CHICAGO — Logic dictates that it could happen at any time, but by some immutable law of nature they always seem to go off about 2 in the morning, just as you've nestled into that first really sound slumber in weeks.
"AH-OOOOOO-GAH! AH-OO OOOO-GAH! AH-OOOOOO-GAH!" Or perhaps, depending on the model, "oooOOOOWAAAAAA! oooOOOOWAAAAAAA! ooo OOOOWAAAAAAA!" sort of a high-tech throwback to those wee-of-the-morning reveilles when Junior was going through his colicky stage.
If you're slowly being tortured by the wind or cats or mice or poltergeists or whatever it is that strikes up the car-alarm symphony in your otherwise somnolent neck of the woods, then think how the police feel as they scamper from one howling burglar alarm to another--almost every one of them false.
"They are driving the police crazy in some districts," said Joe Giloley, the official in charge of alarm regulation in Montgomery County, Md.
With dizzying speed, hospitals, stores, high-rises and homes, as well as private automobiles, are being wired with sophisticated fire detection and security systems. This technologically driven boom is affording a measure of protection and peace of mind, but certainly not of peace and quiet, especially for public safety workers.
Police and fire officials across the United States and Canada say they are drowning in unsubstantiated alarm calls. In the Chicago suburb of Evanston, oversensitive automatic alarms sent firefighters and all their equipment racing to the local hospital more than 120 times in 1990, and they never found so much as a puff of smoke. In the first six months of this year, Evanston firemen were summoned 33 times by false alarms at a retirement home. In a third of those alarms, the culprit was burnt toast.
Burglar alarm systems are far more common and cause even bigger headaches. Officials in Houston estimated that the Police Department had wasted nearly $16 million chasing down 99,000 false alarms in the first nine months of this year alone.
Most cities report that at least 95% of burglar alarms turn out to be false, triggered either by human error, faulty equipment or bad weather. In some jurisdictions, the rate tops 99%. "It's like Ivory soap," said Chicago police patrolman Brant Kustwin, flipping the old commercial standard of purity on its ear.
Authorities are beginning to fight back. Many cities now impose penalties for overactive alarms. In San Diego, for example, the third false alarm in a 30-day period brings a $25 fine. After that the price goes up, from $50 to $200 per infraction.
Los Angeles alarm users can get away with four false alarms in any 12-month period, but are slapped with a $65 fine for each one beyond that. The penalty, instituted in 1987, hasn't cured the problem, but it seems to have helped. In 1985, the roughly 60,000 alarm systems registered in the city generated 146,000 calls, of which 97.5% were false, according to the Los Angeles Police Commission. By last year the number of operating systems exceeded 91,000, but the number of calls had dropped to just under 130,000, approximately 96% of which were false.
Illinois lawmakers recently outlawed a particularly error-prone type of alarm system that automatically generates a 911 emergency call when triggered.
Police in Portland, Me., still check out all burglar alarms, but they no longer speed to the scene. The reason: Officers were getting into too many accidents on what often turned out to be wild-goose chases. "We felt this was crazy, for the civilian population out there to have us racing back and forth to alarms, the majority of which are unfounded," said Michael Chitwood, Portland's police chief.
Indeed, in Waterbury, Conn., two firefighters were killed and two others were injured last year when their firetruck slammed into some trees on the way to what turned out to be a false alarm. One of the survivors is suing the companies involved in selling and monitoring the alarm equipment in question. The defendants are expected to argue that faulty brakes on the fire engine, not the alarm, caused the accident.
Starting last year, officials in Toronto began taking what is probably the toughest stand against false alarms in North America: No more than three false alarms will be tolerated from a particular location in any given year. After a fourth false alarm, police will not respond to any further alarm for the next 365 days.
The policy carries especially severe repercussions for jewelry stores, stereo shops and other high-risk businesses, which must have alarm systems to get insurance. In 1990, there were nearly 4,900 such service suspensions. Meanwhile, the number of alarm activations fell to 74,705 from a high of 130,035 in 1988.
"We finally said enough was enough," explained Sgt. Ted Hilton, alarm response coordinator for the Toronto police. ". . . Something serious could be happening where people are in legitimate need of police, and we have nobody available because they're running around chasing all these false alarms."