Fire monitoring in Illinois trending in industry’s favor

Still, some communities won’t bow to federal court decision saying public fire districts can’t be in alarm monitoring business
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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

DES PLAINES, Ill.—The Lemont Fire Protection District is ending its fire alarm monitoring program, citing a recent federal appeals court decision saying public entities can’t monopolize such monitoring.

Lemont’s decision appears part of a growing trend of fire districts opening up to commercial competition as the result of the July 2013 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, said Kevin Lehan, executive director of the Illinois Electronic Security Association (IESA), based here.

“It does definitely seem to be turning in our favor,” Lehan told Security Systems News. However, he added, some communities still are refusing to bow to the court ruling.

The ruling favored ADT; Alarm Detection Systems (ADS), a fire company based in Aurora, Ill.; and other private alarm companies.

Those companies in 2010 sued the Lisle-Woodridge Fire District, which had passed an ordinance mandating that commercial and multi-residential businesses must contract solely with the district for fire alarm monitoring.

But the Seventh Circuit decision last summer upheld an earlier decision by federal Judge Milton Shadur that said, among other things, that such a governmental monopoly was illegal and that fire districts couldn’t be in the fire alarm monitoring business or charge customers fees for monitoring.

Lemont, which encompasses 40 square miles in Cook, DuPage and Will counties, is among communities that believe the court ruling applies to it. On Jan. 21, George Rimbo, chief for the fire district, sent out a letter to subscribers, saying, “As a result of a federal appeals court decision involving fire protection districts in Illinois, our fire district is discontinuing its participation and ownership in the alarm monitoring business.”

He told subscribers that more details would be forthcoming in the future.

Lemont is not the first district to end its fire monitoring program.

For example, the Pleasantview Fire Protection District and the Darien-Woodridge Fire Protection District last fall passed ordinances allowing commercial fire alarm companies to compete in those markets.

The Algonquin-Lake in the Hills Fire Protection District also has gotten out of the business. In that case, however, the village of Algonquin on Dec. 1 took over the district’s wireless radio network fire alarm system, arguing that because it is a municipality and not a fire district, the court ruling does not apply to it.

ADS about two weeks later filed a federal lawsuit against the district and village, charging them with trying to skirt the law.

Subsequently, in a move that appears positive for the industry, the village has said it will sell the assets it acquired from the fire district.

Lehan believes that is “a step in the right direction” that he hopes will lead to “a privately owned system where the free market can be practiced.”

But Lehan notes that there are still holdouts, among them the Western Will County Communication Center, known as WESCOM.

WESCOM is a PSAP that receives signals from other fire protection districts serving the southwest suburbs of Chicago and contends it is exempt from the court ruling, Lehan said. “This PSAP continues to insist they are capable and fully legal to not only be in the market but to close the market and monopolize it,” he said.

Lehan added, “To us as an industry, we certainly question this. We wonder how communities like Algonquin, like Lemont, Darien-Woodridge, Pleasantview, all these fire protection districts can be reading the same ruling … and read it so differently.”

However, Steve Rauter, executive director of WESCOM, told SSN that the ruling was regarding a fire protection district, which is different from WESCOM.

“The Lisle-Woodridge Fire Protection District case with ADT and ADS does not impact WESCOM. The fact patterns, type of unit of government, and other major facts in the case do not match WESCOM’s operation,” Rauter said in an email interview.