Outcry Leads Salisbury To Lower False Alarm Fines

SALISBURY — In response to apprehension from Salisbury residents and businesses, the City Council plans to cut false alarm fines in half by billing everything on a half-hour response time instead of the original one-hour response time benchmark.

With that new direction announced one day before this week’s election, Alarm Engineering representative Ron Boltz warned the council that their fines are still well above the area median and could do with further reduction.

The council voted in February to adopt new false alarm fines to attempt to recoup costs to city services like fire and police. However, Boltz explained that the new fees of about $250 per false alarm after the third call and $500 to $1,000 for each offense after the fourth call are off the charts when compared to surrounding areas. Compared to its next nearest government entity, Wicomico County, Boltz pointed out that Salisbury is incredibly less forgiving with false alarms.

“Wicomico County doesn’t begin billing until the eighth alarm and they bill $30 per response from then on,” he said.

False alarm penalties do serve a function, admitted Boltz, but the new Salisbury penalties are, in his opinion, egregious.

“Our industry has proven that we need false alarm penalties in place to deter those who do abuse the resources of the city. They encourage responsible use of the security systems and they’ve been proven to reduce false alarms,” he said. “Just to make sure it’s clear, we’re not saying to remove all penalties; they definitely need to be there. It’s just that the new ones are drastically higher than anything our industry has ever seen.”

A major concern that Boltz shared is that extreme false alarm fines would encourage people to either shut off their alarms permanently or begin to “self-respond,” which is when a property owner asks to be notified if an alarm is tripped without involving the police, thus preventing any possible false alarm report. Obviously, this is not an ideal situation, said Boltz, since the property owner could interrupt a break-in in progress.

“We need to be very careful that we don’t get into an atmosphere of discouraging the use of alarms,” he said.

Boltz recommended a few other tweaks to Salisbury’s policy, the most basic of which is referring to false alarm penalties as “fines” instead of “fees.” If the city calls it a fee, he explained that they’re leaving themselves liable to suit from residents who felt that they were being charged more money than would go towards paying the “fees” associated with fire and police responding to false alarms. Labeling the action a “fine” eliminated any of that gray area.

Finally, Boltz urged the council to make Enhanced Call Verification (ECV) mandatory for alarm systems in Salisbury. ECV would prompt alarm companies to call first the property if an alarm triggers, which is standard, and then an immediate follow-up call to a cell phone or other secondary number for the owner. The delay in response is negligible, according to Boltz, while the second call has a measured impact on reducing false alarms.

The back-up call to the property owner’s cell or home can often resolve false alarms without a police follow-up, he continued, in cases where family or other visitors were expected but the alarm was accidently left on or other preventable situations. The ECV has no additional costs associated with it.

The council promised to take Boltz’s suggestions into account when further developing the false alarm ordinance, which will go to first reading this month. In particular, they agreed to slash penalties in half, billing everything against the expectation of a half-hour response time. The original fines were developed against an anticipated hour-long response time.

Councilwoman Shanie Shields agreed with the change but was uncomfortable with Salisbury ranking the highest in the area prior to the cut and still in the upper percentage afterwards.

“We’re higher than anybody and I think we need to go back to the drawing board,” she said.

Councilwoman Laura Mitchell also favored basing rates on a half-hour response time at least until the legislation can be further tweaked in the future.

“I think that puts us back somewhere towards the middle of the [fines],” she said. “Certainly better than where we are now but probably still higher up.”

Councilwoman Debbie Campbell, who lost her seat in Tuseday’s election, agreed with a lower rate but with the potential addition of mandatory ECV in the city she asked that the council make sure to allow any alarm owners who are against it the ability to opt out.

The change to the fees, which will still have to pass through a legislative session since Monday was only a work session, is a good start, said Boltz. Salisbury is still above the industry standards, especially with early false alarms, however.

“Most jurisdictions…start off typically with the third or fourth alarm being billed in the $50 to maybe $100 range,” noted Boltz.

Even with the city cutting the roughly $250 penalty for third false alarms in half, Salisbury is still above considerably above average, a trend which continues with additional calls.