By C. Julia Nelson

Home security systems provide a sense of security for residents, but for emergency responders who repeatedly answer false alarm calls, it’s a costly headache.

The city’s cost in dollars and manpower for answering alarm “wolf cries” is monumental and Sandy Springs is investigating ways to minimize the expense, including a proposed new city ordinance.

On average, the city fields about 900 false alarms per month, according to Major David Bertrand. Last year out of 10,790 alarm calls only 82 were valid alarms. According to the Bertrand’s calculations, false alarms account for 15 percent of monthly call volume and waste 5,395 man hours annually.

“That would require three full time officers 24-7 year round,” he said. “We’re looking at about $135,000 in salary, plus gas, not including back up officers and wear and tear on the vehicles. It’s a waste of man power; it needs to be addressed.”

Currently, the city operates under an ordinance adopted from Fulton County, which the Sandy Springs Police Department has deemed inadequate. Currently, only commercial alarms, not residential, must be registered with the city.

Looking for a solution, Major Bertrand presented council with an ordinance developed as a recommendation by the National Association of Chiefs of Police as a way for cities to address the problem during its Feb 12 work session. This ordinance would require all alarms to be registered with the city for a nominal fee with annual registration renewal.

Additionally, after 10 false alarms to the same address, police response would be dependent on either a confirming 911 call or call from the alarm company confirming an emergency. Eventually all alarms would be required to have a standard control panel that reduces false alarms and discontinues alarms after 10 minutes. Failure to comply would result in civil fines.

“We’re looking for compliance and the fines are very liberal,” Major Bertrand said. “This will probably be labor intensive initially.”

He said often the problem is residents don’t supply alarm companies with up to date contact information.

Sandy Springs Fire Rescue Chief Jack McElfish echoed Major Bertrand’s sentiments and said it would be helpful if the homeowners would contact the department to notify them of false alarms.

“A phone call could prevent a trip out to a false alarm,” McElfish said.

Council members questioned the enforceability of such an ordinance as well as the registration fees associated with it.

While council member Doug MacGinnitie expressed opposition to charging registration fees, council member Tibby DeJulio said he favored charging home owners for false alarms.

“I have no problem charging people for false alarm,” he said.

Council requested Major Bertrand to investigate how neighboring law enforcement agencies address the problem before a decision would be made relative to adopting a new ordinance.

In other business, council recommended to staff that a request for information (RFI) be submitted publicly for the development of a municipal complex. The RFI will have a 120-day timeline.

City manager John McDonough said the intention is to find a redevelopment opportunity where city hall might serve as an anchor for a larger development project, also inclusive of a court and police headquarters.

“Our intention is to have information back for council to discuss before the (fiscal year 2009) budget work session in June,” McDonough said.

Council members offered differing opinions as to the ideal type of development for the city’s needs. Council member Karen Meinzen McEnerny expressed interest in a stand-alone building whereas council member Ashley Jenkins referenced the Smyna complex as being an ideal development to mimic with city hall as part of a larger complex.

“This is going to be a very important, long-term decision for the city,” Meinzen McEnerny said. “Requiring city hall (to) be a part of a complex limits the choices for our long-term city hall.”

Council member Rusty Paul said a complex would be more cost effective.

“(A complex) will prevent us from (using) taxpayer dollars to fund this thing up front,” he said. “It’s a more appropriate use of the resources. We’re saving money, getting more bang for our buck and doing something that everyone wants to see: a revitalization of the core part of the city of Sandy Springs.”

Council voted 5-1, with Meinzen McEnerny providing the dissenting vote, to recommend staff move forward with the RFI.