Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

False Burglar Alarms 2nd Edition

Guide No. 5 (2007)

by Rana Sampson

The Problem of False Burglar Alarms

What This Guide Does and Does Not Cover

This guide deals with the problem of false burglar alarms. It begins by reviewing factors that increase the risks of false burglar alarms. It then identifies a series of questions that might help you analyze your local problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.

False burglar alarms is but one aspect of the larger set of problems related to alarms and misuse of police resources. This guide is limited to addressing the particular harms created by false burglar alarms. Related problems not directly addressed in this guide, each of which require separate analysis, include:

  • misuse and abuse of 911
  • false fire alarms
  • false vehicle alarms
  • false robbery alarms
  • noise complaints about audible alarms.

Some of these related problems are covered in other guides in this series, all of which are listed at the end of this guide. For the most up-to-date listing of current and future guides, see www.popcenter.org.

General Description of the Problem

In the United States in 2002, police responded to approximately 36 million alarm activations, at an estimated annual cost of $1.8 billion.1Most of these activations were burglar alarms.This guide examines current police responses and presents alternative strategies to address the false alarm dilemma. Purchasers of an alarm system are told to expect a police response to an alarm activation, even though they bought the system from a private alarm company with no link to a police department. The vast majority of alarm calls—between 94 and 98 percent (higher in some jurisdictions)—are false.†† In other words, alarms’ reliability, which can be measured by these rates of false activations, is generally between 2 and 6 percent. Nationwide, false alarms account for somewhere between 10 and 25 percent of all calls to police.2For many U.S. police agencies, false burglar alarms constitute the highest-volume type of call for service. In the United States alone, “solving the problem of false alarms would, by itself, relieve 35,000 officers from providing an essentially private service.”3

In some cities, police also respond to fire alarms. It is typical for burglar alarm calls to substantially outnumber fire alarm calls to police departments.

†† For example, in Dallas, Texas, of the 62,000 alarm calls in 2004, only 2.8 percent were valid (Security Sales and Integration 2005). In Salt Lake City, Utah, of the thousands of alarm calls responded to in 1999, only 0.3 percent resulted from crime (Salt Lake Tribune 2000). In Eugene, Oregon, from the 5,944 alarm calls in 2001, police made only 10 arrests (Salem Police Department, Burglar Alarm Task Force 2004 [PDF] ).

During the 1990s, consolidation within the alarm industry changed the way alarm companies delivered services. Larger companies purchased smaller ones, and a number of alarm monitoring companies moved, sometimes out of state, to achieve economies of scale. For example, a company in Texas might monitor the alarms of tens of thousands of customers in Utah or other distant states.When an alarm goes off, the monitoring company calls the owner. If no one answers or the person who answers gives the wrong prearranged code, the monitoring company calls the police, expecting them to respond.††

The mergers also mean that alarm systems originally installed and serviced by one company may now be serviced by another. Many politicians, fearful of alienating their local security industry, often initially support police response to all alarms. However, the monitoring companies they are supporting may not be local at all.

†† A few alarm companies still respond as part of their contract with customers, but this is rare.

An estimated 32 million security alarm systems have been installed in the United States,4and most of these are monitored. The industry adds roughly 3 million new systems each year.Sixty percent of those are in residences, the rest in commercial and institutional properties.5Alarm industry statistics indicate that the average security system costs between $100 and $1,200, depending on its complexity, and monitoring fees average about $35 per month. Some security companies offer free alarm systems because the monthly monitoring fee alone produces strong profits for the industry. At least one of every seven U.S. businesses and one of every five U.S. residences have alarms.6The recent trend of wiring new residential construction with alarm capacity has the potential to significantly increase the number of alarm calls in the coming decade. Consequently, even those police agencies with recently enacted false alarm policies and ordinances should revisit their approach; otherwise, their workload may be further consumed with false alarm calls.††

Estimates of the number of new alarms installed differ (see Hakim and Blackstone 1997; Spivey and Cobb 1997; Blackstone, Hakim, and Spiegel 2000; and National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association 2005).

†† In Arlington, Texas, between 1985 and 2001, the number of police responses to residential alarm calls increased 494 percent, and commercial alarm calls increased 186 percent, with 99 percent proving false. In 2001, alarm calls accounted for 19 percent of all dispatched calls for service (White 2002).

Alarm associations suggest that false burglar alarms are not evenly distributed: some alarm systems experience no false alarms, and others, many. In some jurisdictions, the pattern of false alarms is much more widely distributed.Whether concentrated across locations or not, the aggregate number of false alarm calls among all alarmed premises places a high demand on limited police resources.

While false alarm calls may be clustered among a relatively small number of premises in some jurisdictions, other jurisdictions have found a much broader distribution. For example, one study of a Midwestern capital city showed that 70 percent of all alarm permit holders had one or two false alarm calls (Gilbertson 2005).The Salem (Oregon) Police Department also found that a large number of locations accounted for the volume of alarm calls: 2,643 separate locations accounted for 5,688 alarm calls (Salem Police Department, Burglar Alarm Task Force 2004).