Pittsfield councilors find 'gray area' in false-alarm enforcement

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PITTSFIELD — When it comes to false alarms, who is to blame? Ward 4 City Council member Chris Connell said it's not so simple.

He said high-functioning alarm systems can yield false alarms, too — detecting things like rodents' movements and fluctuations in air flow — and he's not sure that's something to punish.

"I don't want to penalize the business for having good equipment," he said.

The comments came last week, during a City Council discussion about removing a $25 registration fee for alarm holders, which the councilors ultimately approved. But not before identifying questions they said need answering before the city rolls out a new protocol for false-alarm enforcement.

The initiative involves launching a new alarm-registration process and lodging fines against people with alarms that repeatedly go off without cause. The city's chief information officer, Mike Steben, took up the cause after realizing over the summer that the city loses $160,000 annually to false alarms, between labor costs and uncollected fines.

The city already had legislation on the books that empowered officials to collect fines for false alarms, but it never established a mechanism for collecting them. That's what Steben started working on, and he quickly realized how few residents and business owners register their alarms.

"We really need to know where these alarms are," Steben said, citing the lack of a functional registration process as a public safety concern.

Steben has promised to roll out a free online registration process in the coming months. The existing ordinance allows the city to fine people who don't register, he has said, but the city has no plan to do so.

He said the goal is to document the city's many alarm systems, and spur alarm holders to change the equipment and behaviors that cause false alarms. Call volume stemming from them is "a staggering issue," he said, noting that officers respond to false alarms about six times a day.

But Connell said he is worried that enforcement will hurt businesses that are already struggling.

He said alarms go off all the time for reasons that are beyond a business owner's control.

One freebie a year, Connell said, "I don't think is going to be enough."

Steben agreed that there are many factors that can trigger alarms, and police officers could exercise discretion when coding something as a false alarm.

"We're taking an approach of fairness," Steben said.

Councilors were reluctant to leave protocol up to discretion without any Police Department leaders in the room to speak to how that might work.

"It leaves the door open for a gray area," Connell said.

Councilor At Large Melissa Mazzeo agreed, arguing that there are details to hash out surrounding the new protocol.

"I would prefer to take a little bit more time and get some of these questions answered," she said.

Questions such as, what types of alarms need to be registered? The ordinance didn't seem to say, councilors agreed.

"We need to be clear on that," Councilor At Large Earl Persip said.

Connell said he planned to file a request with council leadership calling for more more discussion of the enforcement initiative.

Steben and other city officials came up with the idea of addressing false-alarm calls during a new leadership academy under Mayor Linda Tyer. Police Chief Michael Wynn heads up the academy, Steben said, and it's intended to help new city leaders identify areas in which the city can be more efficient.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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