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False alarms create a drain on public safety resources
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Last year, Ceres Police Officers responded to 2,310 alarm calls. Alarms are commonly used to help protect businesses, residences and vehicles from illegal intrusions, as well as for rapid police responses during robberies and other emergency situations. Alarm systems are also used for fire protection and medical emergencies. Overall, the use of alarms is a good thing, to the extent that they create a criminal deterrent and help to protect lives and property. At the same time, false alarms create a huge drain on public safety resources, while increasing unjustified hazards to the general public as police, fire and medical personnel rush to respond to alarms that are activated. The problems with false alarms are universal. In Ceres alone, of the 2,310 alarms in 2008, only 107 (or 4.6 percent) were legitimate.

In analyzing the alarms received in Ceres during 2008, 25 percent of them resulted from "operator error." A bit less than 50 percent of the false alarms were "undetermined" (which usually means operator error), and about 12 percent of the total resulted from equipment malfunctions.

Obviously, there is a significant expense associated with alarm call responses. There is the driving time, fuel usage, vehicle wear and tear, and the emergency responders' time spent on scene. Alarm calls, whether false or legitimate, require the response of at least two personnel and can take up to an hour to handle.

Alarm calls, like most all other calls, are treated as legitimate until proven otherwise. Accordingly, the police, fire and medical respond to these priority calls for service quickly and with enough resources to ensure proper handling of the call. False alarms are a highly inefficient use of resources and are demoralizing to the public safety personnel.

Like most other communities, Ceres has an alarm ordinance that imposes fines for false alarms, but in spite of those consequences, it seems like the problem continues unabated. Public education is probably the single, most important step that can be taken to achieve a reduction in false alarms. Persons with alarm systems need to realize how false alarms detract from the overall safety of the public, while directing a disproportionate amount of public resources to a relatively small percentage of the population.

Alarm system users, whether they are the business/property owners, family members, friends or employees, must be informed of the seriousness of the situation, and that alarm setting and disarming procedures must be followed closely. It is also our experience that alarm systems tend to deteriorate over the course of time. Electronic parts wear out, become unreliable or fail altogether, so it is important to have the systems serviced and repaired regularly. Older systems may need to be replaced when they begin to generate false alarms.

There is the grim prospect, if not a likelihood, that crime will increase in the coming months owing to the impending release of tens of thousands of prisoners that is being contemplated by the California State Legislature and as ordered by the federal courts. There will also be significant [foreseeable] impacts on fire and medical emergency services, so it is imperative that we get the false alarm situation under control.

The city of Ceres will be reviewing its current false alarm ordinance in the coming months to make it more effective and meaningful. We want alarms to continue to be an effective crime deterrent and a way for citizens to get timely responses for medical emergencies, but we must minimize the strain on public resources that false alarms result in. The absolute best solution to the false alarm problem is for persons with alarm systems to become more responsible in operating the systems, while making sure that the technology is functioning properly.