False alarm accountability needed

By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – For law enforcement officials, alarm systems can be a double-edged sword.
A properly maintained alarm system does its job to deter criminals as well as alert officers of danger. However, malfunctioning systems are routine calls for police, and that’s a bad routine to fall into.
Oxford Police Chief Mike Martin estimates 5 percent to 6 percent of the calls his officers respond to are alarm calls. So far in 2012, they have responded to more than 900 alarms. In 2011, they responded to 1,688 and a year earlier, they answered 1,763.
“On the average day we get five to 10 alarms,” Martin said. “As far as alarms are concerned, I love them. I have false alarms but I came up in the day when there were alarms and they provide a better level of protection.”
Martin said a working alarm almost always deters a criminal. The problem comes with false alarms. And false alarms are a majority of the calls in the area.
“If you get a place that has routine alarms, then what happens is officers aren’t going to bust their butt subconsciously because they’re thinking, ‘That alarm is going off again,’” Martin said. “It can lull the officer into thinking it will always be a false alarm and that will get you killed.”
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said his department has the same problem.
“In 2007, there were over 325 alarm calls we answered, less than 10 were legitimate,” Johnson said. “We had one business here last month, its alarm went off seven times – none of them legitimate.”
Johnson said false alarms are time-consuming because the deputies have to wait for a key holder to arrive on the scene and let the officer in.
“We voice concern because of the volume of calls we have,” Johnson said. “You’re looking at 325 alarm calls and over 90 percent are not real, but it takes the same amount of time, same amount of gas and same amount of man hours. I’m proud they weren’t real – I’d rather answer every alarm and nothing be there – but there needs to be some accountability.”
A system that holds business and residence owners accountable is something Johnson has mentioned to the Lee County Board of Supervisors.
The city of Tupelo has a system that alerts alarm owners if their alarm is malfunctioning and holds them responsible if it persists.
“What we do, we give them six free ones,” said Capt. Mark Miller with the Tupelo Police Department. “They are notified of those six. On the seventh false alarm we send out a letter that includes a fine.”
Weather-related alarms aren’t included for the fines.
This year Tupelo is averaging a little more than 200 calls each month, according to Lee County E911.
“The time-consuming part is waiting for a key holder to show up and let us check the premises,” Miller said. “That’s why we are where we are with the ordinance. It got to be, at one point, that we were taking officers off the street for false alarms that could have been prevented.”
Tupelo issues a $25 fine for the seventh and eighth false alarm each year and then a $50 fine for the ninth and $100 fine for the 10th.
Johnson said everyone who owns an alarm needs to make sure it works properly and update their contact information with the alarm company.
“You can have a million-dollar system but if it gives the sheriff’s department the wrong address, it’s not worth five cents,” he said.
jb.clark@journalinc.com

Monthly Calls
AVERAGE NUMBER of monthly alarm calls for Lee County law enforcement agencies

Tupelo 243

Baldwyn 17

Guntown 10

Saltillo 15

Verona 20

Plantersville 4

Sherman 14

Nettleton 7

Sheriff 70