Crime sparks 'alarming' trend

"In Island County, police officers and sheriff's deputies agree that burglar alarms are good at doing two things -- preventing break-ins and sounding false alarms.Though local law enforcement agencies agree that alarm systems are useful, it is a fact that the vast majority of alarm calls in Island County are false. Whether due to operator error, power outages, or a pet running in front of a motion detector, false alarms draw law enforcement officers every time they ring out. And, because alarm systems now cost as little as $1,000 to install, they are common in both neighborhoods and on Main Street.There is no way around the false alarms, say Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley and Langley Police Chief Bob Herzberg. But both agree home and business alarms make their jobs easier, not more difficult, especially with so many Island County homes in remote areas.I believe they're very helpful, especially since most of our homes are in secluded areas, Hawley said. In 1999, the Island County Sheriff's Office responded to 1,000 home and business alarms. Because the audible alarms often frighten burglars away from a home or business before they disturb the premises, Hawley said it is difficult to tell how many of those alarms were false and how many were legitimate.Alarms scare way burglarsWhat he does know is that none of the 368 successful burglaries that occurred in Island County last year happened at a home or business that had an alarm.I can't recall a house that has been entered or disturbed in the last decade that had an alarm, Hawley said.Juveniles are responsible for a substantial number of break-ins and attempted break-ins in Island County, Hawley said, and are particularly easy to scare off with an alarm. The alarm industry is happy to pat itself on the back over statistics like those in Island County. Linda Green, vice president of Oak Harbor's Evergreen Security, said none of her company's customers have lost property during the past two decades when protected by an Evergreen alarm system.In 20 years, we know people who have our alarm systems don't lose anything, Green said. He company recently won the contract to install an alarm system on the caretaker's house at Possession Point Waterfront Park, owned by the Port of South Whidbey. An intruder scare prompted the port commissioners to make the purchase.Robert Harkins, a sales manager for D-TECH, a Bellingham alarm and monitoring company, said the now-widespread use of burglar alarms has brought nationwide home and business break-in levels down significantly. Alarms have become increasingly necessary in bedroom communities, such as those on South Whidbey, where people leave their homes and neighborhoods empty during the day. Basically, when somebody's gone, everyone is, Harkins said.Langley Police Chief Bob Herzberg echoed Sheriff Hawley's support of alarm systems. Although his officers also respond to many false alarms, the department has seen enough cases in which alarms have scared burglars away from a crime to know they do work. Look for the right systemBut for any burglar alarm to prevent and stop crime, it must be the right one. A home or business owner who has an alarm that only rings silently to a monitoring company or that only rings audibly with no monitor backing it up is still vulnerable. A monitored system will bring law enforcement running, Herzberg said, and the addition of an audible alarm will often scare a burglar away in the minutes it takes for an officer to get to a home or business.I can't encourage people enough to take the time to work with their alarm companies to install them right, he said.The industry is willing to take a share of the blame for the hundreds of false alarms that occur each year in Island County. Green said the industry is doing what it can to reduce the number of false alarms by introducing smarter technology. Battery backups prevent the alarms from going off in power outages, while radar-based sensors can distinguish between the body mass of a human and a pet dog wandering through a home. But no matter how good the technology gets, Green said, there will always be more false alarms than real ones.Ninety-eight percent of the alarms are always going to be false, Green said. That's always going to be the case.Chief Herzberg said homeowners, weather, or power outages often set off false alarms. For these reasons, it is never a bad idea to have a trusted neighbor who can shut off an alarm when a home or business owner is out of town. In Langley and in the county, law enforcement will show up whenever and wherever one of these alarms go off, so neighbors or alarm owners should be prepared to explain the situation when a squad car arrives. Too many can produce fineGreen said Evergreen and other companies support local ordinances and laws targeted at false alarms and are in the midst of a six-year drive to reduce these instances. In Island County, three false alarms from a single address over the course of six months can bring a fine down on the alarm's owner. Though punitive, fines like this are also educational, Green said, encouraging alarm owners to learn more about their systems.Ruth Turner, a member of the Island County Fair Association, said she has confidence in alarm systems installed at the fairgrounds and in her own home. She said she purchased a home alarm after one went into the fair office last April. Living in a high traffic area on the Southend, Turner said she believes her home alarm, like the one at the fair, is a real deterrent to theft and break-ins.It makes me feel more secure, she said.Some alarm owners prefer not to let many people know about their systems. One Langley-area merchant, who did not want his business identified, said he places a good deal of faith in his system. But he also said he does not want anyone to get too familiar with his alarm equipment, lest a burglar try to find a way around it.The bottom line from local law enforcement professionals is that anyone concerned about home or business security should think about purchasing an alarm system with both silent, 24-hour monitoring and a loud, audible alarm.While the alarm industry has started to move in the direction of home automation, offering systems costing tens of thousands of dollars, $1,000 to $2,000 will do the job right in most cases, according to D-TECH's Harkins.Langley's Chief Herzberg said his personal advice for anyone thinking about purchasing an alarm is to work with a well-established company. For anyone not considering purchasing an alarm for his or her home and business, Herzberg's advise is to at least give it some thought.They definitely work, he said."

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