The price tag for false alarms likely runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for Salt Lake City fire and police departments.
According to officials at the two departments, 11,737 false alarms in 1987 were caused by the misuse or mechanical malfunction of alarm systems. That accounted for 11 percent of the two agencies' total calls."Most of the false alarms come because alarms are improperly set. For instance, an employee comes back after hours and forgets about the alarm," said Pat Sorenson, assistant to Mayor Palmer DePaulis.
Since the Deseret News began looking at the problem, the mayor's office has asked police officials to also look at it.
Using minimum costs provided by the two agencies $10 per false robbery call and $470 per fire call the Deseret News found false alarms would have cost more than $410,000 in 1987. That estimate represents 1 percent of the combined police and fire departments' 1987-88 budgets.
According to Fire Battalion Chief Gordon Nicholl, while a single truck dispatched to investigate a residential alarm may cost $470, a contingent of trucks usually costing about $1,000 responds to false alarms downtown.
The fire department figures also do not include false emergency medical alarms.
However, the $410,000 estimate for Salt Lake fire alarms could be high. Denver recently conducted a detailed study of false alarms that found the mile-high city has 27,000 false alarms a year costing about $450,000.
While Salt Lake fire officials are uncertain how many fire alarm systems are in the city, the police have issued permits for 4,800 burglar and robbery alarms. However, there may be just as many that don't have permits, according to Craig Merrill, police alarm enforcement officer.
"Something is going to have to be done to get these people to be responsible," Merrill said.
The drain that false alarms put on budgets has caused some cities to adopt tough alarm ordinances.
While the Salt Lake City Council passed an ordinance in 1981 requiring burglar and robbery alarm owners to take out a $25 permit, it doesn't require fire alarm owners to buy a permit.
Under the ordinance, alarm owners are allowed 12 false alarms a year with not more than three in any one month. If owners exceed that number they are asked to correct the problem or risk having their permit suspended. It costs $50 to have a permit reinstated the first time, $75 for the second, $100 for the third and $300 thereafter.
Merrill said only one permit has been revoked since the 1981 ordinance was passed. Sorensen also said the ordinance hasn't netted fines because the courts haven't taken it seriously.
"The courts haven't really sunk their teeth into the thing," Sorensen said. "It's a problem that costs money and above all it takes away needed personnel from othersituations where they may be really needed."
Denver city officials have considered allowing only three false alarms a year. After that, offenders would be fined $50 for each false alarm.
Merrill believes there is merit in adding such fines to the Salt Lake City ordinance.
"(In St. Louis County, Mo.,) it dropped their false alarms drastically because it educated the public in their responsibility with burglar alarms. It also ran out all of the fly-by-night alarm companies."
Another option used in large Eastern cities is to cut false alarm costs by allowing alarm company agents to check all alarms. If they find the alarm is genuine, police are called in, Merrill said.
He does not believe, however, that police should stop responding, as they do in Los Angeles to an alarm simply because previous ones at the same address were false.
"We are going to respond to all alarms. Even if it was a bad alarm before, you never can tell went it is the real McCoy," he said.