Just about everyone has heard one at some point: the midnight blaring of a neighbor's house alarm, tripped by the wind or the cat or some other specter. If it's like 99 percent of all house alarms, it was not triggered by an attempted break-in.
According to the most recent figures available, the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office has responded to more than 66,000 house alarms between 1996 and 2002. One percent turned out to be legitimate. In 2002 alone, alarms required 5,795.15 hours of deputy and dispatcher time and added up to a cost of $138,933 to the county.
Now, the Sheriff's Office plans to do something about it.
An ordinance with a system of fines for repeat offenders may go into effect early next year, after a public hearing scheduled for Nov. 9 with supervisor approval to follow.
Major Scott Waddell, who helped craft the draft ordinance, cited three reasons to enforce false alarms offenders: the safety of officers, the waste of resources and the burden on taxpayers. While the last two might seem obvious, it was the first Ñ Waddell's assertion that officers repeatedly called to the same false alarm location become "complacent" and "might not be on as alert as they should be" Ñ that most distresses Supervisor Jim Clem (R-Leesburg).
"The thing that worries me the most is the complacency," said Clem, who serves as the board's Public Safety Committee chairman. "I think all of us would fall into that category if you came back to a business every time, and that's where someone gets hurt."
A TWO-PERSON False Alarm Reduction Unit will aid the Sheriff's Office in reducing repeat offenders.
"It's a small percent of the people who have alarms who are repeat offenders," said Waddell. In 2002, for example, 2,031 of the false alarms originated from only 97 different addresses.
The biggest offenders? Public schools.
Park View High School topped the list with 453 alarms between 1996 and 2002, making for an average of one false alarm every five days. Stone Bridge High School and Seldens Landing Elementary School also made the list for top 10 repeat offenders for 2002.
Since the study, Waddell said, the schools have made a concerted effort to cut down on alarms.
"We have been working with the school board to come up with other solutions to solve this problem," Waddell said. But, he added, the situation begged the question for the potential fines with the new ordinance Ñ does the Sheriff's Office fine the county the same way it would fine residents and businesses?
The supervisors in attendance for Waddell's presentation concurred on the answer.
"Everyone should be on the same playing field," Clem said.
"We need to get their attention," said Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Blue Ridge).
"Well, fining them will," said Supervisor Sally Kurtz (D-Catoctin).
The new false alarm ordinance would allow for a fine of $50 for the third offense, increasing with each offense before topping out at $1,000 for any offense after the 15th. It will be the subject of a public hearing on Nov. 9. If accepted by the Board of Supervisors in December, the ordinance will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2005.