Curbing accidental alarms

Sep. 29, 2013 @ 09:25 AM

As young children, we were excited when we heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights of a fire truck racing down the street.
If we have a fire or a medical emergency, we’re grateful for the speedy arrival of first responders. And if a would-be thief sets off the burglar alarm in our home or office, we’re glad to know it will bring police hurrying to perhaps catch the perpetrator before he or she can leave the scene.
But when those fire and police vehicles are threading their way through streets congested with cars, trucks, bikes and pedestrians, they expose firefighters and bystanders alike to potential risks. That’s a tradeoff they and we acknowledge in exchange for that swift response that might make the difference between getting a fire quickly under control and its erupting into a major blaze. Pulling our vehicle to the curb to allow the fire truck unimpeded passage is a small inconvenience if at the end of the trip a life may be saved when minutes counted.
But those risks become needless when there is no emergency at the end of a trip. No one benefits – and taxpayers pick up the not insignificant tab.
That happens often in Chapel Hill – the Fire Department responded to 1,250 accidental or false alarms last year, at a cost of $122,400 to the town. Likewise, the bulk of the 3,600 alarms the Police Department responded to last year were false or accidental. Just from July through early September this year, the Police Department responded to 567 alarms. Only 25 of those, about one in 20, were not accidental or false.
Those numbers, which Town Councilman Gene Pease called astounding when the council heard them Monday night, have the town seriously considering imposing a charge for repeated false alarms.
No one wants to discourage citizens from calling 911 when they see something suspicious, as Councilman Jim Ward stressed. “We need to make sure that message is clear.”
But many false alarms are recidivist – a system that is repeatedly triggered by accident or malfunction. Those are the ones police and fire officials hope to target with fines.
A single accidental alarm would cost the home or business owner nothing. In fact, officials are talking about imposing fees after three or four false alarms, probably more than enough time to let the owner correct any system malfunctions.
Many towns, including nearby Durham, already charge for repeated false alarms. In Durham, a $100 fee kicks in with the third and fourth alarms, escalating to $300 for the 10th and each subsequent alarm.
In Chapel Hill, “our interest is to bring that 3,200 down to a much more reasonable number without penalizing folks unreasonably,” Police Chief Dan Blue told the council.
The council will hold a hearing Oct. 28 on the issue. We certainly hope those with concerns will voice them.
But based on the numbers officials presented Monday, the idea seems both sensible and overdue.