MAHONING VALLEY Fines fail to reduce false alarms
Businesses and homes should call immediately if they set off the alarm.
By PHIL NOVAK
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
Sorry, false alarm.
That's what police and firefighters often hear, because false burglar and fire alarms remain a problem -- despite laws in both Boardman and Youngstown aimed at deterring them.
In Boardman, where many retail complexes are located, police Chief Jeffrey Patterson said police respond to about 260 false alarms a month. He said Boardman averages 20 burglaries and 22 robberies a month, and most do not involve alarms.
"It can be a problem, because officers who are responding to false alarms aren't available to do other things," Patterson said. "And from an officer safety standpoint, they may believe that it's a false alarm when it may not be."
Numbers: Patterson estimated that each false alarm wastes at least 20 minutes of an officer's time, or nearly 87 hours a month with an average of 260 false alarms a month. That accounts for nearly 1,044 man hours a year, or more than 43 complete days of responding to false alarms. The large number of false alarms triggered a law in May 1994 that allowed three per year and fines of $25 for each additional false alarm.
"Quite frankly, there's not much incentive in that to make much impact," Patterson said. But he added that the township does not want to make its laws too strict.
"You don't want a lot of false alarms, but you don't want them not reported," he said. "In other places where they have stricter laws, you have security firms told not to call police. They would rather have private security to avoid the fine, and we don't want to get into that situation."
From Jan. 1 to Aug. 8, 2001, Boardman police responded to nearly 2,500 false alarms, totalling $1,500 in fines. Fines were most often given to businesses, and the DeBartolo Corp. tops the list with $275 in fines, for having 14 false alarm violations.
Unenforced: In Youngstown in 2000, police responded to 11,846 alarms. Of those, only 140 were actual crimes. The city has an old ordinance on the books charging $25 for every false alarm after five.
"The ordinance is still there but we haven't enforced it because we don't have an accurate means of tracking alarms," said Chief Richard Lewis.
Lewis explained that it was difficult to keep track of the number of false alarms coming from each house or business without using even more manpower to go through the figures.
He said the Youngstown Police Department now has computer-aided dispatch, a program that can keep track of the history of every call the police receive. Once the employees in dispatch grow accustomed to the system, "we will enforce that ordinance," Lewis said.
Capt. Michael Vodilko runs the dispatch and said that something needs to be done to eliminate the problem.
"We get a ton of people running around all over the place," he said. "It's a problem when you're going to check on something and someone else needs help. Why should we be tying up our cars when someone else needs help?"
The reason: And why are there so many false alarms?
Les Zatko, president of YPS Integrated Systems, a security company specializing in burglar alarms, fire detection and video surveillance, said 80 percent of the problems revolve around user error.
"There's a recognition that something needs to be done," he said. "We train everyone, and we call everyone who gets a false alarm and ask if they need more training -- free of charge."
Fire: The Youngstown Fire Department has less trouble with false alarms, but they still cause problems. In 2000, 545 out of nearly 2,900 alarm responses were false.
"The number of false alarms in total has a signicant impact on the wear and tear of our equipment, as well as the risk that is seen by having our emergency equipment responding," said assistant Fire Chief Joseph Jasinski. "Not only to the public but to ourselves."
Jasinski said after five offenses, frequent offenders will be placed on a list and further responses will bring only one engine. "The response can be restored upon taking care of the problem," he said.
Jasinski said he hopes businesses will call immediately if they hear an alarm but know they do not have a fire.
"They've been getting better," he said.