Seminole looks at fines for multiple false alarms

Since January, firefighters have responded to 376 false alarms. Some represent problems that property owners could fix, Seminole officials say.

By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN, Times Staff Writer
St. Petersburg Times
published June 25, 2003


SEMINOLE - Worried that false alarms could keep firefighters from real emergencies, the City Council is planning on fining people whose alarms go off when they shouldn't.

When firefighters respond to an alarm, they travel at high speeds to get to the scene as quickly as possible, city officials say. And every time it's false, rescue workers are temporarily unavailable to respond to real situations, endangering lives and risking loss of property.

A proposed ordinance would allow commercial and residential properties three false alarms in a 12-month period. Property owners would have 10 days to file a report that explains why the alarm went off and what was done to fix the problem.

For a fourth or any succeeding false alarm, violators would be charged $650. Alarms that were triggered by weather-related activity, such as electrical storms, or by someone who truly thought there was a fire on the premise would be exempt from the ordinance.

"I don't think anybody can really argue with that," council member Pete Bengston said of the proposed legislation.

Council member Janet Long certainly doesn't. She happened to be visiting one of the city's fire stations one night when a call came in. The crew - and Long - rushed to Burlington Coat Factory at Seminole Plaza for what turned out to be a false alarm.

"That's what got me on to this," Long said. "It's been an ongoing problem for a very, very long time, but it's not an issue until somebody really gets hurt or a house gets burned down."

Seminole Fire Chief Dan Graves said the department responds to about 10,000 calls a year, with medical emergencies making up the majority of those calls. About 10 percent of the calls are false alarms.

In 2001, the department responded to 927 bogus calls. Last year, 845 alarms turned out to be nothing. As of June 15, firefighters responded to 376 false alarms.

The reasons for the calls vary from someone maliciously pulling an alarm to a cleaning crew spraying chemicals into a duct system. But the predominant cause for a false alarm is a system malfunction, Graves said. "It's just a way for us to control those businesses and apartment complexes that don't get their systems repaired," he said. "That's all it is. It's not trying to be punitive to anybody, but the only way to get some people's attention is to get into their wallets."

This isn't the first time Seminole has considered penalizing people for false alarms. In 1997, the city considered such an ordinance but dropped the plan because it could charge only properties inside the city. Most of the properties in Seminole Fire District's 23 square miles wouldn't have paid the fine because they are in unincorporated Pinellas.

But annexations in the past three years have more than doubled the size of Seminole, and the city's plans are to grow from its current 5 square miles to 12 square miles.

The city has the authority to regulate alarms within the city but not in unincorporated areas of the district, City Attorney John Elias said. Mayor Dottie Reeder said the council would try and persuade county commissioners to enforce the law in unincorporated areas.

Seminole would not be the first Pinellas city to penalize people for false alarms.

In Dunedin, people can be fined $500 if firefighters respond to false alarms at their homes or businesses more than five times a year. The ordinance works, said Fire Chief Bud Meyer. The department rarely charges the fine because most property owners realize the city means business, he said.

"It's had a real positive impact on fixing the problem," Meyer said.

Clearwater has a false alarm ordinance, too. But the $25 fine is too costly to process, so the law isn't enforced, said Deputy Chief Terry Welker.

"It doesn't have the impact we desire so instead of enforcing it, we're rewriting it," Welker said. The new law will be easier to understand and charge more for violations, he said.

Seminole's Graves says it's much safer to have an alarm system than not to have one. Just make sure it works properly, he said.