The Columbus Police Department in Georgia is like many other large law enforcement agencies in the United States today. We’re short-staffed on officers. A goal of the department is to minimize the number of non-emergency calls officers too often respond to, so that they can spend more time in the community and be ready to respond to true emergencies. We started looking at things we could do to optimize an officer’s time. One area we saw an opportunity to more effectively leverage our resources was to reduce the inordinate amount of time our department spends responding to false alarm calls.
The perennial problem of false alarms
Most law enforcement agencies receive numerous false alarms over the course of a year. Columbus is no exception; we receive about 22,000 false alarms in a year. Early in my career, I served as a cadet in the radio room. I can still remember the address of a store out on one of our thoroughfares. I can remember it because the store’s alarm would go off four or five times in one night. Repeated false alarm calls like that are still occurring even today. In fact, our dispatchers could tell you whose alarm is going to go off every night and where.
Responding to false alarms can take up a significant amount of time. Two patrol cars and two officers are dispatched to the scene of an alarm call, usually at high speed with their sirens on and lights flashing, because all alarm calls are treated as high priority. When we get the call, we don’t know if it’s a burglary or robbery-in-progress or a false alarm. A conservative estimate of how much time it takes an officer to complete a false alarm call is about thirty minutes, though many take much longer. Multiply 22,000 false alarms calls by thirty minutes, and you have a serious drain on an officers’ time and ultimately, on the department as a whole.
Dangerous ripple effects
The problem of false alarms extends beyond just law enforcement. False alarms also have cascading side effects for fire departments too. Every time the fire department gets an alarm, they roll out one of their trucks with several firefighters and water onboard. Not only are they fuel inefficient, those fire trucks weigh in the tons, so when they’re travelling at high speeds through traffic, it’s hard for them to make a quick stop. Dispatching fire trucks for non-emergencies both poses danger to the public through a heightened risk of a crash and is costly for the city in terms of fuel and wear and tear.
The benefits false alarm management can provide to a community
Adopting false alarm management tools benefits not only first responders and their departments, but also citizens and the community at large. One prime example is if someone needs a police officer at their house for an emergency, but the closest officer may be tied up responding to a burglar alarm triggered by a homeowner’s pet. With false alarm management, officers’ time can be confidently directed toward real emergencies.
False alarm management also benefits local businesses within the community. Part of doing business is that you have to hire employees. A business owner may train new employees about break times, appropriate business attire and when and where to report for work, but they may minimally train them on maintaining the security of the building and its alarm system – it’s lower on their priority list. As a result, the police department gets false alarms from businesses all too often, particularly when businesses are opening up in the morning, and people in the community are headed to work. So in this scenario, police officers are driving a little faster to get to what they think is a burglary or robbery in progress during heavy morning traffic that ultimately turns out to be a false alarm.
The numbers show a stark reality for us. Columbus Police Department responds to on average 60 false alarm calls a day, while the fire department responds to roughly seven in a day. Our 911 center answers about half a million calls in a year, and maybe half are emergencies for which we’d send a car out to respond. There is always risk when a police car or fire truck responds to an emergency. But if it’s an unnecessary risk because we have the tools to mitigate it, in cases of false alarms for example, we will do everything we can to reduce that risk for the safety of our officers and the citizens we serve.
Bio: Assistant Police Chief Gil Slouchick is a 40-year vertean of law enforcement. He began his career with the Columbus Police Department as a Cadet in 1976. He served as the Major of Investigative Services before becoming Assistant Police Chief in 2017.