False alarms diverted Durham firefighters, police in 2013

Mar. 21, 2014 @ 04:24 PM

DURHAM – Firefighters and police in Durham answered more than 8,000 false alarms in 2013, wasting resources and costing offenders nearly half a million dollars in fines.

The number of offenders last year totaled 5,360, according to city officials. Many were responsible for multiple false alarms.

Topping the list was the Durham Housing Authority, with 28 false alarms and $6,850 in fines, all paid. City figures blend fire and police alarms, making separate figures unavailable.

Others in the top-10 offender list for 2013 are:

- No. 2: Not Just Wings restaurant at 102 Hood St., with 27 false alarms resulting in fines of $9,250; $6,550 remains unpaid.

- No. 3: Kestrel Heights School, 20 false alarms that brought $4,450 in fines, all paid.

- No. 4: City Hall, 18 false alarms, no fines.

- No. 5: Durham Coin Laundry: 16 alarms, $4,550 in fines, $1,648 owed.

- No. 6: Don Becerra, a store at 2301 N. Roxboro St. owned by Javier Becerra: 15 false alarms, $2,950 in fines, $2,362 unpaid.

- No. 7: Durham Performing Arts Center, 14 false alarms, $2,650 in fines, $200 unpaid.

- No. 8: Chick-fil-A at 3429 Hillsborough Road: 14 false alarms, $2,650 in fines, all paid.

- No. 9: Clairmont at Hillandale, an apartment community at 2901 Bertland Ave.: 12 false alarms, $2,050 in fines, all paid.

- No. 10: Campus Crossings Apartments, 12 false alarms, $2,350 in fines, $1,249.33 owed.

Total fines for the year were $463,550, of which $143,663 remained unpaid this week.

All fines go into the city’s general fund, according to Paul Mason, general billing and collections manager for the city’s Finance Department. But fines don’t nearly match the actual cost of responding, with Durham fire officials estimating the average cost of a fire response at $1,121. For police, the cost per service call in 2011 averaged $139.

A call is determined to be a false alarm when police and firefighters radio to emergency communications that there was no valid reason for the alarm to go off, Mason said.

According to Durham city ordinance, the first and second false alarms in a calendar year result in a written notice. For the third and fourth false alarms, the fine is $100 each. Fines increase to $150 each for the fifth and sixth false alarms, $200 for the seventh and eighth, $250 for the ninth and $300 for the 10th and every one after that.

Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez said false alarms are a problem for his department.

“False alarms divert our resources from other needs that the city has, so it’s really important that property owners be responsible with them,” Lopez said. “The fewer false alarms we have, the better response time we’ll have for the alarms that are real.”

Durham Fire Chief Dan Curia agreed.

“False alarms can cause a problem for us,” Curia said. “We treat any alarm as though it’s an actual emergency until we can prove that it’s a false alarm. We devote a considerable amount of resources to each call, and if we’re flooded with false alarms, they can cause us to be strapped, especially when things like storms come through and set off a lot of alarms.”

Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield didn’t have figures on how much false alarms cost the city. But he said it would be inaccurate put the figure in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, because “we have those costs whether those individuals are responding to an alarm or not.”

As the city moves into budget talks for the coming fiscal year, Bonfield said, he’ll meet with fire and police officials and ask if they’re concerned that false alarms are affecting services, and whether fines should be increased.