11/09/10 — False alarms costing county

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False alarms costing county

By Steve Herring
Published in News on November 9, 2010 1:46 PM

False alarms, many from the same source, and routine administrative-type calls are tying up the county's 911 emergency resources, creating the potential for tragedy, Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders said.

Unlike the city of Goldsboro, the county does not fine people or companies for multiple false alarms. However, that could change as the county looks for ways to reduce the number of false alarms, County Manager Lee Smith said.

In Goldsboro, the first three false alarms are "free," but a $50 fine is levied for each additional false alarm. The fee increases to $100 after the seventh false alarm.

The county is currently in the process of compiling statistics about the volume of false alarms and administrative calls. The time is overdue to address the problem, Winders said.

"(Answering a false alarm) is very time-consuming," Winders said. "One day a deputy is going to arrive at the scene and go up to the house in a lackadaisical manner, 'This is the same house where it goes off all of the time,' and run into trouble."

In some cases, the alarm indicates that a robbery is in progress. When that happens, deputies could be responding running a blue light and siren that could endanger the officer and the public, Winders said.

Many times the Sheriff's Office does not have a contact name or number to have someone turn off the alarm, he said.

Winders said he would like to see the county require such information.

There are a number of third-party companies the county could use to handle the entire gamut from sending out notices about the false alarms to billing and collecting the fines, he said. The county would receive a percentage of those fines.

Using such a service would free the county from having to log and keep up with the false alarms, he said

"We just don't have the resources to do that or the software to identify the (false) alarms," he said.

Smith said he and Winders will be talking about the issue and that at present he does not have a lot of details.

"We get a lot of false alarm calls that the Sheriff's Office has to go to and Goldsboro, too," Smith said. "We will look at that, too. Wayne County is moving to an urban-type community. More people have fire alarms. More people have security systems.

"When you only have a few deputies countywide patrolling in the evening and you are going on a false alarm, that gets to be a real problem when I have a real emergency somewhere else. The county is going to have to get serious with people who have defective security or fire alarm systems that they need to get fixed."

Smith said the county has looked at some businesses and individual alarms that are generating several false alarm calls a week.

"It costs to a put a person in a car, to drive that car ... it costs money," Smith said. "It ties a telecommunicator up, getting in touch with the person (to turn off the alarm) and it takes time away from a real emergency. We have got to clean that up. I think the sheriff is right that we have got to do that."

The county also receives lot of administrative calls in the 911 center -- something Smith said he is concerned about as well.

"We get after-hour calls for many municipalities and for a lot of county services that my 911 operators are having to answer," Smith said. "(911) is for emergency calls only. There are seven-digit (local government) numbers that people call that people switch when they leave (work) that go over there (911 center). We have got to figure out a way to change that.

"We are investigating the possibility of not a 511, but maybe a 311 system that is local where people could call and maybe there is a person there 24 hours a day for general information. It may be, 'My water has been cut off. What do I do?' We get a lot of 'My water is cut off and it is an emergency,' and it may or might not be. How do we handle those calls?"

Smith said that he plans to talk with town officials about the issue and what can be done about getting those calls out of the 911 center.

There is one 911 position that is predominately administrative, Smith said. Those calls might be diverted to that person, who would have a database where a police department could be paged for a non-emergency call, as well as other agencies such as animal control.

"I think there is a way to do that inexpensively and I want to investigate that with the cities," he said.

Smith said he would like to look at having the municipalities participate financially as well.

"As we were stepping up our (new emergency) radio system, this came about," he said. "I did not realize it was so prevalent as it was in 911. It is taking up a pretty good percentage (of time). A lot of our calls on evenings and weekends are strictly administrative. We have absolutely seen our people on an administrative call where they could not answer emergency calls in the timely fashion they are supposed to. We have been fortunate that no one has been hurt or injured, but it could have been bad. We have got to fix that."

The issue and how to address it will be part of the budget process for the spring, he said.

"You have to remember a lot of these small municipalities, some police departments, even the Sheriff's Office are limited in the evening and (the call) goes to 911," he said. "People need to know there is a number to call. Make it universal, make it easy. We have a lot of people who move in and out of Wayne County every day. Let's find a way that there are not a thousand numbers that you have to call. One number, for the most part, and these are after hours mostly."

Some of the county's outgoing calls are being handled by Code Red, the company the county has contracted with for public emergency notifications, he said.

Smith said the county is considering whether it wants to continue Code Red and is looking at other companies and whether there is a way to be more cost effective.

"It has worked great and we have gotten a lot of compliments on (Code Red)," he said. "We are also wanting to look at the possibility of using our Code Red system a little differently. We used it for the flu clinic (announcement), but we have to pay for the minutes that we use so it can get really expensive."

Smith is concerned that sending out too many announcements, including those for board and other meetings, may result in people ignoring them.

"I don't want them to lose track when there is a tornado warning," he said.