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THE BEST...THE BEAUTIFUL...AND THE BIZARRE : ALARM
SCHOOL

Hit the Snooze Button

July 11, 1999|Mark Ehrman

At noon on a hot day, 30 middle-age-to-elderly homeowner-types fill a grim fluorescent-lit room in the Chatsworth Metrolink station. None of them believe they deserve to be here. The police think otherwise.

"How could it be a false alarm? My door handle looked cracked open by someone."

"The baby sitter didn't have the alarm ID code."

"They told me a spider set it off."

Mary, the instructor, would like everybody to please hold their excuses--uh, questions. They may be covered during the presentation.

These are the two-time losers. Their burglar alarms have gone off without good reason (yes, what constitutes a good reason will be covered, please hold your questions!) twice in a 12-month period (provided, of course, they have a city-issued alarm permit, but that, too, will be covered). They've been presented with a choice between an $80 fine or this two-hour "False Alarm Reduction Class."

Now, would everyone please pay attention to the monitor?

It begins like "Dragnet": a Los Angeles Police Department badge flashes on-screen. Then City Councilwoman Laura Chick and LAPD Lt. Charlie Beck appear. "One out of six calls to the police are for burglar alarms. More than 95% are false alarms," they inform us in this 10-minute false alarm equivalent of "Red Asphalt." Afterward, Mary begins her presentation.

"Causes of false alarms." (You'd be surprised how many times those French doors spring open.)

"Effects of false alarms." (Remember the boy who cried wolf?)

And, finally, "valid and invalid reasons." (Northridge quake, yes; Santa Ana wind conditions, no.)

Destined to serve their time, some alarm-school detainees are eager to participate. Others nod off. One contractor guy flips through a catalog of ceiling moldings that he's snuck out of his bag.

There's still 45 minutes to go when Mary says, "OK, those who have questions can remain, everyone else . . ." A stampede to the door. A handful of newly born alarm enthusiasts (alarmists?) remain. "It's good information," says one, who won't reveal his name or where he lives. Paranoia is endemic in alarm circles. Mary won't give up her last name either. "We do two things," she explains. "Teach the class and collect the fines." It's the latter function--which sometimes involves thousands of dollars--that makes her want to stay incognito. "Some people get very abusive," she says.

But the program, now in its second year in L.A., is not without its fans. "You do get people asking when they can come back again," Mary says. "Someone asked me if he can come back tonight. I said, 'You shouldn't be asking me this. You should be home and preventing false alarms.' "

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