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Chapel Hill plan to fine residents for accidental alarms raises concerns

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Chapel Hill will begin a new program on Jan. 1 in an effort to decrease the number of accidental alarms and to help manage the town's safety resources more wisely, but it's a plan that has raised some concerns in the community.

"About 95 percent of those alarms are false alarms," said Lt. Joshua Mecimore of the Chapel Hill Police.

An accidental alarm is any signal that solicits a response from the police or fire department to which the responding units find no evidence of fire, medical emergency, unauthorized intrusion, robbery or crime.

Chapel Hill resident Quing Yao said setting off the alarm accidentally has happened to her "a few times."

"And each time, we learned a lesson and tried not to let that happen and it hasn't happened really for a long time," Yao said.

Everyone inside town limits who has an operating alarm system in their home or business will be required to register their system in the Chapel Hill Accidental Alarm Program and obtain a permit. People will be able to register their system by phone or paper application.

"The registration is there so we know how many alarms there are, where they are and so that we hopefully have better contact information for the folks responsible for those alarm systems," Mecimore said.

Registrations are not being accepted at this time.

And Yao raised a concern about registering alarms.

"I still feel like that wouldn't be comfortable for us to report to the government whether we have an alarm system or not and also contact numbers and stuff like that," Yao said. "I feel like that's an intrusion into privacy."

In 2012, the Chapel Hill Police Department responded to 3,630 alarm calls at a cost of $75,213. In that same year, the fire department responded to 1,250 alarm activations at a cost of $122,400. Schools and business have the most false alarms.

"The hope is that if we can lower the number of false alarm responses, then we can increase response times to other calls," Mecimore said.

On Oct. 28, town council enacted an ordinance to regulate and manage alarm systems to improve public safety and to manage the town's public safety resources wisely.

Under the new requirements, if you have four or five accidental alarms in a year's time, you face a $100 fine for each one. The cost goes up if you have more accidental alarms. If you have 10 or more, the cost is $500 each.

Anyone operating an alarm system in Chapel Hill will need to obtain a permit within 10 business days of operating new alarm equipment or within 10 business days of the Jan. 1 deadline. Failure to register will result in a $100 penalty.

For more information about the program, you can visit the Town of Chapel Hill's website.

Applications are not currently being accepted because the website will not be launched until mid-January.  Some false alarms  during that time will not count against the home owner, including alarms that go off as a result of a power outage.

Other cities have started similar programs. Greenville, for example, said it had 30,000 false alarms over five years before a new ordinance in 2007. The city, on its website, said there were only 2,675 false alarms in 2012. Greenville citizens are fined $25 for the third and fourth false alarms, and the fines climb to $100 by the seventh false alarm.

WNCN reporter Justin Quesinberry contributed to this report.

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