CACI Silences Repeated False Alarms

Montgomery County, Md., proves that technology can make crime-fighting more efficient

When a townhouse security system malfunctioned and triggered a false alarm that sounded for days before authorities could shut it down, the nation found out about Montgomery County, Maryland's false-alarm problem.


County officials knew about the problem long before the national media blitz.


The county has had false-alarm tracking for commercial users in place since 1981. False alarms cost Montgomery County taxpayers $14 million a year and are expected to grow by 10 percent annually.

In 1994, the council selected CACI International Inc., Arlington, Va., to build a false-alarm tracking system for residential and commercial use that could bill chronic abusers of the system. Although many jurisdictions track false alarms, Montgomery County might have the first one that can bill repeat offenders, said Norma Beaubien, director of the False Alarm Reduction Unit of the county police department.

The county recognizes that the bottom line is not about money, but about reducing alarms, said David Mandel, vice president of the National Capitol Alarm Association.

False alarms take officers away from community policing and fighting crime. They also prevent officers from answering other calls. But perhaps most important, false alarms lower an officer's guard at that location, causing him to be less cautious, Beaubien explained.

The county started using the system in March 1995. It was fully operational by October 1995. During that time, false alarms dropped by 7 percent.

In 1994, there were approximately 44,000 alarms, in 1995 there were 41,000 calls. The system also has generated $660,000 in revenue.

Montgomery County requires that owners of alarm systems register with the police department. Alarm companies also must be licensed.

When an alarm company alerts a 911 operator, it gives the owner's alarm registration information. The 911 operator dispatches officers, who give the operator a clearance code once they reach the scene. The operator enters the code indicating whether it was a false alarm, a weather-related event or a true emergency.

Once a day, the False Alarm Tracking and Billing Unit's computers call the 911 computer-aided dispatch system, download the alarm information and upload new registrations or licenses that have been received.

The computer then sorts the number of alarms at a given address. The first three false alarms each year don't result in any penalties, regardless of where they originated. The first and second alarms trigger a letter alerting users that they have generated a false alarm.

The third letter requires owners to have their system inspected and includes a form, which must be signed by the alarm company and the owners. Failure to return the form to the police can result in a $100 fine.

Each additional false alarm costs owners an increased fine, which can reach $1,000 for residential users, $4,000 for commercial users. Failure to pay the fines can result in canceled police dispatches.

One of the best features of the system is the communication it promotes among the alarm companies, the owners and the authorities, Mandel said. There is nothing so sophisticated in the entire country, he said.

The system is generating interest from police departments nationally, said Gay Porter at CACI. Locally, Howard and Prince George's counties are thinking of doing something similar.


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