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False alarms costly for Clark sheriff

Despite problems, deputies still favor alarm systems to help fight crime.

Law enforcement agencies respond to thousands of security system alarm calls at homes and businesses each year, but in most cases, the calls turn out to be false alarms that tie up valuable resources and cost taxpayers.

In 2012, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office responded to 2,955 alarm calls, 2,482 of which were from security systems. While the agency doesn’t track false alarms specifically, Sheriff Gene Kelly said the bulk of those were false alarms. Deputies on the street said they’ll get multiple false alarm calls each day.

“We usually respond on (the day shift) typically two or three alarms. Weekends are worse,” said Deputy Brian Melchi. “I would say 95 percent of those are false alarms.”

Ohio Revised Code allows law enforcement agencies to recoup some of the cost when responding to false alarms, but the amount is capped at $150 for the fifth false alarm. It also requires the department to track its call-outs. The cost of paperwork coupled with the actual response of the deputies — two per alarm call — doesn’t make that charge cost-effective, Kelly said.

“Which one do we not go on? Which one do we not send as many units as possible?” Kelly asked. “What we choose to do is go out, talk to the business, the homeowner, see if there are any recommendations we can make with their alarm company to improve the service and not have false alarms.”

During a normal shift, only four deputies will be on patrol, not including any township-assigned deputies. With two units responding to each alarm call, Melchi said it’s happened where every unit has been tied up by false alarms.

“A typical false alarm is tying up four or five people,” Melchi said. “You have the alarm company end of it, dispatchers and then our actual law enforcement officers.”

There’s no way to determine which alarm will end up being false and which will be legitimate. Anything can set the system off: storms, a dirty sensor, motion activating the alarm that turns out to be a pet or even a balloon, Kelly said.

“It does get frustrating when you hear the same alarm four to five times a week. Still doesn’t change our response to it, though,” Melchi said. “In the back of your mind you say, is this another false alarm? I can have 10 false alarms at the same place but that 11th alarm could be a good one.”

The most common issue is human error. Deputies respond weekly to the Greenon Athletic Center by the football field due to an alarm drop. In each case it has been a false alarm, usually do to someone setting it off by accident or not having the right code to turn the system off, according to the sheriff’s office.

It’s a problem the school district is trying to fix, said Principal Rick Newsock.

“There’s all kinds of reasons why the alarm can go off,” he said. “(We know) it puts a strain on our law enforcement because they’re running back and forth all the time checking on the alarms, making sure our buildings are secure.”

There’s no clear-cut way to solve false alarms. Law enforcement agencies agree they do help catch criminals and can deter crime.

Going over the system with the alarm company, making sure it is working properly and you know how to disarm it is helpful. Checking sensors for obstructions and keeping the system clean and in good working order can also limit false alarms. If necessary, have law enforcement work with you and the alarm company to see if there is a more effective way, Kelly said.

“We want alarms, and alarms do work, and they’re a vital part of law enforcement today,” Kelly said.

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