve a two-officer response and take approximately 40 minutes to resolve – costing the city approximately $3.7 million per year.

On top of the ordinance changes, the Police Department is also changing its department policy to further curtail false alarm responses.

According to Maccoun, right now the department will respond to all alarms. With the new changes, however, after three false burglar alarms in 12 months, the department will only respond after the alarm company has attempted to confirm a valid alarm with the home or business owner.

This “enhanced call verification” means alarm companies will have to make at least two telephone calls to determine whether the alarm signal was a mistake before calling the police: one to the premises where the alarm was activated, and one to an alternate number provided by the residence or business owner.

This will also be the case if any false alarm or permit fees are not paid within 120 days after a resident or business owner is billed.

The ordinance states that violations will be considered a public nuisance, and fines will be between $250 and $25,000 for each day the violation continues, depending on the offense.

The breakdown of the new fees and penalties was not available Tuesday, Maccoun said. A proposed fee structure will be presented to City Council when it reviews the proposal.

For the Fire Department, false fire alarms have steadily risen since 2004 and now make up about 15 percent of total emergency responses, a fire department report states.

A standard fire alarm response typically requires units from three or four fire stations to cover, the report states. False alarms make those units unavailable for actual emergency response.

To curb the amount of false fire alarms, the Fire Department wants to levy penalties for alarm systems that generate multiple false alarms.

The tiered penalties start with a warning notice after the second false alarm in any 12-month period. Fines levied for third and further false alarms were not available Tuesday. They will be made available to the City Council when it considers both the new fire and police changes.

After the fifth false alarm, the penalty includes notice of public nuisance and the possibility that the system may be removed from service by the Fire Department, potentially creating problems for home and business owners in meeting insurance requirements.

Michael Sommerfield, owner of Miosa Couture on J Street, said Wednesday the problem is not the people with the alarms, rather it is the alarm systems themselves.

“It’s the fire department that requires these high-tech alarms,” Sommerfield said. “They insisted on (alarm) systems that don’t work.”

Sommerfield said that he is “all for” minimizing the number of false alarms, but he doesn’t think business owners should be penalized for faulty equipment.

“It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars for (the Fire Department) to come out with 12 guys all geared up,” Sommerfield said. “If they’d let us use $6 Home Depot alarms that actually work, this wouldn’t be such a problem.”

Although City Councilman Steve Cohn voted in favor of the proposed ordinance changes, he expressed concerns about the fee structure.

“I think the first issue is whether to have a fee differential between commercial and residential permits,” Cohn said. “Second, is whether to phase in the increase over a two-year period instead of immediately.

“The problem is hitting people pretty hard all at once,” Cohn said. “We’re talking about almost tripling the fee, not just for violators but for everybody.”

City Coucilman Jay Schenirer, who also was a yes vote on the ordinance, agreed with Cohn’s concerns.

“It’s one more fee increase for people on top of everything else,” City Councilman Jay Schenirer said Tuesday. “We need to look at that.”

Maccoun told committee members that proposed fees would be brought to the full City Council when the ordinances go before them.

If the City Council approves the ordinances, the changes to the current law will become effective 30 days later.

Melissa Corker is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCorker.

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