Mice and men: False alarms and blame in rural Maine

Sheriff’s office targets alarm companies over false dispatches
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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

PARIS, Maine—A sheriff’s office frustrated by the cost of responding to false alarms is taking a tougher line with alarm companies. But the companies say they are being unfairly singled out for a problem that is typically the fault of residents—human or otherwise—at rural Maine addresses.

The policy, including a $150 charge for the alarm company after the third false alarm at a residence or business, was detailed in a letter sent last fall by Chief Deputy Dane Tripp to the 12 alarm firms that conduct business in Oxford County. The letter also stated that the sheriff’s office would not respond to an intrusion alarm unless there was a caretaker at the property.

Tripp said the sheriff’s office responded to 327 burglar alarms last year, of which only three were break-ins, at cost of roughly $20,000. The rest of the calls were attributed to alarm error, user error, or animals and insects setting off motion detectors, often at seasonal properties.

“We’ve had mice, moths, something falls in the house, it goes on and on,” Tripp told Security Systems News. “With a vacant property you have mice running all around the place, and they’ll set them off. … Sometimes (police) have to travel 40 or 50 miles, at a speed greater than what they should be going, because they think the real deal is going on.”

Tripp said the alarm companies aren’t properly verifying alarms, and when the companies do call police, they often can’t provide correct directions or the description of a home.

“I had one about three months ago, the alarm company called and said we have an alarm going off in Newry,” he said. “My dispatcher said, ‘Do you have a caretaker en route?’ And they said, ‘No, we don’t send them until a half-hour after the alarm goes in.’”

Rich Brobst Jr., president of the Maine Burglar and Fire Alarm Association, took issue with Tripp’s statement about the half-hour delay, saying “if that happened, we would all be beating up our central stations.” Brobst also said the policy implemented by the sheriff’s office was missing its mark.

“What I get frustrated with is the blanket approach, throwing everybody into the same box,” Brobst said. “(Tripp) knows it’s the end users who are causing the problems, but instead of going after the end users he’s going to go after the alarm companies because he says they make so much money on the customers.”

Paul Dunham of Seacoast Security, which is based in West Rockport and does business in Oxford County, said blaming the alarm companies isn’t the way to reduce the number of false alarms.

“A lot of times it requires a little more education for the customer or a little more responsibility put on the customer,” he said. “We verify our alarms, which is a pretty common practice. We call the premises to try to verify.”

Tripp said he “put out a notice” to alarm companies two years ago that detailed the policy, but added that no fees actually have been collected. He said continuing frustration with false alarms led the sheriff’s office to reassess enforcement and issue the letter.

“Like I’ve told every one of the alarm companies I’ve talked to over the years, you guys are the ones getting the money, we’re the ones providing the service for you,” Tripp said. “We have no real incentive to answer all these alarms.”