Chapel Hill residents and students may have to think twice before dialing 911.
Police Chief Chris Blue and Fire Chief Dan Jones came before the Chapel Hill Town Council Monday night to recommend a public hearing on a proposed ordinance to regulate and manage alarm systems throughout Chapel Hill.
Blue and Jones both expressed their concern with the consistent number of accidental alarm calls in the town every year.
°The number of accidental alarms has been rather consistent over the past few years” said Blue. “We’re hoping to see that number decline significantly with these changes.”
Between July 9 and Sept. 4, the Chapel Hill Police Department received 567 total alarm calls. Only 25 of those calls turned out to be of legitimate concern, meaning 96 percent of the calls received were either accidental or unfounded.
For the police and fire departments, this is a big concern for multiple reasons.
“Unless the alarm is being tested or can be canceled while they’re on the way, we send them out as if it is an emergency,” said Jones.
Every time the police department responds to an alarm, they send at least two officers to the location. Alarms going to the fire department require up to four pieces of machinery and up to ten fire fighters.
Jones said the fire department is concerned that half of the town’s fire department could be tied up with one alarm call.
Not only are valuable time and resources used to respond to each call, but each alarm call also comes with a price.
In 2012, the police department responded to 3,630 alarm calls at a cost of $75,213.60. In the same year, the fire department responded to 1,250 alarm calls at a cost of $122,400. Each response took an average of 17 minutes to complete.
“There’s obviously a lot of monetary and opportunity cost here,” said Blue. He added that the changes would essentially pay for themselves due to the reduced overtime hours paid to officers responding to accidental calls.
One idea discussed heavily was implementing a penalty system for repeat offenders. Blue and Jones said that fines are a strong possiblitity for the penalty system, stating that writing legal citations was not at all in their interests.
They also added that the fines would not just be a way for the two departments to bring in extra cash.
“The fine system would not be implemented just to generate extra revenue, although it would help cover the costs that come with each response,” said Blue. “We think this could be a good strategy based off of greatly reduced numbers in accidental calls in areas with similar policies.”
These fines could mean lighter wallets for UNC students — 30 percent of the fire department’s annual alarm calls come from on-campus buildings.
After more than 30 minutes of discussion, the town council motioned to schedule a public hearing to discuss comments and ideas about the new alarm system on October 28.
Mayor Pro Tem Ed Harrison opened the meeting by briefly discussing the tragic biking deaths earlier this week. Harrison wanted to make it clear that the council is well aware of the terrible accidents and are looking into ways to make Chapel Hill streets safer for bikers.
“My main concern is that students and residents are going to hesitate to call 911 in case of an emergency when we all can agree that we would tell them that it is better to call and double check rather than let a possible emergency go uncalled,” Harrison said about the possibility of fining students and residents for multiple false alarms.
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