Bill causes Sandy Springs, Brookhaven to rethink false alarm law

Ethan King, technician with Compass Security Solutions, checks the main alarm panel at a car dealership in Sandy Springs on Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Ethan King, technician with Compass Security Solutions, checks the main alarm panel at a car dealership in Sandy Springs on Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The war between two metro Atlanta cities and the alarm industry has marched through the Gold Dome.

Now, legislators have passed a law that bars what city leaders call a crucial tool for reducing the number of false alarms from security systems that guard homes and businesses — fines against the companies that install them.

Sandy Springs and Brookhaven currently have ordinances that allow the fines. The new law still needs to be signed by Gov. Brian Kemp before taking effect.

There have been fewer instances of false alarms in recent years, after the cities began requiring verification of emergencies before responding. But police still argue that false alarms are a problem, in that they waste officer time and tie up 911 centers with thousands of useless calls a year.

City leaders think it is appropriate that the companies pay for those unnecessary services.

Ethan King, technician with Compass Security Solutions, checks the main alarm panel at a car dealership in Sandy Springs on Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Butch Ayers, executive director of the Georgia Association of Police Chiefs, said he has kept an eye on the ordinances since he was Gwinnett County police chief. He supports the ordinances and says the alarm industry is flawed.

“Basically an alarm company enters into a private contractual agreement with a homeowner/business owner and so the alarm company is making money doing all this stuff and they want the local government, i.e. police department, to be part of this contract by default.”

Some experts said the ordinances could have set a statewide precedent.

After spending time and money over the last decade tinkering with the law, Sandy Springs created what it felt was the perfect model. It pairs a requirement of verifying the emergency by audio/video evidence or in-person testimony with issuing steep fines for repeated false alarms.

Brookhaven followed suit, and many cities in Georgia were watching.

But alarm companies pushed back and sued and began applying political pressure.

Now, both cities will need to change how they regulate alarm companies unless Gov. Brian Kemp vetoes the law.

“Clearly, the profits of alarm companies are more important to the Georgia General Assembly than protecting local police department budgets,” wrote Brookhaven spokesman Burke Brennan.

Brookhaven police’s Lt. David Snively wrote their new ordinance reduced false alarm calls by nearly 55%, which is an average of six false alarms per day.

“If this bill is signed in to law, the Department will ask City leaders to consider revisions to the ordinance that allow us to continue our success in reducing false alarm calls,” Snively wrote, without specifying how.

‘No real service’

Meanwhile, alarm company owners like Thomas Frey are thrilled about the law.

Frey, owner of Compass Security Solutions, does video monitoring for a car dealership in Sandy Springs. He said the city levied $5,000 in fines against him, some of which he has successfully appealed.

But, at one point, the fines got so high that police said they weren’t going to respond to the dealership if a burglar alarm went off. His customer was furious.

“It’s absurd, it’s beyond absurd,” Frey said.

Some companies didn’t want to do business in Sandy Springs or Brookhaven because of the ordinances, said Stan Martin, executive director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, which sued Sandy Springs.

Ethan King, technician with Compass Security Solutions, shows one of security cameras at a car dealership in Sandy Springs on Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“There’s plenty of other markets to go to, and what a shame for citizens that they don’t have all the choices available because of a bad ordinance,” he said.

John Loud, vice president of Electronic Security Association and president of LOUD Security Systems, said demanding perfection isn’t possible for companies like his because customers are involved.

“So what you’re saying is that the people of Sandy Springs, they (must) make no errors, no mistakes whatsoever,” said Loud, adding that many alarm company owners feel that cities are being punitive and see the fines as a revenue stream. “So you have all perfect people and businesses?”

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said that’s not the case.

“We don’t rely on fines to drive compliance,” he said. “We don’t want the revenue. What we want is compliance with the law and (for alarm companies) to do their job and verify that there is an active problem going on before we send the police department out.”

Operator Kelah Handley answers calls at Sandy Springs’ 911 dispatch center. The City Council has adopted fines for alarm companies that fail to produce evidence within 24 hours that a call to police was legitimate. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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The mayor added that he feels House Bill 465 targeted his city.

“We have been Public Enemy Number 1 for the alarm companies,” Paul said.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Joseph Gullett, former chairman of the Paulding County Republican Party. He said a constituent who owns a business in Sandy Springs was concerned because the alarm company said they wouldn’t call police for fear of being fined.

“I didn’t want that creeping into Paulding County,” Gullett said. “They’re just pretty much forcing alarm companies to never dispatch.”

Loud said the bill has wider implications than for just the home security industry.

“The concept of fining a company for a problem caused by its customers is the equivalent of sending someone’s speeding ticket to Ford, and sets a precedent that could be a threat to many industries,” Loud said.

Sandy Springs police chief Kenneth DeSimone disagreed, but picked up on the analogy: “What it actually is, is Mr. Loud has bought a Ford that’s broken down and he wants Sandy Springs to fix it for him.”

DeSimone said the companies promoting this legislation all use old tech.

“This is just a desperate measure to try to keep their business model going when it’s obviously failing,” he said.


Alarm response

The city of Sandy Springs has kept statistics over the years as it has tweaked its alarm law. The number of total alarm calls below includes burglar, panic and other alarms.

2017: 9,802 calls. $209,920 in fines (began charging alarm companies near end of year, with no free first or second offenses)

2018: 6,955 calls. $636,385 in fines (higher fines and required verification enforced)

2019: 3,544 calls. $418,341 in fines (verified response began in June)

2020: 1,248 calls. $115,800 in fines (first full year of verified response)