False alarms weigh down services

By Justin Boron

The county police and fire departments are replete with false alarm calls, and an ordinance implemented to reduce the number of unnecessary security alarms is ineffective, a 911 official said recently.

From June to September, the county received about 9,000 alarm calls, 80 percent of which were false, said Beverly McMichen, the alarm administrator for 911 services.

The abundance of false alarms has stretched emergency resources thin, often at crucial times, when police officers or firefighters have more pressing incidents to cover, said Joe Shelnutt, the director of Clayton County 911 services.

The barrage of incidents that have misdirected emergency services led Shelnutt to suggest changing the alarm ordinance to make companies that administer the security systems more culpable for their malfunctions.

"It is not as effective as it could be," he said. "If police are going somewhere that is not a legitimate call, that takes away from the real incidents."

The ordinance was originally crafted to minimize unnecessary calls by fining residents and business owners up to $50 per call, once they exceed three false alarms each year, Shelnutt said.

But the calls show little sign of waning in the future, he said.

Egregious cases in which some businesses receive more than 30 alarm responses a year continue to grow in number, Shelnutt said.

The concerning situation has prompted a request to re-evaluate the ordinance's viability in the November work session, where the county commission will likely consider a full scale alteration of it, said Chairman Crandle Bray.

While an increase in fines is unlikely, he said changes to the appeal process for alarm penalties could occur.

"I would like to see a more viable appeal process that is more unbiased," Bray said. "Fines are adequate now, it's just a matter of being fair."

Appeals for false alarm fines currently go through Shelnutt, who heard 114 cases and excused 195 fines in the June to September period.

Commissioner Charlie Griswell also expressed concern about the ordinance's fairness, saying false alarms might be beyond a business owner's control if intruders set off the security system and retreat before police arrive.

Bray said he would like to create a review committee, including government officials and citizens, which would rule on false alarm appeals.

In jurisdictions where the problem is even more pervasive, the police department stops reporting to them altogether at a location that exceeds a pre-set number of alarms, Shelnutt said.

However, Bray ruled out any possibility of placing a cap on the number of times that emergency services will react to an alarm in the same location.

"As long as there are alarms going off, we're going to respond to them," he said.