BALTIMORE -- The number of false alarms from security systems in the county has decreased significantly since police mounted a reduction effort - except at schools and other government-run buildings.
A recent audit of the Police Department's False Alarm Reduction Program showed that more than 50 alarm sites accounted for more than 25 percent of all false alarms - and half of those are government buildings.
The "top offending" sites, in fact, are operated by county government agencies or the school system, according to the audit.
What's more, the report shows that efforts to reduce false alarms at those sites haven't worked, mainly because the government is not required to provide emergency contact information for each site, as commercial and residential alarm system-owners are.
"A lot of things go off because of people not really understanding the system," said Howard County Police Chief William McMahon.
Last year, there were 746 false alarms at 130 government or school locations, according to the police.
Despite the recurring problem at some sites, the auditors found overall that the program has "undoubtedly been instrumental in reducing the number of false alarms."
For commercial and residential sites, the number of false alarms has decreased 30 percent since the program began.
Last year, there were about 12,000 commercial and residential false alarms, according to the police.
One reason for the disparity might be that county-run buildings aren't required to register their alarm systems, as businesses and homeowners are. They also don't have to pay the fines that go along with false alarms in private buildings.
In July 2000, the county passed legislation approving the False Alarm Reduction Program. The law requires that business and residential alarm-users register their systems with the county police - a charge of $25. The more times that police respond to false alarms at a location, the more the user has to pay in fines.
Those who operate unregistered alarms must pay a $200 fine each time police respond to the alarm site.
Police began enforcing the law April 1, 2004, for businesses, and a year later for residences.
"A large percentage of calls that we go on are false alarms," McMahon said. "Most of those calls require, at a minimum, two officers. There's a tremendous amount of resources that go into a response to an alarm, when 98 percent of them or better end up being false."
A false alarm is defined by three elements: The alarm activation results in a request for police dispatch, the request is not canceled before police arrive and there is no evidence of criminal activity.
The first two false alarms within 12 months lead to warning letters. On the third incident, a $50 fine is imposed, or violators can have the fee waived by completing an online educational packet. The fourth offense leads to a $100 fine, and each subsequent offense brings fines in increasing $50 increments. The penalty after 15 or more violations is $1,000.
For every five false alarms, police require an inspection and certification by a qualified alarm company.
The county's chief administrative officer, Lonnie Robbins, said the county will implement all the recommendations in the audit, which include creating a form that the "exempt" alarm operators can use to list emergency contact information, and having a formal registration campaign for all government-operated alarms.
"It's all revolved around having better education," Robbins said. "Some also involve system issues, so we're looking into that as well."
Larry O'Neill, supervisor of the electronics department for building services for the school system, said that user error and accidental trip-offs are among the reasons that there are so many false alarms at the schools. He added, however, that the school system is working to reduce the number.
"We're constantly having meetings and coordinating with the Howard County Police Department," O'Neill said. "Principals in the school - we involve them, and they talk to their staff."
For the past couple of years, school alarms have been serviced yearly to help with the problem, O'Neill said.
"We've made a lot of improvements on that, in terms of maintenance and scheduling," he said.
Police Department recommendations included creating a registration form specifically for county buildings and schools that lists three people who would respond if an alarm goes off; designating a person to receive false-alarm notices; and breaking down how much the fines would have cost if the buildings weren't exempt.
The department also suggested tracking which agencies and schools are actively working to reduce false alarms.