In its fast-moving war with security companies over false alarms, Sandy Springs is proposing more tactical changes, including reducing fines and shifting automated alarm calls from the 911 center to the city’s non-emergency Call Center.

In what has become a regular feature of City Council meetings, Police Chief Ken DeSimone  on April 17 gave new false-alarm stats and suggested more changes to a new city ordinance that puts alarm companies, rather than customers, on the hook for false alarms. In part, the chief’s reports are a way for the city to fire back on public relations statements in a controversy that is now in federal court – an industry coalition and two Georgia companies are suing the city — as well as signaling some apparently strategic legal changes in response to that battle.

Sandy Springs Police Chief Ken DeSimone.

The possible lowering of fines is one move with possible legal implications, as the hundreds of thousands of dollars the city has already levied from security companies is a major issue in the lawsuit, which claims the city’s real motive is filling its bank account. DeSimone said the city is considering the fine reduction “because we’re really not all about the money,” but rather public safety.

However, the underlying goal remains the same: Slashing a reported 11,000 false alarms a year – a nearly 100 percent false rate —  by forcing companies to adopt modern alarm-system technologies of audio or video verification that a burglar is inside a property, or at least hire a private security force to check it out first. DeSimone repeated that call at the April 17 council meeting, suggesting giving companies a year to upgrade the systems.

“A lot of these companies are basically eight-track tape-players,” DeSimone said, referring to an outdated music album medium.

Industry officials are ringing their own alarms over the Sandy Springs ordinance, which they clearly see as a national bellwether of sorts, resulting in the lawsuit, which claims the city’s moves are unconstitutional violations of due process. Stan Martin, executive director of the Security Industry Alarm Coalition, which is helping to fund the lawsuit, previously said in an interview that the type of systems DeSimone refers to are expensive, costing thousands of dollars. Martin said that some residents of “progressive” and “high-end” Sandy Springs might be able to afford such systems, but not everyone there or elsewhere can.

City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio raised a similar point to DeSimone, asking how smaller alarm companies can be expected to pay for a private security guard force, then speculating they could band together to mutually hire one.

“They banded together to sue the city of Sandy Springs,” replied DeSimone, “so I guess they can band together to do [hiring of a private security force].”

The latest false-alarm numbers

In a similar report at the prior council meeting on April 3, DeSimone dropped the bomb that, in response to unpaid fines under the new ordinance, police would no longer respond to automated intruder alarms from any customer of 39 publicly named companies. Fire alarms, panic buttons and direct phone calls to 911 would still receive a response.

That move sparked public anger and confusion – some directed at the city, some at the alarm companies – yet was not discussed by officials at the most recent council meeting. However, regularly updated statistics on the city’s website indicate the tactic worked: As of April 17, only five companies remained on the no-response list for unpaid fines. However, in another example of the move’s confusion, the website also says that seven other companies previously named as among the 39 having their responses cut off were in fact never registered with the city and thus were never eligible to receive response in the first place.

One number DeSimone did provide at the council meeting was about specific properties that also got placed on a no-response list for having four or more false alarms – the problem-customer-focused approach the industry prefers. The tally is 39 commercial properties and seven residential properties, none of which were specified by address.

However, DeSimone said that 60 percent of the fines the city levied were not directly related to alarms being falsely triggered; rather, they were for administrative issues such as not registering. DeSimone also mentioned anecdotes of companies improperly passing along fines to their customers’ bills, with City Councilmembers DeJulio and John Paulson saying their companies had sent them bills relating to city fees. But City Manager John McDonough cautioned that such reports needed to be verified and the facts sorted out about whether companies were doing anything improper in passing along costs to customers.

Most alarms remain false, DeSimone said. For the week ending April 7, he reported, there were 183 burglar alarm calls, of which only one was verified as real, at a shop on Roswell Road. Police response took 74 minutes, he said, partly because the alarm company call center provided an incorrect address.

While the main war is about burglar alarms, the city is concerned with false fire alarms, too. For the same week, DeSimone said, there were 26 fire alarms, of which only one was a real incident – and that turned out to be burnt popcorn in a microwave oven. Despite such rates, the city has not done any no-response on fire alarms.

A related concern is that false alarms tie up ChatComm, the private 911 service that Sandy Springs and neighboring cities operate. In 2014 through 2017, DeSimone said, an average of 17 percent of 911 calls was from alarm companies.

In an apparent response to industry claims that Sandy Springs’ ordinance is unique, DeSimone offered a long list of other U.S. cities – including Seattle, Detroit, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Milkwaukee — that he said have even stiffer false-alarm laws. Martin, the security company industry official, previously said that Seattle’s ordinance is less harsh than Sandy Springs’ version.

Toughening the ordinance

The city clearly intends to make its ordinance tougher and essentially force companies to adopt those audio, video or security-guard verification systems.

Another major change in the works is shifting automated burglar-alarm calls from 911 to the city Call Center, a general information and complaint line. Call Center employees would vet the alarm company calls for required registration and verification standards, then pass the call along to 911 if it sounded like a verified alarm. Panic buttons and fire alarms would still contact 911 directly. To give an incentive for alarm companies to direct burglar alarm calls to the Call Center, the city would immunize those doing so from fines for lack of registration or not following a state-required verification system.

McDonough said the city is already studying Call Center staffing and software issues and expected to bring a proposal for the new system to the council in one to two months. Sharon Kraun, the city’s communications director, said the Call Center already has experience in handling emergency calls in such situations as fallen trees.

Paulson asked whether using the Call Center as an additional step in the verification process could significantly delay police response times. “No, not at all, none,” said DeSimone.

Then there is the proposed fine reduction, which DeSimone explained solely as a gesture to show the city is not greedy. The current fine schedule is: $25 for a first offense; $250 for the second and third; and $500 for subsequent false alarms. The proposed new schedule is $25 for the first, $150 for the second, and $250 for the third. On the other hand, it would also increase the speed with which a property goes on a no-response list for 12 months. Currently, that happens when there are four false alarms within a two-year period; the new proposal is three false alarms within a one-year period.

Another proposal that relates to the lawsuit’s complaints: Extending the appeals period from 10 to 30 days. A previous industry press release infuriated the city by likening the police-run appeals process to “The Andy Griffith Show,” whose titular small-town sheriff would sometimes comically double as a justice of the peace to rule on his own decisions. Sandy Springs Police Capt. Dan Nabel, who indicated he handles the appeals, said a significant amount are granted and acknowledged cases where “we sent out a fine when we shouldn’t have.” But other fines have been well-deserved, he said.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.