Sandy Springs’ battle with security companies over false burglar alarms went to the nuclear option April 3, with police saying they won’t respond to automated calls from dozens of publicly named firms. The move is drawing public confusion and anger — some at the city for alerting potential burglars and collectively punishing alarm customers, and some at companies for failing to comply with an ordinance intend to reduce more than 11,000 false alarms a year.
A national alarm industry official says the city’s move helps “the bad guys.” Police Chief Ken DeSimone says it makes the city safer by freeing officers from alarm calls that are nearly 100 percent false. It’s all part of a battle over a new city law that puts alarm companies, rather than individual customers, on the hook for false alarms — a concept that is shaking the industry and is already the subject of a lawsuit in federal court.
The police’s no-response decision, announced at the April 3 City Council meeting, affects only burglar alarms, not fire alarms, panic buttons or direct calls to 911. The announcement surprised even some City Council members whose systems were on the list, and DeSimone named 14 firms during testimony but a late-night press release named 39, at least one of which had a misspelled name. But the move had some rapid effect, with only 27 companies remaining out of compliance as of April 11, according to a regularly updated list at sandyspringsga.gov/alarm.
“They’re using the citizens as pawns to experiment on something they think is going to work,” said Stan Martin, executive director of the Texas-based Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC), which is helping to fund a lawsuit claiming the ordinance is an unconstitutional violation of due process. “…Even worse is leveraging customers’ and citizens’ systems that are totally innocent and trying to hold the entire alarm company hostage.”
But DeSimone says false alarms are a public safety issue. “Any type of 911 emergency, you’re competing with 11,000…false alarms,” he said, citing a city statistic from last year.
Naming the companies was a move criticized by some residents on social media. “This is really a dumb way to let criminals know which homes to target,” one resident wrote on the city’s Facebook page.
Another concern was people not knowing their home systems are on a no-response list, or being trapped without access to a phone or panic button by a burglar who triggers the main alarm.
Resident Todd Hennings, in a letter to city officials, said he had been in a similar burglary situation and suggested the city is opening itself to lawsuits in the event of a violent home invasion. “How will you face the voters — the family and friends of the injured or killed — and explain that their neighbor was injured or died so that you could collect some past due fines?” he asked.
Asked about such a scenario, city spokesperson Sharon Kraun said, “I can’t respond to a hypothetical. However, if an alarm company is put on a non-response list for failure to comply with the ordinance, the alarm customer should look at moving to an alarm company which is able to follow the law.”
State law already requires burglar alarms to be verified by phone calls to residents or neighbors. Lack of that verification step is a major cause of false alarms in the city, police have said.
Other residents demanded that security systems pay their fines and fix their systems. “If [a] majority of calls are false, why do all residents of [Sandy Springs] have to pay for a few to get a police response every time without merit?” one resident asked on the city’s Facebook page.
The Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, a coalition of homeowners associations, has no comment on the situation at this time, said president Ronda Smith.
Alarms are considered false when they come from devices that use automatic systems or call centers to contact 911 about a fire or crime emergency that turns out to be nonexistent. False alarms are a perennial and significant problem in the industry, especially because residents or business owners may accidentally trigger their own alarms in a variety of ways. The problem is common enough that a private company created a program — called “CryWolf” — to help cities register and track false alarms, a service that Sandy Springs uses.
The city says it spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year responding to false fire and burglar alarms in terms of staff time and vehicle maintenance. However, many security companies representatives attended that council meeting last summer to say fining companies isn’t the answer and could drive them out of business.