By Chris Frost
Oxnard-- The Oxnard City Council’s Public Safety Committee examined the false alarm reduction report, March 12, as the Oxnard Police Department sought feedback on the effort.
A false alarm is a call that demonstrates no evidence that requires police and fire response.
Assistant Chief Jason Benites said the goal of the program is to reduce the number of false alarms in Oxnard.
“When I came to the City Council meeting in Dec., when we introduced the new alarm ordinance, we mentioned there is a public safety problem,” he said. “We wanted to reduce the number of false alarm responses in the city, which contributed to that, and we introduced the new ordinance. The council adopted it and went into effect on Feb. 7, this year.”
The ordinance promotes alarm user responsibility and accountability, he said, and the department introduced a new billing and collection process that will go live soon.
In 2017, the Oxnard Police Department responded to 4,555 alarm calls, and 97.23 percent were false alarms. In 2018, the department responded to 4,789 alarms, and 99.3 percent were false alarms.
“Each of those calls takes about 16.5 minutes of officer time on the average, and there are usually two officers who go to that call,” he said. “That’s a substantial investment in staff time, as well as a dollar value to a call that turns out to be 99 percent false.”
The department needs to change that number, Benites said, because it competes with other calls for service.
“Some of the common causes we see are malfunctioning alarm systems, he said. “The owner or real estate agent goes to an alarm location, and they don’t know the combination, or they punch in the wrong code, and it triggers the alarm. That’s one of the biggest causes we have, particularly in the commercial alarms. We see that in the call types at the beginning and end of the business day.”
Many times, he said people leave windows open or ajar and other times, animals running around on the premises can set off motion sensors or mail going through a drop slot can set off an alarm if the sensors are not calibrated correctly.
“Power outages with an improper battery backup system, or overly sensitive systems that respond to everything, like someone walking by, or getting too close to a door or window,” he said.
The alarm ordinance puts the responsibility on the owner of the unit, he said, with the goal of making sure it operates properly.
“We re-defined what constitutes an excessive false alarm and imposed some new fees and penalties that commensurate with the new ordinance,” he said.
Benites defined enhanced call confirmation as a contemporary practice, and previously, when an alarm site created an activation signal, the monitoring company would pick up the phone and call the police.
“What we require now is the alarm company attempt to dial two pre-designated numbers to the alarm client,” he said. “Those are numbers of their choice, and the purpose of that is before they call police dispatch, they need to call these two numbers."
The National Monitoring Center determined that it reduced the false alarm rates up to 70 percent, he said, and that simple practice can have a significant impact on the number of calls.
“When an alarm company now calls a dispatch center, the dispatchers will ask for the numbers called by the company,” he said. “We’ll verify that, and it helps us keep a good record of who to contact.”
The department established a $25 annual permit fee based on a study of other California cities, and it falls within the average.
“In the previous ordinance, an alarm user can have two false alarm events at their site within a 12-month period, and after that, it triggered a $290 penalty,” Benites said. “What we did with the new alarm ordinance, we reduced the fine from $290 to $145, and we also reduced the number of freebies an alarm owner gets from two to one over a 12-month period.”
Excessive, or chronic alarm sites that don’t correct themselves, he said, can result in permit revocation or suspension.
“The alarm client must now respond to a site if it can’t be secured,” he said. “If we come across an open door, window or we can’t secure the business; once the responsible party receives a call, they need to be prompt and get to the scene,” he said.
If someone operates without an alarm permit, the Oxnard Police Department will issue a citation, but that is correctable if someone applies for renewal within 60 days of the expiration date.
“We are leaving written notice now whenever we respond to an alarm site or get an alarm call,” he said. “An officer will fill this (a written notice) out, and we will leave a copy at the site for the alarm client to see when they arrive, and if there is someone at the scene, they will be given that copy.”
The department is working on an online permit management system to manage the incoming alarm applications and keep people compliant.
“They’ll be much better about sending the reminder notices,” he said. “For example, we were going through our files last week, and we found over 2,000 expired permits. With a new system like this, we should be able to keep on top of these.”
Alarm users can create their account online, he said, as well as manage their account with fees, fines or penalties.
The Oxnard Police Department plans an extensive community outreach across many social media outlets, including /nextdoor.com and the city’s website, he said, along with notices in utility bills and a video in April.
In committee member comments, Mayor Pro Tem Carmen Ramirez asked what valid calls the department receives, and Benites said 2,790 calls were commercial burglar alarm calls.
“The other 1,700 were residential calls,” he said. “The types of calls in the commercial category were silent holdup alarms, and some of the other alarm types include panic alarms, we get a small number of those, every year, as well as a duress alarm, which is less common, but they require the operator to punch in a certain code. If that code is not punched in properly, it sends out a signal to the alarm company.”
Committee Chairman Bryan MacDonald said it saddens him to find out the police has to tell the alarm company to call the client.
“My company calls me before they do anything, and typically I’ll tell them not to dispatch the police department because I know what’s going on,” he said.
The go-live target date for the new system is April 1, 2019, he said, and the department encourages alarm owners to register their alarms at www.oxnardpd.org/alarm-permits/.