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Fines get serious for false alarms

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Blaring false burglar alarms have become such a nuisance in Hillsborough County that the Sheriff's Office says they're distracting deputies from real crime fighting and costing taxpayers more than $2-million in wasted time.

So on Wednesday, county commissioners agreed to slap stiffer fines on businesses and homes with trigger-happy alarm systems beginning in October in hopes that owners will muzzle their bells and whistles.

Owners of alarms in the unincorporated county are allowed three free false alarms over a year. Each false alarm after the third warning costs the owner $25.

Under the ordinance passed unanimously by commissioners on Wednesday, alarm owners will get two free passes. Then they will be fined $50, $75, $150 and $300 for the next four false alarms. Seven or more bogus alarms, and the owners must pay $500.

If they don't pay, owners will get a lien placed on their business or home. Now, county officials have no such incentive.

"There's going to be a sticker shock, but we're not doing this to sneak up on anybody with fines," said sheriff's Cpl. Richard Eldridge. "But we felt we had to do something. The number of false alarms we get now is phenomenal, and we figured the ultimate responsibility lies with the users."

But Jim McCausey, general manager of MotorSports, a recreational vehicle lot on North Florida Avenue, said his store can't afford the new fines.

Last year, when it was owned by another person, the store had 92 false alarms, according to the Sheriff's Office.

With the higher fines, that would cost $43,000.

McCausey said the previous owner was sloppy and didn't answer many of the phone calls that were steered his way by alarm company dispatchers, prompting deputies to go to the address. But many of the alarms did detect potential break-ins, McCausey said.

"The alarm goes off and scares away whoever is trying to break in," McCausey said. "The deputies get there and don't see anyone and label it a false alarm. But it's not a false alarm because someone really did trigger it."

McCausey said he's taking steps to reduce false alarms. He's trimmed trees that hang over the lot, which he hopes will reduce the number of critters that might be the reason the motion detector has gone off. He's also setting up Internet cameras so he can monitor the property from home.

"I'm doing everything I can," McCausey said. "But if they don't have a system to dispute what they're calling false alarms, then it's not fair."

Eldridge said there were 62,072 alarm calls in 2003. Of those, 60,427 were false, a rate of 97 percent. In 2002, it wasn't much better: 97 percent of more than 63,000 alarm calls were false.

Answering false calls cost the Sheriff's Office more than $2-million last year, enough to pay the salaries of 11 deputies, six dispatchers and two clerks, Eldridge said.

Electronic cries of wolf also have besieged Tampa police.

In 2003, 93 percent of almost 40,000 alarms were false, said Kirby Rainsberger, legal adviser for the Tampa Police Department.

Instead of increasing the fines from the initial $40, however, Rainsberger said the department tries to work with repeat offenders.

"Our philosophy is to work with people rather than beat them senseless with fines," Rainsberger said. "I'm not aware of anyone who thumbs their nose at us once we tell them that we have a problem."

Nationwide, law enforcement agencies are struggling. Beginning this year, Los Angeles police refused to answer calls at addresses with more than two false alarms in a year. Chicago, Baltimore and Seattle increased fines.

"I wouldn't say there's an epidemic, but it's a problem that our industry recognizes," said Rick Ostopowicz, spokesman for the National Burglar & Fire Alarm Association in Silver Spring, Md. "We're trying to work with police and make them know that we are a partner in public safety."

Ostopowicz credits the rise in false alarms to the popularity of burglary alarms. In 1998, about 13 percent of U.S. homes had burglary alarms. In 2004 and in a post 9/11 world, Ostopowicz expects that to rise to 25 percent.

"The more systems out there, the numbers are bound to increase," Ostopowicz said. "Our industry has really tried to make big strides in promoting responsible alarm management to consumers."

November, for instance, is "Alarm Awareness Month," in which instructional brochures are mailed to stores that sell alarms.

"There's only so much we can do," Ostopowicz said, who said many alarms go off when owners leave their pets inside while leaving on the motion detector.

The industry supports measures like the one taken by Hillsborough County, Ostpowicz said, because it helps make the owner more aware.

"Once they adopt an ordinance like this, they'll see a sharp decline in false alarms," Ostopowicz said.

Commissioner Ronda Storms said she wants to raise the fines more. She said a fine of $50 is too small to make a difference. Besides, she said, homes with alarms can afford higher fines.

Before the new fines go into effect, commissioners might vote to increase the fines again.

And that has McCausey worried.

"I think they should be careful because this is going to hurt a lot of businesses," he said.

_ Michael Van Sickler can be reached at 269-5312 or mvansicklersptimes.com.

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