As an increasing number of homeowners and renters turn to home security systems, the high number of false alarms and unnecessary law enforcement responses remains a huge problem - a problem caused largely by user error.

The International Association of Police Chiefs says at least 7 percent of U.S. homes and 40 percent of businesses have alarm systems. Some estimates say there are at least 23 million installed systems. So, if each generates just one false call a year, that's up to 23 million unnecessary police runs.

"In some regions, alarm calls account for 10 percent to 30 percent of all calls for police services," the IACP says. "Unchecked, the problem will snowball along with the steadily increasing number of alarm system installations. Populous cities already typically experience tens of thousands of false alarm calls annually; the largest cities dispatch police to hundreds of thousands of false alarms each year."

False alarms cost the Oxnard, California, Police Department some $424,000 in 1998. The department has since implemented a false alarm program that imposes fines on those who repeatedly trigger a false alarm.

The three main causes of false alarms are technological, installation, and user errors. Technological errors are decreasing as systems become more advanced. The National Burglar and Fire Alarm Association says that 76 percent of false alarms are caused by user error.

False alarms take law enforcement officers away from real emergencies. If you have too many, your neighbors will eventually ignore the alarm, and if you accidentally set your alarm off, you might be reluctant to use the system in the future, which would expose your home to undetected theft or fire.

Of the 50 states, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and the District of Columbia have laws on the books regulating false alarms. In addition, many local jurisdictions have their own ordinances. Most impose a graduated fee system after repeated false alarms.

The alarm association offers a series of tips for homeowners to reduce the chance of unintentionally setting your alarm. They include:

  • Purchase a system from a licensed alarm dealer.
  • Ask for thorough training so you're comfortable using your system.
  • Keep operating directions handy.
  • Be sure every family member - and anyone else who enters your home - knows how to use the system.
  • Know how much time you have to arm and disarm the system.
  • Service and maintain your system regularly.
  • Close and lock all protected doors and windows before you leave the house.
  • Keep pets, fans, heaters, and anything else away from motion sensors.
  • Contact your alarm company if you are planning any home improvements.
  • Contact your company if you have any changes in your phone service (call waiting, fax line, DSL) or if you get a new area code.
  • Let your company know if you get a new pet.
  • Make sure everyone in the household practices the process to cancel an accidental alarm.

    If the shrill of a false alarm does ring out, don't panic. Enter your disarm code to reset your alarm. If you accidentally set it off, don't leave until you're sure your system is reset or your central station calls you and gives you a pass or ID code - this code is different than your disarming code. And - most importantly - if you don't understand something, ask your dealer.

    If your house is on the market and you have an alarm system, it's very important that you leave detailed instructions with your agent so potential buyers and agents don't unnecessarily set the alarm off. Once your house is sold, you'll want to provide the buyers will all the information you have on the alarm system. Likewise, if you buy a house with an alarm system, find out all you can about it prior to moving in.

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