Alarm Ordinance has Generated Revenue, Reclaimed Police Time, and Reduced False Alarms
Welcome to Montclair
In many ways Montclair New Jersey is like most mid-size towns. It has a population of 37,669 and a crime rate consistently lower than the national average. The streets of Montclair are tree-lined, with large stately homes and a quaint downtown that anchors the community. Montclair is perched on the first ridge of the Watchung Mountains, just 12 miles from New York City. From Montclair you can choose rolling valley views or fantastic city skylines. Income levels are above the national average.
False Alarm Problems - A True Public Safety Issue
While serious crimes are not common in Montclair, there are thousands of home and business alarm systems installed throughout the Township, and by 2006, the high number of false alarms in the community was taking its toll on the Montclair Police Department and other emergency response agencies. As with most communities, an estimated 90+ percent of alarm activations in Montclair at that time were false alarms, and most were being caused by human error.
In 2006, the Montclair Police Department responded to 4,806 false alarm activations. The number amounted to 13 per day on average in a town with less than seven square miles. There was one false alarm in 2006 for every seven residents of Montclair.
Montclair Police Chief David Sabagh knew false alarms came with a real cost to taxpayers and inefficiencies for his police department. He was getting regular complaints from patrol officers, and there was concern that officers were dropping their guard when responding to alarm calls. The average false alarm took two police officers at least twenty minutes to respond to and deal with. At 13 per day, that meant officers were spending the equivalent of one full-time officer doing nothing more than responding to false alarms. Chief Sabagh also saw this as a true public safety issue and decided something had to change.
Chief Sabagh assembled a team to research different options. They determined there were several ways to approach the reduction of false alarms. Community education was one option, and an important one. Education could be achieved, the Chief noted, in part through a permitting process. Fines for false alarms were another way to reduce them, as well as to generate much-needed cash to mitigate the cost of Police response.
Chief Sabagh analyzed programs in nearby communities, spoke with other chiefs, and met with Town Council. During the process he uncovered a 1986 alarm ordinance for Montclair that had not been enforced since it had been passed. That ordinance legislated steep fines for false alarms, peaking at $1000. Jail time was even outlined for repeat offenders.
Recognizing that an ordinance was needed but the original one was not only too severe but also inconsistent with nearby communities and state standards, the Township repealed the original ordinance and created a new one.
Montclair's new Burglar and Fire Alarm Ordinance requires businesses and residential alarm system owners to register their systems with the Township of Montclair and provide emergency contact information for the premises. Permits cost $50 a year, and permit holders were allowed one free€ response to a false alarm activation per year. Upon the second false alarm, a fee of $50 is assessed. The cost increases to $100 for the third offense, and $200 for numbers four and above. A provision was created for charging late fees, and fees could be assessed to those alarm owners who did not comply with the permitting process. The Township also instituted an Appeals process for business owners and residents to appeal the fines based on extenuating circumstances.
Partnering for Success
Passing an ordinance is the easy part. Making it work is where the hard work comes in.
Chief Sabagh did not have the staff or desire to handle payments, and so the Township contracted with ATB (Alarm Tracking and Billing), now a part of PM AM Corporation. The company had been working successfully with nearby Rahway, New Jersey, and officials there were very happy with the partnership.
PM AM has expertise in building, operating and maintaining false alarm tracking and billing systems for jurisdictions throughout North America. At the beginning of the relationship the company worked with alarm companies in the area to generate a list of alarm system owners in Montclair. The company then contacted the alarm owners and provided information on the new ordinance and permit registration process.
Community relations efforts were also used to educate the public about the problems caused by false alarm activation. The Police Chief made the rounds to local service groups and schools to discuss the problems caused by false alarm activation. Community members were informed about the new ordinance, fees, and penalties for non-compliance, and were asked to do their part to curtail false alarms.
Over the last five years, Montclair police dispatches to false alarms in the Township have been reduced by 60 percent and are being maintained at that much lower level.
With management of the program handled by ATB/PM AM, citizens and businesses were educated about the problems associated with false alarms, alarm systems were permitted, and the majority cooperated in addressing their own system issues to reduce false alarms.
By partnering with PM AM, Montclair avoided the significant upfront costs of developing a permitting and billing system or purchasing a software package. The Township also avoided spending taxpayer dollars on administrative personnel to handle permit registrations, false alarm invoicing, and annual permit billing. There was no financial outlay for the Township at all.
PM AM monitors Montclair's false alarm reports and handles all annual permitting administration and billing based on the specific parameters outlined in the Montclair ordinance. They are paid based on a percentage of the revenue they collect.
In addition to reducing the annual false alarm numbers by nearly 2900 per year, the system has not only required no financial outlay, but it has generated revenue for the Township through permit fees and the fines for excessive false alarms. This revenue has helped to offset the cost of false alarm responses, while the reduced number of alarms has put officers back on more productive police work.
Words of Wisdom
Chief Sabagh does note that his department did have to deal with some negative publicity early in the process. Citizens, he said, had come to expect police to provide the free false alarm response service,€ and initially many citizens saw the new ordinance as a way for police to reduce their service€ to the community. Alarm owners also didn't appreciate the fines they began to receive. Initially, the chief says they had a lot of appeals and complaints from citizens, but eventually, citizens began working harder to reduce false alarms at their homes and businesses, and most now pay their fines without complaint
It is also important to make sure your elected officials are on board early on. They need to support the initiative first. Once they understand that it is an efficiency issue, and not a reduction in service, they can be very helpful in explaining it to citizens,€ Chief Sabagh says.
He also noted that, when the ordinance is doing its job, the revenue can decrease over time, so while at first it may seem like a windfall to a municipality, once compliance begins, revenue from fines does go down year on year.
In addition, the chief said he found it to be very important to educate the public about what else the police could be doing with the time.
Once citizens realize that they can have more patrols, more traffic control, and more help from officers, they appreciate what we are doing to reduce false alarms,€ he said.
With everyone involved doing their part, false alarms are under control in Montclair, with PM AM continuing to handle alarm company and alarm system registration, invoicing, billing and constituent education..