Saying they're fed up with false alarms, police and fire agencies from Sacramento to San Diego have begun issuing stiffer fines to businesses and residents whose security systems go off repeatedly for no reason.
Beginning in October, Sacramento police will enforce a series of escalating fines up to $320 for companies and homes that trigger two or more false alarms in a year.
Sacramento police also no longer will automatically respond to burglary alarms. Instead, they will require that alarm-monitoring companies call two responsible parties at a home or business to confirm it is not a false alarm before alerting police dispatch.
"If they don't reach anybody, they call us," said Sacramento Police Capt. Jim Maccoun. "But they need to attempt those two calls."
And the Sacramento Fire Department has won approval, starting in late September, to levy a $120 fine on homeowners and $240 on businesses for their third false alarm in a year. Further false fire alarms will trigger higher fines.
San Diego, San Jose and Los Angeles have false alarm policies. Locally, Folsom tightened its policy this week. Roseville, which has fines in place and recently shortened renewal periods for alarm permits, reports its false alarm numbers now are decreasing.
Public safety agencies have dealt with high numbers of unwarranted or nuisance calls for years. But with budgets now bare bones, and layoffs a real threat, agencies are scouring for ways to cut costs and reduce wasted time.
"It's a huge issue," Maccoun said. "It ties up officers, and it really takes away from 911 operators' availability to take other calls."
The alarm systems in question typically are those in which a homeowner or business contracts with an alarm-monitoring company that automatically alerts police and fire dispatch centers when a breach is detected.
Sacramento police deal with 25,000 false alarms a year, the department says. Of the 72 alarm calls police get on average daily, all but two typically are false. Officers often must wait on site until the building owner or manager is located and arrives to assist.
"We may request canine, maybe air units," police spokesman Andrew Pettit said. "It could be an hour or more."
Fire officials say that frequently, when drivers pull over to let fire engines by, those engines are en route to a baseless call.
"We average eight false alarms a day," said Sacramento Fire Marshal Michael Bartley. "If it's a high-profile (building), we may send as many as four engines and three trucks."
Folsom officials report the same annoyance. For police, it can mean pulling two officers from other patrol duties.
"We are not going to respond to an alarm with just one officer, because the supposition is a burglar is inside," said Folsom Police Chief Cynthia Renaud.
The Sacramento Police Department's changes, effective Oct. 1, include switching from alarm permits that extend three years to requirements for annual renewals. Police say that will help them keep up to date with changes in ownership, and with names and phone numbers of the best people to call if the alarm goes off.
The police will impose false alarm fines ranging from $50 to $320 depending on the type and number of alarms in a rolling calendar year.
Businesses also can be fined for having an alarm without a permit. The department now is likely to revoke a permit, after a warning notification, if the business has three or more false alarms in a year.
The Sacramento Fire Department will charge homeowners $120 for the third false alarm in one year, and businesses $240 for the third. Those fines will go up to $180 and $360, respectively, by the fifth offense.
Fire officials say they will be flexible in dealing with large properties. At campus-like facilities, such as business parks or medical facilities, individual buildings or clusters of buildings may be treated as separate addresses with their own false alarm count, officials said.
Sacramento State officials point out that their campus has 55 buildings with alarm systems. Fire officials said such large facilities could still be fined, but officials will work with campus officials first on changes that could reduce false alarms.
The agency also will be flexible, Bartley said, in what is considered a false alarm. "If it is smoke from bagel in a toaster, that is not a false alarm," he said.
False alarm causes are myriad. In some cases, someone smoked under a detector or a child pulled an alarm. Officials sometimes discover someone left a window open or door unlocked, or an air conditioner in a classroom ruffled papers, setting off motion detectors.
Employees sometimes fail to set the alarm correctly or the person testing the alarm system fails to inform monitoring companies in advance.
Increasingly, officials say, alarms malfunction because some business owners are unwilling to pay to have their alarm systems inspected and tested, as required.
A Bee review of false alarms in Sacramento suggests that the size of the facility is a leading factor. Schools, hospitals, a shopping mall, a post office and a church were among the top offenders.
On the burglary alarm list, Hiram Johnson High School stood out with 63 false alarms last year. On the fire alarm list, California State University, Sacramento, was No. 1 with 35 false alarms, followed by Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in south Sacramento, Sutter Memorial Hospital and Arden Fair mall.
The fines are generally meant for repeat offenders who do not respond to initial requests to fix their alarm system issues, law enforcement officials say. Officials said fire prevention officers are willing to go out and work with the companies to solve their issues.
"Revenue generation is not the motivation," said Bartley, the Sacramento fire marshal. "We want to encourage people to maintain their systems properly."
Sacramento City Unified School District spokesman Gabe Ross said it's unclear why Hiram Johnson had so many false alarms but said the school is used nights and weekends by teachers, coaches and groups.
"There are lots of doors, lots of people coming and going," Ross said. "It's exacerbated (because) we have less of our own security force than we did before who could handle ... false alarms before they got to the police."
The fines have met with some resistance in the business community, including from the Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.
"A 100 percent increase in the fine does not seem warranted or justified as a starting point for those increases," the chamber's Johnnise Foster-Downs testified during a council discussion of the fire ordinance. She pushed, instead, for more upfront education.