False-alarm deluge plagues county police

Sometimes, it’s the cat.

Once in a while, a storm is to blame.

But, more often than not, it can be chalked up to good old-fashioned human error.

Whatever the reason, home security systems regularly malfunction, sounding alarms and beckoning police assistance for no real threat at all.

Prince William police responded to more than 12,000 distress signals from home security systems last year, but the number of cases of actual emergencies can be counted on two hands, according to assistant police chief Barry Bernard.

“We might respond to four, five or six alarms per year which deserve attention,” Bernard said Monday. “That means there are false alarms 99.999 percent of the time. It’s an incredible drain on our resources.”

It is Bernard’s job to deal with enforcing the county’s false-alarm ordinance, which fines homeowners no less than $25 each time the police respond for no reason.

After the first three false alarms in a nine-month span, the fine doubles.

“We have the ordinance to encourage people to operate their alarms properly,” Bernard said. “False alarms aren’t just a problem in Prince William County, but across the country.”

In Fairfax County, which responds to more than 40,000 false alarms — wasting roughly 30,000 man-hours each year — local officials finally had enough.

In attempt to raise awareness about the problem and possibly curtail it, the county recently passed an ordinance requiring all home alarm owners to register their systems.

Homeowners must sign up through their respective alarm companies and pay the county a $10 membership fee.

This buys them two “free” false alarms per year, but each additional miscue costs the tenant, starting at $50 and increasing in $50 increments. Should the police respond to a home that is not registered, the owner would automatically be assessed a fine.

“This has absolutely been a problem,” said Fairfax County police officer Jacqi Smith. “Most of the time, an alarm goes off because of an improperly set motion detector … [which] is something that can be prevented. We want to make people aware of how many false alarms we get.”

While the deadline for registration has passed, Smith said the county is still adding the information to its database.

When that process is complete and the system is formally put into place, the police should begin to get a feel of whether or not it is working, she added.

While Bernard said he doesn’t know much about Fairfax County’s plan, he said he can relate to the mission behind it.

“Every time an alarm goes off, we send a minimum of two police officers to the house,” he said. “Additionally, alarm systems lull not only homeowners, but also police officers into a false sense of security.”

Bernard said that his advice for people who want to buy a system for their house is to purchase one from a well-known alarm company and to properly maintain the device.

Staff writer Adam H. Beasley can be reached at (703) 878-8073.

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