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False fire, burglar alarms can result in penalties

Some municipalities frustrated by excessive false fire and burglar alarms report a marked decline in such alarms after enacting ordinances that can lead to fines.

Maintaining false alarms waste time and manpower, area state police also are reinforcing a more than 10-year-old law that targets repeat offenders.

In the last year, state police have cited businesses in Salem and Hempfield in Westmoreland County and in South Union, Stewart and German in Fayette County for violating the section of the state Crimes Code addressing the control of alarm devices.

False alarms in the Greensburg state police coverage area have numbered as high as 500 in a three-month period, said Trooper Steve Limani, public information officer for the barracks.

A fourth false alarm activation in a consecutive 12-month period is a summary offense carrying a maximum fine of $300.

When Stewart tourist attraction Kentuck Knob was cited for a fourth consecutive false alarm in 2010, District Judge Wendy Dennis accepted a guilty plea and levied a $197 fine.

In July, Wayne Homes of Salem paid a $231 fee imposed by District Judge Elise Glenn for an offense.

"When we go to an alarm, we categorize it as a 'fault' or 'no fault,'" Limani said.

Catastrophic weather conditions, power outages or an obvious burglary attempt can result in a "no fault" characterization of an alarm, he said.

In effect since 1998, the law has been enforced more in recent years, Limani said.

"You would be surprised at how many people either do not check with their (security) companies or their companies do not notify them unless there was an actual break-in," Limani said. "Many state resources are used if you take into consideration time driving, checking the establishment, filling out the report, and the added miles and wear and tear on the vehicle. So it is important for individuals that decide to utilize alarms that they keep them in good working order, and have their companies notify them as to the result of any alarm notification.

"And of course, when we are handling the alarm call, that eats into our proactive police time such as looking for DUI drivers, searching for drugs, etc.," Limani said.

In 1992, Pittsburgh City Council mandated residential and commercial burglary and fire alarm system owners obtain annual permits from the Department of Public Safety, with prices ranging from $25 to $100.

According to the Department of Finance's website, residential false alarms can result in fines of $15 (burglary) or $50 (fire). Commercial false alarm fines are $50 (burglar) and $350 (fire).

Permit holders are entitled to four free false alarms per year before fines are applied.

In Penn Township, a 1998 ordinance states that four to 10 false alarms in one year will result in a $50 fine per alarm. For 11 or more, it's $100 per alarm. The ordinance excludes "no fault" alarms.

A "consistent number" of false alarms -- business and residential -- led to the ordinance's creation, township Manager Bruce Light said.

"It's nowhere near, perceptionwise, as bad as it used to be," police Chief John Otto said. "The ordinance is definitely an incentive to get the alarm serviced if they keep having false alarms. In the past, it didn't matter. There was no reason to get an alarm fixed. Now they will call the alarm company and say, 'Fix it.' "

Department administrators could not recall the last time a violator was cited.

Armstrong County's Leechburg Council adopted an ordinance in 2009 fining property owners $300 on the third false fire alarm within a year.

Some businesses' alarms malfunctioned multiple times a month, said Tom Foster, a borough councilman and chief of Leechburg Volunteer Fire Company.

The ordinance is written so that the property owner is cited.

"It is up to them to go after the alarm company (for compensation)," he said.

"Funny thing is, since we enacted the ordinance we have not had to cite anyone," Foster said.

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