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Posted: 10:34 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 25, 2012

North metro cities to crack down on false alarms

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By Pat Fox

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Three north metro cities are adopting ordinances that assess fines for false alarms, a measure they say could save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and the lives of first responders.

Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and Johns Creek hope to have all plans in effect by early next year. All three share the same dispatch service and hope to have all penalties assessed and administered through a single firm.

Sandy Springs passed its false alarm code last month. Johns Creek and Dunwoody have plans in the works, but have yet to vote on a final draft.

The issue has surfaced off and on for the past two years in the three cities.

In Sandy Springs, false alarms account for almost 20 percent of all citizen requests for police and cost the department more than $150,000 a year in officers’ time alone. More than 95 percent of the alarm calls to Sandy Springs Police are false, Chief Terry Sult said.

“Basically, it’s taking up at least 10 percent of our overall cost for service,” Sult said.

False alarms also can endanger lives, he said, because they tie up police and fire resources when a real emergency could be occurring. There is the added danger that responders treat alarms as routine calls, he said.

“You’re not going to get into emergency mode when you’re continually getting false alarms,” Sult said. “The reality is it’s a big issue.”

A lot of it has to do with individuals who don’t know how to use their systems or who give others access to their properties without educating them about the system, he said.

In 2011, the department received 44,000 citizen requests for police. About 8,800 of those were false alarms.

So far this year through October, Sandy Springs Police had responded to almost 32,000 citizen calls for service. Again, almost 20 percent of them were false alarms.

A study by the Marietta Police Department last year showed the number of false alarms declined by nearly two-thirds since the city began work in 2007 to construct an ordinance that would address abusers.

Marietta’s ordinance calls for required registration for all alarms. There is no fee to register, but a fine of $100 is assessed when emergency personnel respond to an unregistered alarm. A fine of $50 begins after the second alarm; sixth and seventh false alarms incur fines of $100; eighth and ninth incidents are assessed $250 fines. Ten or more incur $500 fines.

Marietta Police can also use their discretion to ignore repeated offenders, placing them on a “do not respond” list.

Gwinnett County has a similar ordinance with tiered fees kicking in after the first violation. On a fourth violation, a $100 fee is charged and the alarm registration is removed.

Sandy Springs’ new ordinance imposes no registration fee, but property owners pay $100 for failing to register. Penalties of from $50 to $500 kick in after the second false alarm for police. Fines of $250 each kick in after the first false alarm for fire.

It also allows a “do not respond” provision for repeat violators who have failed to pay fines within 30 days.

But not all cities have such a provision. Roswell and Alpharetta have no “do not respond” lists for emergency services.

While they mull a final draft of their false alarm ordinance, some Dunwoody City Council members have taken issue with the “do not respond” provision. Under a proposal from Police Chief Billy Grogan, alarm responses would stop to multiple violators who fail to pay fines in a timely manner.

“I’m totally against that,” Councilman Denis Shortal said at a Dec. 10 City Council meeting. “It’s something that no way would I ever vote for.”

But Councilman Terry Nall argued the provision provides the teeth needed to cut down on violations. Police would still respond to any 911 call or other verified call for service, he said.

Mayor Mike Davis pointed out that police send two officers to some 80 false alarms a week.

“If you have ignored all the warnings and all the fines, then all we do is move you from the category of someone who has an alarm to someone who doesn’t,” he said.

The debate in Johns Creek is less defined because it’s been more than a year since the City Council has discussed the issue.

City Manager John Kachmar said his staff is still working up a draft proposal and should have something to present by the first of the new year.

The last time the issue came up, council members were divided about whether registration should be required and whether it should carry a fee.

Mayor Mike Bodker has said he wants violators to help pay for their mistakes.

“Why can’t we … fine the heck out of those who are actually violating this and causing a false alarm and not cause any expense to the rest of us?” Bodker said.

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