More than 500 times last year, Savage police officers received calls for a burglary at a home or business. Officers dropped everything, raced to the scene, then determined that it was a false alarm.

False alarms were more common than canceled calls and “true” alarms in 2012, according to the Police Department, and accounted for nearly 100 hours of police time and 5 percent of all dispatch calls. Police Capt. Bruce Simon said false alarms not only take time that could be spent on more-important work, but can be dangerous for officers who come to expect them.

“You let your guard down,” he said, “and you start walking up to these things less tactically safe than you should.”

For both reasons, the City Council last month unanimously passed an ordinance intended to curb false alarms. When it takes effect on Jan. 1, it will require all residents and businesses with alarm systems to register them in a free online application with the city. Having alarms registered will allow police to more easily contact property owners in the event of an alarm, as well as help the city work with owners on training or identify problem spots.

As an incentive, the ordinance gives residents and businesses a free pass on their first false-alarm fee if they register their alarm. If unregistered, they will have to pay a fee — as they do now — but can still register and have the fee waived. The fees will start at $25 for the first false alarm and range up to $500 for the 10th and subsequent false alarms.

Joe O’Connor is a State Farm Insurance agent whose office is two blocks north of the intersection of Hwys. 13 and 42 in Savage. His business already is registered with the police so it is easier for them to respond to a potential call.

“I think it’s great,” he said of the new ordinance. The only way a business wouldn’t comply, he added, was if they weren’t aware of it.

Managers contacted at Savage businesses — a common source of false alarms — expressed similar attitudes toward the new ordinance, and said false alarms weren’t a large issue. The alarm industry estimates that, on average, one in five houses and half of all businesses in the U.S. have alarm systems.

Savage’s new best-practices program also will include a short online video and require residents and businesses to give their alarm company a second phone number. That way, if an alarm mistakenly goes off when someone isn’t at home or at the business, the alarm company has twice the chance to check for false alarms before calling police.

Good results in other cities

The Police Department hopes the changes will reduce calls by nearly a third, as similar programs have done in Duluth and Elk River. Combined with the registration, similar ordinances in cities across the country have cut false alarms by 80 percent in just two or three years, said Stan Martin, executive director for the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, a trade group.

When burglar alarms became popular in the 1980s and ’90s, Martin said, the technology was more likely to fail than today. Now, equipment failure “is so insignificant [it is] hard to track,” he said, and “almost all dispatches are due to user error.” That’s why cities need to pass ordinances like Savage’s, he said, which is based on a coalition model ordinance.

“Twelve years ago, police were responding three times [a year] to every single location with an alarm,” Martin said. Now, even though there are twice as many alarms — 34 million nationwide — people have gotten better at using them, and the technology is easier to use.

The improvement in user-friendly technology is something O’Connor can relate to. At his insurance agency’s first location, a fax machine spewing out papers turned out to be the source of motion causing a false alarm. Today, he can turn his building’s system on and off from an app on his smartphone.


Graison Hensley Chapman is a Northfield freelance writer.