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Alarming trend: False calls becoming real problem for fire, police departments

Dennis WebbGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. Glenwood Springs emergency responders are spending a lot of their time spinning their wheels in response to false alarms.The police and fire departments are interested in having the city look into a possible ordinance to address the problem.Police chief Terry Wilson said in a year-end report that the department responded to 488 security alarms last year, “of which approximately 487 were false in nature.”Fire Chief Mike Piper said the department racked up 214 false alarms last year, out of a total of 589 fire calls. The false alarms were up 19 percent from the prior year.The trend is taking a toll on departments that would like to have more staffing. It’s particularly an issue for the fire department, which last year was threatened with a ratings downgrade by the Insurance Services Office but is now working with ISO to avoid a downgrade.ISO requires the city to respond with at least four firefighters to each structure fire call – even the ones that turn out to be false.”We’re required to treat all fire alarms as if they are a fire unless we’re there and can prove otherwise. So we have to send four people and appropriate apparatus to commercial fire alarms,” Piper said.This can stretch personnel if the department happens to be responding to other fire or ambulance calls at the same time.Piper said some alarm systems are old and in need of maintenance, upgrade or replacement. In other cases new alarms can be set off by construction crews that are creating dust or may bump alarms, instead of capping them until the work is done.Police Lt. Bill Kimminau said most of the false security alarms come at the start or end of the business day. They may be caused by an employee entering a building without the right code to disable the alarm, or at night by cleaning crews, or by employees returning to the building for something and forgetting the alarm is set.”There are a lot more businesses in town that have alarms that never have a problem. For the most part it’s employee error,” he said.Some businesses may have electric problems that cause an alarm to go off the same time every day. That creates the danger of complacency by police, which Kimminau said the department wants to avoid because of the possibility an actual emergency is occurring.Piper fears the same thing.”It’s almost the Chicken Little thing – what is that, the sky is falling? But that’s a very bad mode for us to get into where we even think, uh, it’s just so-and-so’s business again. … You’ve got to be very careful. You may have three false alarms from a particular business and the fourth one is real.”Fire marshal Ron Biggers is working with businesses to reduce false alarms, but it’s hard to get out to each business, Piper said. He said some cities deal with false alarms by first giving a warning where there is a repeated problem, and then imposing a fine. However, the fine money is put in escrow and the property owner can recover it if the problem is fixed.The goal is to avoid penalizing people, but also forcing those with chronic false alarm problems to do something about it, Piper said.Kimminau said he wouldn’t want any ordinance to deter people from installing security alarms. While fire alarms are required in many buildings, security alarms are optional.The department doesn’t respond to all security alarms. If one goes off accidentally and an employee calls in the right code to the alarm company, emergency dispatchers can be alerted and police can be called off.Responding to false alarms isn’t just a staffing problem but a safety problem. Piper noted that firefighters must treat each alarm call as an emergency, which creates added risk to them as they rush to the scene.Contact Dennis Webb: 384-9119dwebb@postindependent.comPost Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO


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