False Burglar Alarms

The majority of burglar alarm activations are not by bad guys. False alarms account for 10 to 25 percent of all calls to the police. Each call usually requires the response of two officers for 20 minutes. In 2002, American police responded to 36 million alarm calls, costing $1.8 billion.

Joseph Petrocelli Headshot

The majority of burglar alarm activations are not by bad guys. False alarms account for 10 to 25 percent of all calls to the police. Each call usually requires the response of two officers for 20 minutes. In 2002, American police responded to 36 million alarm calls, costing $1.8 billion.

The cost is not only financial. An officer's time on duty is a finite resource; false burglar alarms lead to a misallocation of police capital. Most of the burglar alarms are installed in affluent neighborhoods, but burglary rates are much higher in lower income areas. With the police clearing so many false alarms in suburban areas, urban areas are vulnerable to actual burglaries. Police spend their time where there is a high density of burglar alarms, not where there are a lot of burglars. This may be why, despite a huge up-tick in the installation of burglar alarms, the clearance rate for burglaries remains under 15 percent.

The problem is bad and is likely to get worse. Research into false burglar alarms is based on the approximately 32 million security alarm systems already installed in the United States. But every year another 3 million alarm systems are installed. A recent trend is the marketing of mobile alarm systems, which can be worn on clothing, handheld, or carried in a car. Some departments are already experiencing astronomical rises in their workloads. From 1985 to 2001, the Arlington (Texas) Police Department experienced a 494 percent increase in residential alarms and a 186 percent rise in commercial alarms. Ninety-nine percent of these alarms were false.

The Causes of False Alarms

False burglar alarms can usually be attributed to one of three causes:

  • User Error—The user fails to operate the alarm system in the manner it was designed. This includes entering the incorrect keypad code, leaving a door or window open, or leaving helium balloons near motion detectors.
  • Faulty Equipment—Sometimes the stuff is just bad; other times it was poorly matched to its intended mission.
  • Improper Installation—This includes failing to place motion detectors in proper areas or placing the motion detectors at the wrong heights.

According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the alarm industry blames most false alarms on user error, while poor installation is on the decline and faulty equipment is being corrected by advancing technology.

Dealing with False Alarms

Once you understand what causes false alarms, you can go forward and begin to formulate a response to them. Your department can begin by pinpointing the root cause of the false alarm problem. Track whether the false alarms are coming from factories, small businesses, residences, etc.

Now get the answers to these questions: Within each category, do the false alarms coincide with certain daily events: openings/closings of business, departure for work, etc.? Are alarms received and then cancelled by the key holder within the first 15 minutes? Do the majority of false alarms come from equipment installed by the same company? How often does a response to an alarm lead to an arrest? Can the department expect an increase in alarm installation in the jurisdiction? By answering these questions, a police department can focus on the cause of the problem and formulate a response.

Reducing False Alarms

Many false alarms come from commercial buildings and occur at opening and closing. This is usually caused by employees coming in early or leaving late. To remedy this problem, you and your agency can encourage businesses to train all employees on the use of the alarm system. In some jurisdictions companies have been hit with a schedule of fines for false alarms that increases for repeat offenders.

A similar approach can be used if one alarm company is found to have installed faulty equipment. The company may have had a bad worker installing alarms or may have used substandard technology. If research reveals the alarm installation company is at fault, positive steps must be taken to get the alarm company up to industry standards.

Almost any effort to reduce false burglar alarms will center on the alarm installation company. Most times there is some central dispatch headquarters for the alarm company that receives the alarm then forwards the call to a local police department. This allows an alarm company to have a minimum number of employees and access to police departments all over the country. Several police departments now require the alarm company to conduct some type of alarm verification before a unit is dispatched. In this verified response model, the police respond directly only to holdup, distress, or panic alarms. The alarm company must use its resources to verify a break-in before the police are dispatched.

Cities that have adopted a verified response system have noted a huge drop in the number of alarm calls. When Salt Lake City PD adopted a visual verification system in 2000, they gained the equivalent of five full-time officers in labor time and decreased the response time to other calls. The alarm companies reported no change in sales levels.

Some departments have gone to a system where an alarm owner has to apply for a permit before receiving an alarm. To obtain a permit, a key holder to the business must be named and a contact number must be provided. There is also an escalating fine system attached to false alarms. Although the money collected from fines does not go directly to the police budget, it does provide motivation for the key holder to fix his or her system or visually verify before calling for a uniformed response.

Your agency may have trouble getting local law makers to implement a permit program. The measure will likely draw resistance from alarm companies; citizens may also be angered about paying fines for police services. A police department must be very careful in articulating the cost-benefits of this program before it will be approved by local government.

Some police departments have suspended response to alarms that are habitually false. After a pre-determined number of false alarms have been activated and the key holder and/or alarm company have not made efforts to remedy the problem, the police department will no longer respond to burglar alarms from that address. The department would still respond to panic alarms and holdup alarms. A company can "earn back" police services by installing necessary improvements to the alarm system.

It goes against your grain as a police officer not to go to a call for help. But the overwhelming research shows that many burglar alarms are false. Working with local businesses, homeowners, and alarm companies, your department can do something proactive to reduce false burglar alarms and keep its precious few officers on the street where the real crimes are committed.

In 2006 and 2004, POLICE Magazine conducted a survey (with Security Sales & Integration Magazine) among LE agencies concerning their views on alarm systems and those who install them. To review the data, click here.

About the Author
Joseph Petrocelli Headshot
Detective (Ret.)
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