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    FEBRUARY 3, 2005
 
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Research

Public-private partnerships may ease burden of false alarms

“Oops! False alarm.”

Nationwide, that’s the case more often than not when police respond to burglar alarm activations. In fact, a startling 94 percent to 99 percent of residential and commercial alarm activations are false, according to two Temple researchers who have looked into this and other security issues.

Equally startling is the price tag for responding to false activations: an estimated $1.8 billion annually.

Beyond the wasted dollars-and-cents costs of police responding when burglar alarms are erroneously activated is the squandering of police resources and the unfair burden of cost to the general public, say economics professors Erwin Blackstone and Simon Hakim of The Fox School of Business and Management.

With escalating concern for homeland security and emergency preparedness for immediate response to real events, false alarms place an enormous burden on police and other emergency service providers, and divert them from other tasks, the researchers say.

Instead of police providing the first response — at taxpayer expense — to an alarm activation, Hakim and Blackstone advocate a market-based solution that shifts the burden of first response from the public sector — the police — to the private. According to their economic model, a private security company would provide the initial on-site response to an alarm activation.

Police would be called only when someone on-site has verified that an actual or attempted burglary occurred, or is occurring.

“When a real burglary occurs — and that happens no more than 6 percent of the time — the police respond, and probably more quickly,” Hakim said, adding, “Because they have been relieved of the duty of responding to all alarm activations, they are likely to respond more quickly to confirmed burglary attempts.

“Ten to 20 percent of patrol officers’ time is spent on false alarms,” Hakim continued. “Solving this problem would be the equivalent of increasing the size of the nation’s police forces by 35,000.”

Why so many false alarms? Subscriber error accounts for roughly three out of every four false alarms, another 10 percent are the result of equipment malfunction and the remainder are caused by weather-related or telephone problems, the researchers report.

In an article titled “Crying Wolf” published in the Milken Institute Review, Blackstone and Hakim, and co-author Uriel Spiegel, write that “on average, each system activates falsely 1.3 times a year,” with commercial alarms activating at three times the residential rate. The worst offenders? Banks, schools and municipal facilities — activating at seven to 10 times the residential rate.

Communities across the country have sought various solutions to the false alarm problem and the accompanying waste of police resources when they are the first to respond.

Some approaches address one of the more troubling aspects of the false alarm problem: the underlying costs to the general public.

• Fines: Many municipalities have reacted by imposing high or escalating fines for repeat false activations and even ceasing to respond after a certain number of false alarms. In Overland Park, Kan., the first two are free, with fees for subsequent false activations ranging from $50 (third time) to $250 (seventh and more). Police in Santa Ana, Calif., can stop responding after six false alarms.
However, such punitive actions have had little effect on reducing the number of false activations, Hakim and Blackstone report. “When fines are punitive, it can become a disincentive for using alarms and actually reduce the level of security in a community,” Blackstone said. “In many locales, schools and other public facilities — among the highest false activators — are actually exempt from the fines, and commercial establishments can simply write them off as a routine cost of doing business.”

• Registration fees: Intended to defray the cost of monitoring and response, fees collected from all alarm owners — both the conscientious and the negligent — provide no deterrent for repeat false activators. Plus, maintaining the records and processing the fees adds more administrative duties to police departments.

• Education: Similarly, consumer education programs undertaken by police for chronic alarm abusers have not had the desired effect. “The basic problem here is that no one except the police has a direct interest in reducing false alarms,” Hakim points out. “At best, the benefits are temporary, and the police should not be in the business of educating consumers in the use of a commercial product.”

With the researchers’ proposed public-private partnership, alarm system owners contract privately for alarm response service. Private companies responding to alarm activations have a vested interest in serving their clientele promptly and effectively while reducing unnecessary police involvement, Hakim and Blackstone point out.

“In the case of an actual break-in, they are on the scene to verify the alarm and dispatch the police,” says Hakim, director of the Center for Competitive Government at Temple. “Police will respond at top priority to an activation that has been authenticated — a public responsibility of police.”

Indeed, a survey conducted by Blackstone and Hakim revealed that time of response to alarms by private companies is actually shorter than that by police, and that many burglars are apprehended. Police departments, especially in big cities, welcome private response as a measure to reduce the burden on police with no reduction in safety for their constituents.

A number of cities have already implemented such systems with dramatically successful results. In Salt Lake City, total police responses decreased from 10,542 in 1998 to just 634 last year (2004), and valid alarms from 64 to five, after the verification system was introduced.

In Eugene, Ore., the number of police responses in the first six months of a similar change (in 2002) was 183, compared to 2,642 in the six-month period immediately preceding it. In Salt Lake City, police response time to high-priority calls was two minutes faster than before.

“We’ve recouped the equivalent of five officers that we were using [to respond to alarms] 24 hours a day,” said Shanna Werner, alarm administrator for the Salt Lake City Police Department. “From an average of 35 to 55 alarm dispatches each day, it’s dropped to just two.

“Verified response has shifted the management of the false alarm problem from the police to alarm owners and the … companies they choose to do business with. By no longer attempting to manage a private sector problem, we believe we have solved the false alarm problem for the department.

“There’s nothing else out there that touches this,” Werner says of the verified response system.

“Answering false alarm activations is a nuisance and a waste of at least 10 percent of local police budgets,” Hakim said. “When a person makes a mistake and activates his alarm or an alarm system malfunctions, he and not the public should pay for it.

“A public-private partnership generates competition among private providers, reduces costs for subscribers and improves service. It’s a win-win-win solution for police, alarm system owners and the public.”

- By Harriet Goodheart

 


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