PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council has opened up a can of worms when it comes to false alarms.
The Police Department had come to the council with a fairly straightforward request: require those with burglar alarms to register with the city annually. The department's records are out of date and officials wanted to find a way to keep up with those records.
Chief Information Officer Mike Steben had taken the project on and found that officers were responding to around 1,500 false-alarm calls per year — requiring two officers at a time. Often businesses had moved and taken alarm systems with them, and officers were responding to the wrong address. Other times, officers are going back to the same business every day because of faulty equipment.
The city already has ordinances in place for false alarms: a warning on the first occasion, $25 on the second, $50 on the third, and $100 per incident with the fourth and beyond. However, the department's computer system isn't integrated with the tax collector's system so any fines issued become a nightmare to collect and track. So the city stopped fining people for false alarms.
The city also had a one-time registration fee of $25. Steben first proposed language that would require registration annually instead of just once to help clean up department records. With that, he proposed eliminating the fee. The new language making registration annual and eliminating the one-time fee needs council approval.
Councilors, however, are now having trouble with the rest of the ordinance. In a former job, Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell had overseen dozens of convenience stores throughout the region. He knows firsthand that there are so many things that could trigger an alarm.
"I don't want to penalize the businesses for having good equipment," Connell said.
He said strong winds could shake doors and trigger an alarm; motion detectors could be triggered by heating units turning on and blowing merchandise, or rodents can set off alarms. A customer could come to the door just after closing time, try to open it and set off the alarm. If the city does start fining based on the current ordinance, Connell doesn't think giving business only one "one freebie" is enough.
Steben responded that those instances wouldn't be necessarily be counted as a false alarm. However, that determination is made by the responding officers. He said the officers have the option to log the call as a false alarm or not.
"We approach this with reasonableness and fairness, so that would not get coded as a false alarm," he said.
Connell, however, doesn't like the subjectivity still surrounding the issue. The decision on whether or not to fine is in the hands of the Police Department. Another process needing clarification for councilors is how residents and business owners contest such determinations.
Another issue discussed on Tuesday was a requirement in the current law that all alarms are registered with the city. But the language simply calls for all burglar alarms, which doesn't quite fit with the options provided by today's technology. The language dates back to the early 1990s and now residents can purchase alarms that aren't connected with monitoring companies, and be linked to their own phones. Connell asked about solely audible alarms, such as small ones placed under doors, as well.
Steben was under the impression that even those would have to be registered.
"We really need to know where these alarms are so police officers can respond appropriately," he said. "Historically all alarm systems have been registered."
Maggie Gregory, assistant to the chief of police, disagreed, saying only the monitored alarms — with companies automatically calling and dispatching police — would have to be registered. Otherwise, the small home security systems requiring the owner to call if there is an issue wouldn't have to be registered.
As the council began to get into the weeds, Connell and Councilor Melissa Mazzeo suggested tabling the petition in order to get clarification.
Council President Peter Marchetti, however, reminded the councilors that the items under debate are in the existing ordinance so delaying wouldn't change those at all. Instead, the request put forth by Steben was to simply remove the $25 registration fine and implement a free, annual registration process.
"I think the conversation has been great and I think it needs to be explored," Marchetti said but added there is a different process for the items already in place.
Steben said despite the fines being listed in the ordinance already, he said the department wouldn't enforce those until after a significant public awareness campaign.
Eventually, the council approved the proposal but said the rest of the existing ordinance will have the be re-considered.
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