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Flood of false alarms plagues police
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97% are bogus; home security systems blamed
January 06, 2007

Staff Reporters


An epidemic of false alarms is forcing police across the GTA to scale back responses to homeowners who pay hundreds of dollars each year for security systems.

Nearly all of the burglar alarms police are summoned to – about 80,000 annually – are false, a Star analysis found. And the small number of valid alarms rarely help catch thieves, a fact police and alarm industry officials acknowledge.

In 2005, the most recent year data is available, between 97 and 99 per cent of alarms police attended in the GTA were false, a number that has been relatively constant for years. With the market for home security systems growing rapidly, alarm industry officials say the problem isn't going away.

In spite of an overall decrease in burglaries in recent years, homeowners have been steadily buying alarms, bolstering a unique, unregulated industry in which private companies rely on the taxpayer-funded police force to buoy their service.

But some forces have become so overwhelmed by errant alarms – set off by wandering pets, drifting curtains and clumsy homeowners – and the prospect of an upswing in calls that they've declared a breaking point. At least one force, Durham, is threatening to not respond to alarm calls unless an eyewitness confirms a crime in progress.

The cost of responding to false calls has been hefty: Most forces place the cost of attending a routine alarm call (local policy involves sending two officers and sometimes two cruisers) at between $150 and $300, meaning false alarms in the GTA in 2005 ate up between $11.8 million and $23.7 million.

In Toronto alone in 2005, 28,982 of the 29,920 alarm calls police received were false. The tab: more than $4 million.

"I'm stunned by those statistics. I had no idea," said Pam McConnell, vice-chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. "It's not on my radar or anyone else's. It sounds like a serious problem." Board chair Alok Mukherjee said he plans to raise the issue at an upcoming board meeting.

It's one issue both industry officials and police in the United States and Canada have struggled with for years. As the market continues to grow, so do concerns the costs will continue spiralling out of control.

Currently, several police forces bill alarm companies and customers for excessive false alarm calls. To try to reduce the police burden and avoid false alarm fees, many companies give customers the option of having a private guard service respond instead of police.

The downside of the guard services is that they cannot carry weapons and don't have powers of arrest. However, several Toronto area companies interviewed by the Star say they're increasingly trying to convince customers to opt out of police response.

"Guards are the way to go because they respond faster," said Chris Konstantas, owner of the Scarborough-based company F.I.S.T. Security Ltd., which has been operating for 20 years. "With police, there is some bad blood ... there are so many false alarms. I don't blame the guys on the street," he said, adding that, "It could take two hours for metro (police) to respond."

Several police officials told the Star it's the high frequency of false alarms that has led them to drastically reduce their responses, which were already given low priority.

"If we have a shooting or a stabbing on the go, or a major traffic collision, which is pretty well every night, they (homeowners) can sit and wait a long time," said Staff Sgt. Mark Barkley, who oversees the Toronto police Alarms Unit's four-member staff.

That's something alarm companies have difficulty with. There are currently about 600 companies in Ontario's unregulated alarm industry. While sales pitches and service packages vary widely, many try to indulge customers' expectations of a swift police response to alarms.

For example, the website for Magen Security, a medium-sized company that has been operating in the GTA for more than 25 years, vows to "dispatch police" if a burglar alarm is tripped. However, a manager for the company who would not give his name for fear it would hurt the business, said customers aren't getting their money's worth.

"Fifteen years ago, the arrival of the police for an alarm was two minutes. It was very fast." Now, he said, wait times are much longer and police efforts seem to have dwindled. "The customer is paying for something he's not really getting."

AlarmForce, a publicly traded company claiming to be Canada's largest installer of systems with live two-way voice connection between its monitoring station and homeowners, says it will warn intruders that "authorities are on the way" when an alarm goes off.

The Star interviewed numerous alarm companies, but also contacted eight companies posing as a homeowner interested in buying an alarm. Salesmen for the companies made varying statements, the boldest being Tricom security, which vowed police would respond to an alarm in "two to five minutes" in a "good area" of the city. A company manager backed down from the promise when confronted by the reporter. The manager then said there is "no such thing as a guarantee" but added he knew of "a couple of situations where they (police) come very fast."

Const. Gord Hayford, a crime prevention officer with Toronto police's 43 Division, said police at one time arrived at an alarm within about 12 minutes. Now it's within 20 minutes to half an hour. Burglars are usually gone long before then, he said.

In interviews, several current and former members of police alarm units across the GTA also said that attending the small number of valid alarms they're called to rarely yield a burglar's capture.

Toronto police's Barkley said his force doesn't keep statistics on how often they catch burglars as a result of an alarm, but admitted it's not often.

Andrew Petroff , a former Toronto police officer and security expert who runs Protect-A-Home Services, said burglar alarms aren't as effective as homeowners would like. He said burglars, who know they rank low on police priority lists, average about 18 seconds inside a house.

That's about how long it took for a burglar to rob one of Petroff's new Forest Hill clients last month. The client, a businessman who asked not to be named, contacted Petroff, who now installs reinforcements to doors and windows he says are more effective than alarms in preventing break-ins. The businessman turned to Petroff after a burglar kicked in his front door in the middle of the night last month – in spite of his alarm system.

