Council sets public hearing on false alarms

Sep. 24, 2013 @ 06:46 AM

The Town Council on Monday agreed to set an Oct. 28 public hearing to give residents a chance to comment on a proposal to begin charging businesses and homeowners for false burglar and fire alarms.

Police Chief Chris Blue told the council that his department responded to more than 3,600 such alarms last calendar year at a cost of $75,213 to the town.

And from July to early September, the Police Department already has responded to 567 alarms.

Of those, 542, or about 95 percent, were accidental, false alarms.

Blue said the number of false alarms has remained high, even amid efforts to educate homeowners and business owners about the proper use and maintenance of alarm systems.

“We’ve not been successful in reducing the numbers,” Blue said. “The numbers have been consistently high from year-to-year.”

Meanwhile, the Fire Department responded to 1,250 accidental or false alarm activations last calendar year at a cost of $122,400 to the town.

‘It’s astounding how many false alarms you have,” said Councilman Gene Pease

The cost for responding to alarms is mostly related to manpower.

The Police Department usually sends two officers to respond alarms.

But the typical fire alarm response requires as many as 10 firefighters and three or more vehicles, which is half of the town’s on-duty firefighting resources.

“On the fire end, it’s stunning to think half that half of the town’s on-duty fire resources is tied up on one call,” said Councilman Ed Harrison.

Fire Chief Dan Jones said a high percentage of the false fire alarms are generated by UNC.

 “The university is about 30 percent to 34 percent of our total workload – it varies slightly year–to-year, and our false alarm rate is about 30 percent, so it’s going to be about 30 percent of that,” Jones said.

Responding to a question by Harrison about whether UNC would be fined for false alarms, fire officials said the intent is to charge the university.

Officials said there are other communities that host UNC system schools that already are charging universities for responding to false fire alarms.   

If the ordinance is approved, Councilman Jim Ward said the town must make it clear to citizens that they should continue to call 911 if they feel the need to do so.

“I don’t want this kind of effort to cause people to be uncertain about whether they should dial 911 or not,” Ward said. “We need to make sure that message is clear.”

Under the proposal, penalties would be assessed for false alarms received by 911 within the same calendar year.

Blue said homeowners and businesses likely would be allowed three or four false alarms before they are fined to give them a chance to correct any mechanical malfunction that might be causing the alarms.

“Our interest is to bring that 3,200 down to a much more reasonable number without penalizing folks unreasonably,” Blue said.

The town would take six months to a year to educate residents about the new ordinance and to get alarm systems registered.  

In other business Monday, the council approved a request for an expedited review of the Southern Orange County Governmental Services Campus special-use permit, but shot down a request to waive town fees associated with final zoning and building permit plan review applications.

A waiver of the fees would have resulted in a loss in revenue to the town of approximately $100,000 over the 20- to 25-year span during which the facility would be built.

Councilman Ward said he opposed waiving the fees, noting that the town has not traditionally provided fee waivers for other governmental agencies, such as UNC and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Public Schools.

“It does not come at all from any disinterest in working together with the county,” Ward said.

In an interview, Assistant County Manager Michael Talbert, who will become the county’s interim manager Sept. 30, said he was disappointed about the council’s decision. “I’m a bit disappointed,” Talbert said. “I thought we would be able to collaborate.”