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False-Alarm Class Targets Blaring Problem

Police: Oxnard's school aims to heighten awareness about the costly trend of bogus security-system calls. Other cities are considering offering similar courses.


Lucy Delgado, an accounting clerk at Marian Business Services in Oxnard, had just locked up for the night when she remembered she had left an important piece of paper inside and dashed back in to grab it.

But she wasn't quick enough. In less than a minute police cars were on the scene, responding to the blaring security alarm she had accidentally set off.

Delgado says it's a mistake she won't repeat, and not just because of the embarrassment it caused her. In an attempt to relieve her business of the $75 fine levied by the Oxnard Police Department, she attended the department's False Alarm Awareness School--the only one of its kind in the county.

"I learned what it does to the Police Department--it's such a waste," said Delgado, who attended a recent class, the program's fourth session since it began last year. "Believe me, next time I'll turn the alarm off before I run in."

Police agencies across Ventura County respond to thousands of similar false alarms every month, and it can cost them from $70 to $100 for each call in wasted staff time, officials said. Many agencies use fines as a way to recoup those costs and prevent future false alarms.

The success of Oxnard's aggressive public education effort in silencing false alarms--attendance at last week's class was a record 51 people--has caught the attention of other municipalities from Ventura to Simi Valley, said Oxnard Police Cmdr. Tom Chronister, who runs the program.

Los Angeles is the only other city in Southern California with a similar school, said Vince Nigro, president of the Southern California Security Assn.

In Oxnard, 18% of calls for service are related to security alarms and nearly 98% of those turn out to be false, Chronister said. The city spends roughly $400,000 each year responding to false alarms.

Although no other city has immediate plans to model a school after Oxnard's, officials from other agencies have attended Chronister's class and are keeping it in mind as they develop future crime-prevention plans.

"It was very well-taught and I learned so much," said Maggie Federico, a crime prevention officer in Port Hueneme, where a false-alarm ordinance modeled after Oxnard's took effect last month.

Most cities have laws specifying the number of false alarms it will tolerate before imposing fines--and it varies from one city to another.

Oxnard's law, for instance, allows the city to start fining alarm violators after two calls in one year. Simi Valley allows up to five.

Establishing alarm awareness schools is a trend that began in Phoenix five years ago and is sweeping the country, said Jennifer Gehring, director of government relations for the National Burglar and Fire Alarm Assn.

She said several police departments in California have called recently for information on how to establish such a school.

"I think it's an excellent idea," said Karen Moore, Simi Valley Police Department's false-alarm coordinator.

She said the city gets about 3,200 false alarms each year, a number that has held steady despite an increase in alarm users. She said the city's ordinance is scheduled for a review, which could result in even greater efforts to reduce the frequency of false-alarm responses.

Chronister said the school is just one aspect of Oxnard's 2-year-old false-alarm reduction effort, which also includes working with alarm companies and cracking down on violators. In July 1998, the department responded to more than 600 alarms. Last month the number was down to 411, Chronister said. The next session is scheduled for December.

Nigro, who teaches the Oxnard classes with Chronister, said he believes the classes have been successful.

"It's an excellent presentation, and the city puts a lot of money and effort into it," Nigro said.

Nigro also teaches a 20-week course at the West Valley Occupational Center in Woodland Hills for alarm industry professionals, which Chronister and his assistant both took before starting the Oxnard school.

Nigro said Oxnard was the first police agency to attend, but others--including sheriff's deputies in Thousand Oaks--have expressed interest in the Sept. 6 session.

Oxnard's two-hour class begins with its officers talking about the city's ordinance regarding permits and fines, as well as statistics on the cost of excessive false alarms. The second half includes information on how an alarm system works, traits of a good alarm company and simple measures residents and business owners can take to minimize triggering a false alarm, such as keeping doors and windows tight-fitting and locked.

The cornerstone of the class appeals to the heart of every property owner: a good old-fashioned freebie. Residents who enroll are rewarded with a voucher good for up to $150 in savings off false-alarm fines.

"We have to dangle that carrot, and we don't have a problem with that," Chronister said. "Until they get in there, people don't understand what a problem it really is."

Oxnard resident Catherine Gallegos said she had no idea how much there was to learn about her home's alarm system until she attended the class after getting a $100 fine for a recent false alarm.

"It was interesting," Gallegos said. "I think all cities and counties should have something like that. What's two to three hours on one evening, if you're going to learn something?"

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