The businessman, woken up by a crash and the sound of his burglar alarm going off, stumbled downstairs to investigate, only to find his front door smashed in, his keys and his $80,000 BMW X5 sport utility vehicle stolen. He wasn't fast enough to see the burglar speed away in his car.

Alan Goodley, a spokesman for AlarmForce, said alarms aren't designed to stop burglars.

"An alarm is never going to prevent a break-in," he said. "No matter how much equipment you put in the house, it's not going to stop a thief from breaking in. What it is going to do is deter, and minimize what is going to happen. Equipment detects thieves and notifies (police)."

That factor hasn't deterred consumers.

Homeowners, who can apply for insurance rebates if they install an alarm, typically pay alarm companies $200 and up for the hardware portion of their security system, plus a monthly monitoring fee of about $30. In London, Ont., where police keep some of the most detailed alarm statistics in the country, the number of homes with security systems rose 568 per cent between 1990 and 2005.

In 1999, 31 per cent of Canadian homeowners had the equipment installed in their homes. By 2004, the number had climbed to 34 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

The result has been record profits for some large alarm companies.

AlarmForce, one of the fastest growing Canadian alarm companies, announced the company's revenue and subscriber account base reached 64,000 customers, a record level, last July.

Jean Francois Champagne, executive director of the Canadian Security Association, said market penetration of security systems reached new heights in the last 10 years, and predicts the boom will continue.

While police aren't required by law to respond to alarms, most forces believe it's their duty to do so, said Toronto police's Barkley. Most in the GTA have implemented systems to help recover the costs – Toronto police bill the monitoring company $83.50 for every false alarm police officers are dispatched to.

In 2005, about 18,000 invoices were been sent out, in an attempt to recoup about $1.5 million. But the number doesn't make up for the total cost of sending cops scampering to the 28,982 false alarms they checked out last year.

Still, Barkley said residents' perceptions of added security alone are worth the expense of minding the devices.

"It doesn't matter whether they (police) ever catch anybody. The true value is on the street. It's about the individual consumer," he said. "If our citizens feel safer using alarms, fantastic."

Not all forces in the GTA feel the same way.

In York Region, where the problem is at its worst – about 99 per cent of alarm calls police attend are false – police officials say attending false alarms is a drain on resources, which is hard to justify in part because hard evidence that burglar alarms actually cut crime is in short supply.

"From the time it takes the alarm company to receive the call ... by the time we get an officer to respond, the bad guys are generally long gone," said Insp. Mark Grant, who oversees the force's three-member alarms unit.

Grant said he "very seldom" hears of officers catching burglars upon answering an alarm. In 2005, only 222 of the 25,730 alarm calls police attended were the real thing.

In spite of that, "there is no question that the installation of a security system reduces crime," said the industry association's Champagne.

Still, neighbourhood groups who monitor burglaries say the problems with false alarms left to fester by police and industry groups have actually reduced the overall effectiveness of home security systems.

Elizabeth Hawley, executive director of a neighbourhood watch group called the Crime Prevention Association of Toronto, said half of all the break-ins she monitors in Toronto occur at houses equipped with alarms.

In many cases, thieves are able to get in and out of the house with loot in spite of tripping the alarm – a factor Hawley traces back to the industry's longstanding problem with false alarms.

"Alarm calls are not priorities anymore because there have been so many false alarms," she said.

Grant said the systems may work as a deterrent, but they tend to be a hindrance to police.

"It's a massive strain," Grant said, adding that the increase in alarm calls police are forecasting as the region balloons will be taxing for his force.

"We're going to hit the million mark for population in another year. From Steeles Ave. north to Major Mackenzie, and up the Yonge St. corridor, it's solid homes, and they're building more and more all the time," he said. To try to rein in alarm users, York police have set up a multi-tiered registration program that imposes fees on irresponsible alarm users, similar to the approach used in Toronto. Depending on the package they register for, homeowners in York with numerous false alarms risk having police service suspended until they pay a $250 fee.

Police in Peel Region have managed to get the false alarm rate down to the lowest in the GTA not by charging fees, but by giving homeowners an ultimatum of sorts: After two false alarms in a 12-month period, homeowners are suspended from police service.

To have service reinstated, homeowners must prove to police that they've solved the problem that set off the alarm.

Peel is still grappling with a huge number of false alarms – in 2005, only 400 of the 15,555 alarms they were called to were valid, adding up to a 97 per cent false rate. The cost to the police service was around $2 million.

In Durham Region, police officials have endorsed a drastic new no-tolerance policy that is awaiting approval by the Police Services Board.

Under the controversial policy, called verified response, police will only check out an alarm call if the homeowner or alarm monitoring company has evidence of criminal activity.

The move was prompted by the fact that 98 per cent of alarm calls were false in 2005. Then, the number of officers who injured themselves in a crash on the way to such calls also reached a high.

"We just can't go randomly around the countryside. We're looking at a better way of doing business," said Sherry Whiteway, Durham police spokeswoman.

The no-nonsense policy is one that has been adopted by some cities in western Canada. Several United States jurisdictions grappling with the problem have also turned to no-tolerance tactics in recent years. However, results are mixed.

In Salt Lake City, Utah, a policy similar to the one Durham is nearing was adopted in 2000. Although false alarm dispatches dropped, actual burglaries jumped 14 per cent, leading many industry groups to begin lobbying police forces not to take such a hard line.



The reporters can be contacted at Curtis Rush can be reached at 416-945-8776.