With government budgets so tight, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office can little afford to dispatch deputies unnecessarily in response to false burglar alarms. So the Sheriff's Office will soon start fining anyone whose burglar alarm repeatedly goes off without cause.
The new fines will apply in unincorporated Pinellas and the dozen cities that contract with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office for law enforcement. And the fines are steep enough that they likely will act as a real deterrent, which was the point when the Pinellas County Commission approved a false alarm ordinance earlier this year.
Some Pinellas cities assess penalties against property owners for false fire alarms, which summon firefighters and their expensive equipment to the scene when there is no fire or threat of fire. Now, the Sheriff's Office will follow the same model when it comes to burglar alarms.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office responds to a whopping 14,000 false burglar alarms each year. Each time there is an alarm, deputies are dispatched because the Sheriff's Office has no way of knowing whether the alarm is false or a break-in is occurring. Some of those 14,000 false alarms are repeat alarms caused by the property owner being improperly trained or careless in operating the alarm system. Other recurring alarms are caused by malfunctioning equipment. Sheriff's officials hope that assessing fines will encourage alarm owners to get needed training or have their alarm equipment repaired.
Under the new program, dubbed Sheriff's Alarm Registration Program, or SHARP, property owners or business operators must register their alarm systems with the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. If they do, two false alarms will be permitted per year without penalty. The third false alarm will cost registered owners $75, and the fines will escalate up to $500 for future alarms.
Free registration can be completed on the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Web site at www.pcsoweb.com, or at any Sheriff's Office location, or at the city halls in the 12 contract cities: Belleair Bluffs, Belleair Shore, Belleair Beach, Dunedin, Indian Rocks Beach, Madeira Beach, North Redington Beach, Oldsmar, Redington Beach, Safety Harbor, Seminole and South Pasadena.
Those who fail to register their alarm systems with the Sheriff's Office will be charged a $175 fine the first time they have a false alarm, and the fines for their future false alarms could rise to $600.
The fines will bring some new revenue to the Sheriff's Office to help offset the cost of deputies' time and equipment to respond to false alarms. With the Sheriff's Office already cutting its budget and laying off staff members, that revenue will be welcomed.
But there is another, perhaps more important, reason to discourage false alarms. With every emergency dispatch of a deputy to a false alarm, there is a risk that the deputy or an innocent bystander could be hurt in an accident. That risk exists any time public safety agencies respond to a call with lights and sirens operating, but an accident would be especially tragic if it occurred while responding to a false alarm. Surely, no one wants to run that risk.
Now is a good time for homeowners and businesses to check out their alarms, get any needed repairs or instruction, and register their alarms with the Sheriff's Office so they will be in compliance with the new ordinance when it takes effect July 1.