Macdonald: Making Sense of False Alarms

The Calgary Police Service responds to  approximately 16,000 false alarms each year; in other words, 96% of the alarms to which police rush with sirens activated, are false. These false alarms account for 20 minutes per alarm call, and with approximately 40 alarm calls to the police each a day, this amounts to 15 police person hours per day across the board. Yes, money is an issue, but so is safety. When police respond to any call for service, especially with lights and siren, there is an increased risk to officers, drivers, pedestrians and cyclists.

Only 17% of these false alarms are caused by pets and open doors, so to what can we attribute the other 83%? Are these calls due to inferior products and technology, or careless use?  Or because alarm companies have grown indifferent to false alarms and shunt off the financial responsibility to the City, knowing that police will respond to them using their employee time and resources? Or are they all the fault of consumers who are not using proactive alarm systems with the best possible technology, and the lowest rate of false alarms?

A new bylaw co-shared by the Calgary Police Service and City of Calgary addresses some of these issues. This bylaw is being implemented in phases, with the first requiring as of May 15, 2016, that police units not be dispatched unless more than one alarm zone is tripped, and two key holders have been notified of the alarm. In Phase two, effective on January 1, 2017, the City will charge a fee for alarm permits, and an escalating fee for false alarms, with the first false alarm free.

This bylaw will help place accountability on the responsible parties: the alarm users and owners. The alarm users will now pay greater attention to the technology they have acquired and to which they subscribe. Providers will make efforts to ensure that their technology is state-of-the-art and can be monitored from a practical purpose. This new bylaw also will provide a currency of information for the police to better assess danger and response. Police will continue to go to the high risk alarms; however, with amendments to the alarm verification process, better data and technology, police will find a balance between high risk and low risk alarm calls.

False alarms impact resources critical to the operation of the Calgary Police Service. When police respond to any kind of incident with their lights and sirens activated, they do so with purpose. False alarms cost alarm holders, alarm companies and ultimately taxpayers a great deal of money. Although this new bylaw will not compensate 100% of the cost for false alarms, it will help to modernize the process and address these costs. In the past taxpayers have borne the costs of subsidizing an ineffective industry. This new fee schedule will keep up with the work that is required. When citizens see a police car with lights and sirens, they will know that the police are responding with the best possible intent, and now they will know that the alarm holders and owners are better compensating and supporting this system. Police will respond with more reliable, accurate and current data. Now that makes Common Sense, Calgary!!

Kathy Macdonald is the Executive Director of Common Sense Calgary