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UA police plagued by false fire alarms

By Devin Simmons
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday January 28, 2003

It's 2 a.m. and nearly 900 residents of Coronado Residence Hall are standing on East Fifth Street waiting for the fire department to clear the building.

After enough time to have a cigarette and chat with their roommates, the students are finally allowed to re-enter the building.

This type of scenario is not uncommon on the UA campus.

According to UAPD Commander Kevin Haywood, there is a problem with false alarms on campus.

"Yes, the frequency of false alarms on campus is definitely a problem," Haywood said. "Sometimes it can get frustrating; our resources can get tied up to a certain degree."

Statistics that were collected from analysis of UA police reports dating Jan. 12 21 reveal that roughly 25 percent of the calls made daily turn out to be false alarms. During that span of nine days, there were over 50 false alarms.

Haywood cited the Student Union Memorial Center and UofA Bookstore, the Arizona Health Sciences Complex, and anywhere where construction is going on as chronic problem areas.

Between Jan. 12 21, the student union and bookstore accounted for 25 of the 52 false alarm reports counted. There was a false alarm in one of those two buildings at least once a day each day during that period. On Jan. 19 alone, there were seven false alarms.

Though Haywood would not specify what kind of response each call elicited, for security reasons, he did say that every time an alarm goes off, there is some kind of police response.

"We try to treat every alarm as if it is a good alarm," Haywood said. "We really can't afford to become complacent."

Alarming Facts

   Jan. 12 21
· 25% of calls made to UAPD were false alarms
· 52 false alarms
· 25/52 false alarms at Student Union Memorial Center

· 127,000 burglar alarms accounted for 15% of LAPD total time
· 97% were false alarms

· 38 million burglar alarms
· 98% false
· Cost police departments a total of $1.5 billion

Alarms on campus are divided into two general categories: fire alarms and burglar alarms.

Fire alarms are environment-sensitive, and they only go off when there is smoke, fumes or heat. Consequently, false fire alarms are very rare. But burglar alarms are a different story, Haywood said.

When a burglar alarm goes off, the security company monitoring it, which in the case of most UA alarms is Phoenix-based Amer-X Securities, Inc., notifies the police department.

"Most of the time false alarms result from operator error," Haywood said. "People leave doors propped open, or they punch in the wrong code, or maybe no code at all."

"It can be very hard to remember codes and sometimes people just get forgetful," Haywood added. "There is really no way we can address the problem except educating people on how to use the systems, and that is what we try to do."

David Green, president of the Arizona Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, a collection of Arizona security companies that come together and look for ways to improve security services, agreed.

"There is a lack of education and also a lack of collaboration between the security company, the facilitator, which in your case would be the university, and the actual hands-on user," Green said. "Public institutions like government buildings and especially schools are the most difficult to maintain, because you are dealing with so many different operators at any given time."

The ABFAA has organized a public safety committee that meets monthly to discuss security issues. The meetings consist of members of the security industries in, most notably, the Phoenix and Tucson regions, and those people in police departments who are responsible for operating and monitoring alarm systems.

Universities have not been part of these committees in the past, but they are welcome, Green said.

"As a result of these committee meetings and aggressive fines in Maricopa County for repeated false alarms, the Phoenix area has been able to increase the number of alarms installed and actually still seen a decrease in alarms being reported that are false," Green said.

The university does not hand out fines for repeated false alarms, according to Haywood.

Green suspects that the problem with instituting fines in a university setting might be that the responding party, which at the UA is the UAPD, would essentially be fining itself. In other words, UAPD officers would be writing tickets and handing out fines to building directors and managers employed by the university, the same force that employs them.

Nationally, the problem exists on a larger scale.

According to Los Angeles' new police chief and a report done by the Justice Department, police agencies nationwide are wishing that they could afford the luxury of ignoring alarms that are set off accidentally.

LAPD Police Chief William J. Bratton said that in 2001 the LAPD responded to 127,000 burglar alarms, consuming 15 percent of their total time, when 97 percent of the calls ended up being false alarms, according to an article that appeared in The New York Times last week.

Bratton saw the figures as a bad investment of resources and proposed that officers stop responding to alarms unless the property owner or private security company first verifies it as genuine.

Also, a Justice Department report cited in the article stated that in 1998, there were up to 38 million burglar alarms nationwide and 98 percent of them were false. These false alarms cost the police an estimated $1.5 billion.


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