Md. county to consider false alarm fines

By Erin Cox
The Capital

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — If your burglar alarm has a habit of crying wolf, watch your pocket book: a fine might be coming your way.

County leaders are considering using fines to curb the 22,000 false alarms county police respond to each year - an average of 60 bogus alerts each day.

The false alarms make up about 99 percent of all the alarm calls the police receive, officials said.

The false calls cost manpower and fuel, divert resources from other investigations and generate unnecessary risk for police officers en route to noncrime scenes, proponents of the fine said.

The new system, scheduled for a County Council discussion at a work session tomorrow, would levy an initial fine of about $50 when the false alarm count for a certain address crosses a threshold of offenses. The amount of the fine would swell if the alarm continues to trip.

The details of the system proposed for Anne Arundel are still up for debate, but many model systems already exist in Maryland and across the country.

The drain that false alarms put on government resources has prompted jurisdictions to join groups such as the False Alarm Reduction Association, and to trade tips on how to manage the problem.

Montgomery County's program dates to 1981 and last year received honorable mention for the association's Public Safety False Alarm Achievement Award. That county's efforts saved about $1.7 million in 2006 and, according to the group, Montgomery "boasts one of the lowest false dispatch rates of any jurisdiction in the country."

Anne Arundel is among the state's few jurisdictions without a false-alarm ordinance. However, in 2005 county police took steps to cut back on the number of false alarms that summon police.

Faced with more than 30,000 bogus calls a year for five consecutive years, the police purchased software - aptly named Cry Wolf - that tracks which addresses are the worst offenders. After 20 faulty calls at one address in a year, police stop responding.

The department began sending warning letters to repeat offenders with some success. The number of false alarm calls has dropped from 30,746 in 2005 to 22,378 in 2007.

County Executive John R. Leopold said other administrations had been considering a fine-based false-alarm law, but it was a "back-burner" issue. He said he decided to ask the council to consider a new law as the county grapples with funding woes, including diminishing revenue from the slumping housing market and rising costs in a worsening economy.

"Clearly it's the right thing to do at the right time," Mr. Leopold said. "Certainly when you have austere budgets and tight times, you look for ways to cut costs increase revenue."

The council's work session, where the proposed false alarm law will be discussed, is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. tomorrow at the Arundel Center, 44 Calvert St., Annapolis.

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