Fewer false alarms the goal of Sandy Springs’ home alarm ordinance

Dispatch operator Kelah Handley answers calls at a Sandy Springs 911 call center on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Dispatch operator Kelah Handley answers calls at a Sandy Springs 911 call center on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

With little discussion in front of a sparse crowd Tuesday, the Sandy Springs City Council put the finishing touches on a controversial home and business alarm ordinance designed to cut down on false alarms.

The new rule means Sandy Springs police won’t respond to any burglar alarm unless they are told by the monitoring company that they have video or audio proof an actual burglary is taking place. After police respond to the alarm, the company will then have 24 hours to submit that proof.

Experts have said that, if upheld in the courts, the Sandy Springs model of verified response could be adopted by other municipalities in Georgia. All suffer equally from high numbers of false alarms.

Companies will be subject to fines for false alarms — a cost that most expect will be passed along to customers. If the false calls continue, the city will stop responding to all of the company’s customers.

The city’s new procedure takes effect on June 19.

BACKGROUND | Police won't respond? Sandy Springs law shows tension with alarm groups

The city has tried to rein in the number of burglary alarms it responds to, using several methods since 2013. Sandy Springs police's Chief Ken DeSimone said his officers respond to 8,000 burglary calls each year, but 99% of them are false alarms.

At a forum held Monday night to educate the public on the coming alarm law, Chief DeSimone told residents huddled around him that on average it takes his officers 20 to 40 minutes to respond to a burglar alarm — far too slow to catch a burglar red-handed.

Sandy Springs Chief Ken DeSimone answers questions from residents about the city's new alarm law at City Hall on May 20, 2019.

Credit: Ben Brasch/AJC

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Credit: Ben Brasch/AJC

DeSimone said that under the new law, police response time will decrease because the total amount of calls is expected to drop drastically. False alarms tie up workers and delays response to real emergencies.

Sandy Springs police’s Capt. Dan Nable told the council that in April, 532 of the 534 burglary calls that came into the city’s 911 center were false.

A coalition of alarm companies are fighting the law in court. They claim it’s unfair to businesses, saying they are being punished for having customers who don’t know how to use their devices and accidentally trip their alarm system.

Stan Martin, head of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition suing the city, previously said fining companies instead of homeowners for false alarms is “like sending Ford Motor Company the speeding ticket.”

READConfusion abounds over new Sandy Springs alarm law

In an earlier draft of the rule, the City Council initially wanted alarm companies to provide immediate verification of a burglary taking place before police would respond to an alarm. But after complaints from residents and alarm companies, the council decided to continue sending police immediately to alarms but requiring alarm companies to provide proof of a break-in afterward.

This change is small when viewed in the long arc of Sandy Springs trying to reduce the amount of time wasted by its officers.

Vince Raia, president of EMC Security, said he’s happy the city added the 24-hour window because he feels that will decrease the amount of confusion. “What people want is certainty,” he said.

Even after hundreds of hours of outreach, he said less than 10% of his 325 Sandy Springs customers are in compliance.

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He said there’s plenty of blame to go around for the confusion over the law. “Had we been more effective as an industry, we wouldn’t be playing catch-up.”

Dispatch operator Kelah Handley answers calls at a Sandy Springs 911 call center on Wednesday, April 17, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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There was plenty of confusion between those who own the 14,080 alarms registered with the city and the 226 registered alarm companies even before this proposal.

Helene Johnston, 56, skipped a graduation party to come to the city’s Monday forum because she was so confused by the new law. She said her husband signed an alarm contract without knowing he’d promised to pay any fines for a false alarm. She said she wouldn’t have signed that contract.

Johnston, who has lived in the Sandy Springs area 14 years, blamed the alarm companies for some of the confusion. “They’re trying to find a way to make this a profitable situation for them.”

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The city estimates 200 people like Johnston attended the forum, seeking clarity on the law. Johnston wasn’t impressed by any of the 26 companies at the event. “They’re using scare tactics that the police aren’t going to come,” she said.

Eric Widner, general manager of Loud Security Systems, said he has had to dedicate two employees — one in operations and another in billing — to ensuring his customers are in compliance.

But, as of Monday night, he said just one of his 400 Sandy Springs customers is in compliance.

“The other 399 on June 19 won’t get dispatched,” he said.

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They now want proof that there's an emergency before they'll respond.

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