An ‘alarming’ problem: Bogus calls for help endanger public, cost millions

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by Scott Noll / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on May 17, 2012 at 9:59 PM

Updated Tuesday, Oct 2 at 5:38 PM

HOUSTON – Burglar and hold-up alarms happen hundreds of times a day in the Houston area, but the KHOU 11 News I-Team has found an overwhelming number of those calls are false. 

Worse, the problem is costing taxpayers millions each year, and threatening your safety.

City records show police responded to 48 false alarms at a Foodarama in 2011.

“I was under stress a lot of times because this was once again, once again, they’re coming in,” admitted Ricardo Selva, Manager of the Foodarama store on Antoine.  Selva was talking about the steady stream of police officers that came through his doors.

“Some days two, or three, times a day,” he recalled. “Yeah, that was, basically, that was a lot.”

A lot, but it’s a problem that’s much larger than Foodarama, which had the most bogus calls in the city in 2011 according to police.

False alarms are sounding all over Houston every day of the year.
 “Officers should be freed up to run calls that are real,” said Sgt. Anthony Davis, who in charge of the Houston Police Department’s Alarm Enforcement Detail.

 According to HPD figures, in 2011 officers responded to more than 71,000 false burglar and hold-up alarms.

That represented 97 percent of all alarm calls in the city last year.

 It comes at a price. HPD said, on average, two police officers respond to each call.  It typically takes about 22 minutes to handle each of those 71,000 false alarms.  That’s the equivalent of taking five officers off the street every minute of every day for an entire year.

“It does take away from officers’ time they could be using in real-life calls,” said Sgt. Davis.

It also costs taxpayers.  Davis estimated false alarms cost the department about $9.3 million in manpower.

The city recouped more than $2 million last year through fines paid by alarm owners with repeated false calls. 

Despite the penalties, the problem continues. Already this year, police responded to 25 false alarms at Sunrise Grocery on Sherwood Forest Street. That’s more than any other home or business so far this year, according to police records.

A worker inside told the KHOU 11 News I-Team that he didn’t know anything about the calls, and said he wasn’t sure when his manager would be at the store.

Back at Foodarama, Selva blamed his problems on a pharmacy that rented space in his store. He said the company never opened its doors, but did install an alarm system.

A spokesman for Foodarama said the grocer tried, but was unable to get the pharmacy’s alarm disconnected after it learned of the problem.

“There was a motion alarm in there,” explained Selva. “But nobody goes in there to do anything. The alarm kept going off”

Debi Ulmer, President of the Houston Gulf Coast Alarm Association blames much of Houston’s problems on users not understanding how to operate alarms.

“It’s 10 percent of the alarm owners that are causing 90 percent of the problems,” explained Ulmer.

But, police say, they are problems we all pay for.

“These calls have to be responded to at some point,” said Sgt. Davis.

HPD figures the number of false alarms has dropped about 20 percent in the last four years.  However, the percentage of alarms that are bogus has remained 96 percent or higher.

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