Alarming number of false alarms dismay responders
Last year, Island emergency operators, police officers, and firefighters handled approximately 2,420 separate alarm calls. Nearly all were false alarms.
"I've been here ten years," said Major Susan Schofield, who supervises the Dukes County communications center that receives automated alarm calls. "I can remember four, maybe five burglar alarms that turned out to be real." Each alarm requires a response, first by the emergency operator handling the call, and then, in nearly every case, by an Island police officer, firefighter, or both.
The number of false alarms raises questions about the resources used to respond, when Island towns are facing increasingly tight public safety budgets. Notification of a real emergency very rarely comes from an automatic alarm. Most often, real emergencies are called in through the 9-1-1 system.
When real emergencies happen in a town where public safety officers are tied up checking a false alarm, often police officers or firefighters from other towns are asked to respond to the emergency, or to cover the alarm check.
Photo by Janet Hefler
Checking alarms takes up a significant part of the time officers are on duty.
"It's generally an hour, no matter how you cut it," said Chilmark Police Chief Tim Rich, "with the officer's time, the police car, and everything else."
Other conflicts happen when only one emergency operator is on duty at the communications center. In a real emergency, the operator is often dispatching additional crews, medical responders, and mutual aid for several hours after the first wave of response. During that time, the operator sometimes has to interrupt that work to respond to a false alarm call.
Scope of alarm
Since 2004, the number of alarm calls received by the communications center has held relatively steady, averaging approximately 2,400 separate alarms each year.
From the beginning of the fiscal year, July 1, 2007, through March 15, 2008, a total of 1,948 alarm calls came into the communications center, according to sheriff's department records.
Not surprisingly, Edgartown, with a large number of valuable properties and many seasonal residents, recorded the most alarm calls, 700. The other down-Island towns followed, with Tisbury receiving 383 calls, and Oak Bluffs receiving 347 (see chart).
The vast majority of those are burglary alarms, identified as 20-32s when heard over a police call scanner. An analysis of daily logs for Jan. 1 through March 15, 2008, shows that three out of every four alarm calls are classified as burglary alarms. According to those logs, nine burglary alarms came into the communications center for Bramhall & Dunn, a retail store on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. Island Star, a convenience store on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven was the source of eight alarms, and eight alarms came from the home of Michael Horvitz in Edgartown. Each local police department is tied into the communications center records. Statistics on alarm calls are readily available in the computer system of each department.
Fines and fairness
Aquinnah, Chilmark, Edgartown, and West Tisbury have bylaws that allow the towns to fine property owners for subsequent multiple false alarms. Each town handles the fines differently, but in general, after repeated false alarms, a property owner may be fined, and the fines get higher as the false alarms multiply. Some bylaws make exceptions for alarms tripped by storms or power failures, and most exempt municipal buildings. The maximum fine allowed by state law is $300 for a calendar year.
Only Oak Bluffs and Tisbury do not have false alarm bylaws. In Tisbury, police Chief John Cashin has considered a move to establish fines. "In the communities that have them, I've seen them become a very effective tool," said Chief Cashin, speaking of off-Island towns where he has experience.
None of the towns that have false alarm bylaws are strictly enforcing the fines, according to police officials contacted by The Times. Several said they find it more effective to contact the property owners directly when there are problems. Island police departments make judgment calls about whether fines are warranted.
"I can't see that we've written a bylaw ticket yet," said Aquinnah police chief Randhi Belain. "If there's one particular place that gets out of control, we would probably fine them."
In Edgartown, fining property owners was not effective, according to police chief Paul Condlin. "We tried several different approaches, that was one of them, it didn't help," he said. "It just seems that notifying the owners directly has much more of an impact. That's not to say we won't fine somebody if they won't work with us."
In Chilmark, police also opt for the personal approach. "Every time we responded," said Chief Rich, "even if it didn't get to the two false alarms that would result in a fine, we would notify the homeowner directly. That helped almost immediately cut the alarms almost a third, and they continue to decline. They serve legitimate purposes. With a combination of alarm companies, and homeowners, and the police and the fire department, all working for the same goal, it kind of works." Island police departments say response time to real emergencies is not affected by the large number of false alarms, because of efficient mutual aid pacts that allow officers from nearby towns to respond to alarm calls or emergencies. Some police chiefs do worry about another consequence of multiple false alarms.
"We don't want to be complacent about how we respond," said West Tisbury police Chief Beth Toomey. "If someone is there, it's dangerous, so we want to remain vigilant, be careful about how we approach a house. That's the bad thing about a lot of alarms."
"We respond to all of them," said Lieutenant Tim Williamson of the Oak Bluffs police. We have to treat every one as a real thing. You tend to get complacent when you get [false] alarms."
Cause and effect
Though alarm systems have become more sophisticated with newer technology, in nearly all cases, when an alarm is tripped, there is no burglary or fire. Some of the common causes for false alarms, such as storms or power outages, are mostly beyond the control of the property owners. Most police officers say it's all part of the job.
"It's a challenge during a storm," said West Tisbury Chief Toomey, "but that's just going to happen. We just have to make our way to them."
Police officers, firefighters, and emergency operators say they are sometimes frustrated by false alarms that are the result of human error. Many times construction crews, cleaners, real estate agents, or seasonal renters trip alarms.
When caretakers are in charge of a property, it can complicate the response. If an alarm company cannot contact the caretaker, or if he refuses to respond, emergency operators are notified.
"A lot of the caretakers are busy," said Chilmark police Chief Rich. "The thought of getting up at 3:30 in the morning to go check a house on a windy knoll isn't enticing, but it's no fun for the police either. They have a tendency to put alarm systems in that are a lot more sophisticated than they need to adequately do a job. The more hardware you get into the mix, the more chances of battery problems, wind, and other issues causing false alarms."
Two alarm companies
Two alarm companies handle the vast majority of alarm system sales and monitoring on Martha's Vineyard. Intercity Alarms is based on Cape Cod, and Electronic Security Systems (ESS) is an Island-based business.
Ralph Aiello, who has owned and operated ESS for the past three decades, supports fines for property owners responsible for multiple alarms.
"I'm all for that," said Mr. Aiello, who personally trains each owner on the use of the alarm system. "We have a lot of people who just don't listen. We try our best, and we're always available if people need some help."
The private companies monitor alarms through another private monitoring company or central stations that they maintain and operate. Depending on the circumstances, an alarm company operator may call the property owner, the caretaker, or a phone located at the property, to verify that there is a real problem. If they cannot verify that the alarm is false, they call the sheriff's communications center on dedicated phone lines to report the alarm.
The sheriff's department charges $75 for each new alarm system, then $75 annually to cover the cost of equipment and personnel. The alarm companies are responsible for collecting the fee from property owners. Mr. Aiello objects to the fees. "We're talking about a lot of money," he said. "It's almost $90,000 just from me. The money paid to the sheriff's department is ridiculous."
When the fees were first established, Mr. Aiello challenged them in court. His argument that the fee is an unwarranted tax was rejected first by the Massachusetts Superior Court, and then by the Massachusetts Court of Appeals.