Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Summary of Responses to False Burglar Alarms

The table below summarizes the responses to false burglar alarms, the mechanism by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they ought to work best, and some factors you should consider before implementing a particular response. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem.

Effective Responses
Response No. Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
1. Requiring alarm companies to verify alarm legitimacy before calling the police (commonly called “verified response”) The alarm company responds to the scene of an alarm and calls the police only if a crime has occurred or been attempted. If the alarm company is in visual contact with the alarm site, such as through CCTV, and can verify a crime or an attempt, police will respond …holdup, panic, and duress alarms are exempted; alarm companies are prohibited from classifying an alarm call as duress when it isn’t; and combined with responses 2 and 3 below Requires educating the public, police union, and media to enable police leaders to establish departmental policy, or to encourage local (and sometimes state) legislators to enact ordinances
2. Charging a fee for service for all false holdup, duress, and panic alarms Used in combination with response 1, keeps these types of alarm calls from becoming unmanageable … the alarm industry is prohibited from classifying ordinary burglar alarms as “duress” alarms, and combined with responses 1 and 3 Requires permits for holdup, duress, and panic alarms, as well as false alarm-reduction management to monitor trends in such calls
3. Responding to holdup, duress, and panic alarms only if they come from a building For an example, see the Salt Lake City ordinance at www.slcgov.com/police. Police may make exceptions for panic alarms given to high-risk domestic violence and stalking victims …publicized so that mobile-alarm manufacturers know the police will not respond Requires outreach to mobile-alarm manufacturers
Responses With Limited Effectiveness
Response No. Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
4. Establishing an ordinance requiring owners to obtain alarm permits and to pay escalating fines for false alarms Requires permits for alarm owners and escalating fines for false alarms …all alarmed premises obtain required permits, the community has an extremely low number of false alarms, and officers have sufficient free time so that responding to false alarm calls does not impede their ability to work on actual crime problems Involves significant administrative resources; collection rates may be low; may involve taking legal action against nonpayers
5. Setting a cost recovery-based fee for all false- alarm calls The city calculates the true cost of false-alarm response, including the lost-opportunity costs for police …the political climate is more supportive offees for service than “verified response” Involves billing and follow-up with customers who fail to pay; may involve taking legal action against nonpayers
6. Charging permit fees and fines directly to alarm companies Reduces the number of contacts police must make to recover costs, and ensures all new alarm system owners obtain permits ...alarm companies recognize the value of reduced administrative workload for police Requires cooperation from alarm companies
7. Outsourcing the administration of permits, fines, and fees Private companies are contracted to manage the administrative burden of permitting, tracking down, and collecting fines and fees from nonpayers …permitting, fine, and fee transactions are automated Manages, but does not solve, the false alarm problem
8. Requiring alarm monitoring companies to make two calls to owners of activated systems before calling police Provides an additional opportunity to verify the validity of an alarm by contacting owners who are not on the alarmed premises when alarm activates …alarm monitoring companies are diligent in applying policy, and alarm owners have multiple contact numbers Monitoring companies serving multiple jurisdictions may have difficulty applying multiple policies correctly; some alarm companies fear liability if police are not called immediately
9. Accepting dispatch cancellations The alarm company verifies (usually by telephone) that the alarm was false, and then calls police, who cancel their response …established by ordinance, and alarm companies follow through Increases the number of incoming calls dispatchers must handle
10. Alerting alarm companies about false-alarm abusers Police sort records of false-alarm abusers by company, and notify the companies …accompanied by sanctions for noncompliance; or alarm companies, along with individual alarm owners, are charged for costs Requires police staff time to sort records, and alarm company cooperation in dealing with alarm owners
11. Setting criteria for temporarily suspending police response Police response is withheld for properties with chronic false alarms or for those premises without a valid alarm permit, and can be combined with a modified “verified response” policy …police have quick access to database containing the number of prior false alarms and permit status, and alarm owners are notified of the intent to suspend police response Requires significant administrative effort to maintain current records of prior false alarms and permit status
12. Publishing alarm companies’ false alarm rates on websites or elsewhere Police post alarm companies’ false alarm rates on department websites or elsewhere …police alert alarm companies that they are going to do so, and give them time to reduce their false alarm rates before publication Requires accurate and regular updating, perhaps quarterly. In the United Kingdom, an inspectorate monitors companies’ false alarm rates. For those companies unwilling to reduce high rates, the police do not respond to alarms without evidence of a crime in progress37
13. Conducting alarm users’ education classes Police hold classes for alarm abusers to reduce the number of errors made activating and deactivating the system …classes are taught by the alarm installation and monitoring companies, and provide on-premises instruction so users receive hands-on training If police lead classes, they must develop expertise in typical alarm systems and their false-trigger patterns; must lead to a dramatic reduction in the number of false alarms to be cost-effective; unclear what responsibility police should have for educating users of a private consumer product
14. Lowering the call priority of alarms Police code alarm calls as “low priority” for dispatch purposes …police have sufficient resources to respond to alarm calls, and local legislators are unwilling to address the problem in any other way Does not address the underlying causes of false alarms; does not reduce the number of incoming calls to police dispatchers
Response Not Recommended
Response No. Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
15. Providing a high priority emergency police response to unverified burglar alarm calls Police treat alarm calls as actual emergencies, despite extensive research findings to the contrary …the community has few crime problems, and police have sufficient resources to do so Assumes police desire full responsibility for false alarms, or the community and legislature are unwilling to accept extensive research concerning the percentage of false alarms