Police won’t respond? Sandy Springs law shows tension with alarm groups

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

An inconspicuous call center overlooking Ga. 400 in northern Fulton County acts as a critical layer between reports of criminal activity and police. Operators inside field thousands of Sandy Springs burglar alarm calls a year, but 99% of the time there’s been no break-in.

The volume of false alarms has created tension between city police and alarm companies — with homeowners in the cross fire — and the solution could change how police throughout Georgia protect property in the future.

Sandy Springs decided to do something experts say is found nowhere else in Georgia: The city passed an ordinance, effective June 19, saying police will not respond to home and business burglary alarms without video, audio or in-person verification that a crime is occurring.

Sandy Springs' police chief says the inefficiency of alarm systems wastes taxpayer funds — an estimated $750,000 a year in manhours and equipment use — and also ties up 911 operators with thousands of false alarms a year. It's why the chief has had his officers make responding to burglar alarms a low priority.

» BACKGROUNDN. Fulton city will charge security companies for false

Right now the change only affects Sandy Springs, but the result of an ongoing court battle could encourage other Georgia cities to copy Sandy Springs. The city already has the metro area’s strictest false alarm fine policy against companies.

"If the court decides that Sandy Springs has the right to do that and that they're doing it fairly, then you may see more cities or municipalities accept the Sandy Springs type of ordinance," said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police.

After eight years of spending time and money to tinker and research, the city of 100,000 residents believes it has created a model — blending verified response and steep fines on alarm companies for repeated false alarms — that other cities can also use to reduce the number of false alarms.

Sandy Springs Chief Ken DeSimone said he has gotten calls locally and across the country interested in instituting a similar ordinance. “I’m excited to see it go statewide and then nationwide,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Sandy Springs Police Chief Ken DeSimone (Courtesy of Sandy Springs Police)

Credit: Courtesy of Sandy Springs Police

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Credit: Courtesy of Sandy Springs Police

DeSimone said the city last year got more than 8,000 alarm calls, 99% of which were false alarms, which accounts for 17% of all calls to the 911 dispatch center. He said the errors tie up workers, delaying response to real crimes and medical emergencies. Even if the alarm is false, he said, it takes 911 operators between 4 to 7 minutes to figure that out.

Stan Martin, head of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition suing the city, said fining companies instead of homeowners for false alarms makes no sense. “It’s like sending Ford Motor Company the speeding ticket,” he said.

Cause for alarm?

Most people pay little attention to how alarm companies make money, but few other private industries promise as part of their business model the use of taxpayer-funded public services like police.

DeSimone said many of those who own the 14,080 registered alarms in Sandy Springs think police rush to their home or business as soon as the alarm is triggered. That just isn’t so, said the city’s top cop.

"The alarm company wants you to believe that the minute you call police get dispatched," DeSimone said. "They may not be dispatched for 20 or 40 minutes or more."

Under a 2013 state law, alarm companies must call two phone numbers listed by the alarm owner to see if there’s a mistake before asking 911 operators to dispatch officers.

He said none of his officers activate their lights or sirens when responding to unverified alarms. “It’s not something you rush to because invariably it’s false and in the rare instance that it’s true the burglar has already entered (and) removed whatever he wants to before the alarm company probably even gets the call to the alarm center.”

So why do home and business alarms exist at all if police devalue them these days?

DeSimone has no idea. “You wouldn’t buy a car that failed 99% of the time,” said the chief, who thinks the state attorney general should investigate alarm companies and the cost “that’s carried on the back of taxpayers and on the back of public safety (agencies).”

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Sandy Springs’ move toward requiring verification has clued the public in on a secret: Many cops think alarm companies are annoying.

"There is sort of a love-hate relationship with police officers and alarm systems, but I don't think that they would hesitate to suggest an alarm system to a loved one," said Frank Beaven, vice president of the Norcross-based Safeguard Protection Systems alarm company.

False alarms affect all of metro Atlanta. Marietta police spokesman Officer Chuck McPhilamy said their 911 center reported getting 5,432 home or business burglar alarms in 2018. McPhilamy said the alarm management software classified all but 52 of those as false alarms.

Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos said 33,732 of the department’s 47,687 intrusion alarm calls in 2018 were false. That’s down from 65,000 false calls, some triggered by a wandering cat, in 2012 before the city enacted its policy of fining alarm owners for bunk calls.

What makes Sandy Springs unique in Georgia, is how the companies are now at risk of a fine even if the homeowner simply forgets their passcode, said Beaven, the alarm company owner.

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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Although Sandy Springs holds just 4% of his 900 metro area customers, he said he feels like he is spending a third of his time dealing with this new Sandy Springs ordinance.

In addition to appealing any fines he feels weren’t fair, Beaven is having to field calls from confused customers who are trying to satisfy the new requirements by installing cameras and microphones ahead of a firm two-month deadline.

“It’s a mixed bag. It’s overly onerous. Nobody will deny that the intent is a good one, however the speed of implementation and the confusion around the procedures is causing problems,” he said.

Beaven said he knows it’s odd for a business owner to complain about having to offer customers extra services that could cost between $300 and $15,000 to install. “The bad side is the clients might punt,” he said.

Stan Martin, whose coalition’s lawsuit is pending in the 11th District Court of Appeals, said Sandy Springs is trying to make money off of the alarm companies when it’s a small group of customers who don’t know how to use their alarms who are causing most of the bad calls.

Martin said this move could encourage homeowners to check on their own alarms to avoid a fine, something he finds dangerous. “It’s a terrible risk if people choose to respond to their own alarms because if there is a bad guy there, what are they going to do?” he said.

Bell has been rung

In May, a team from Sandy Springs visited Utah to see how Salt Lake City police run their verified response system, which began in 2000.

Before verified response, Salt Lake police alarms coordinator Mike Bradley said the department was getting 10,000 false alarms a year. Now, they get between 300 and 400. Experts estimate just under 20 cities in the country have verified response, few in the Southeast and none in Georgia.

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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Sandy Springs officials said they have been in touch with local alarm company owners like Beaven to help them comply with the new rules. Instead of using audio or visual devices to meet the verification requirement, some companies are offering customers the option of having a security guard check on their homes for $20 to $50 a visit. But DeSimone said burglars are in and out of homes quicker than most security guards can maneuver through Sandy Springs traffic.

Much like in Salt Lake City, it seems many in Sandy Springs are opting for relatively inexpensive video verification solutions like a Ring or Nest device that can replace or combine with existing alarms.

An April 1 report shows 23 alarm companies owe Sandy Springs about $55,000 in fines. Of those, only seven still have registered Sandy Springs customers.

Andrea Settles, 66, had her alarm system installed before Sandy Springs became a city.

She said she’s interviewing new services now. She thinks her monthly cost will double to about $30.

“It’s one of those inconveniences but I won’t go without an alarm,” she said.

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