Lower Macungie seeking stiffer penalties for chronic false fire alarms
Jan 13, 2013 (The Morning Call (Allentown - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
When volunteers at the Lower Macungie Fire Department are called out, there's nearly a one in three chance that they find themselves rushing to an emergency that doesn't exist.
Take last year, for example, when firefighters summoned 429 times in the Lehigh Valley's third most-populated municipality wound up responding to 128 calls -- 30 percent -- that were false alarms originating from alarm systems in businesses and homes.
"I'll be honest with you, those just kill us," Lower Macungie fire Chief Dave Nosal recently told township commissioners. "It's a lot of wasted time, it's a lot of wasted money running those false alarms."
Township officials are looking into beefing up penalties imposed against false alarm violators that currently can be fined a maximum of $300, but only after four violations in a calendar year.
Although officials didn't provide firm estimates of what one fire call response costs, they said the price tag far exceeds $300 when considering fuel, vehicle upkeep and the cost to volunteers who have to leave their jobs to respond. On average, about 15 volunteers from the department respond to any given emergency, Nosal said. A portion of the fine money goes to the fire company to help offset its costs.
"I have a feeling the $300 doesn't come close to what the cost is," said Rich Somach, the township's solicitor.
Ben Galiardo, the township's code enforcement officer, said that while one assisted living facility has been cited and taken to court four times since 2006, violators generally have not racked up more than three strikes. About 43 percent of the 128 false alarms came from homes with security systems.
"I've only had to deal with one [property owner] over 14 years where we had to go to court," he said.
Commissioners say they want to look at hiking the fine and perhaps imposing fines after fewer than four offenses.
"It's also a safety issue," Commissioner Roger Reis said. "There have been instances where firemen have been injured and killed responding to fires. It's not just a dollar thing, there's lives of these volunteers at stake."
Galiardo said it's a liability issue.
"No matter what time of day, whether 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning, you're going to go a little beyond the normal speed to maybe save someone's life," he said.
Lower Macungie is hardly unique. A number of communities across the Lehigh Valley have put false alarm ordinances on the books over the years. Some have more stringent rules than those in Lower Macungie.
Officials in Nesquehoning in 2005 voted to enforce its three-strike false alarm ordinance, which carried a $100 fine. The same year, fines for those types of violations were increased to up to $1,000 in Pennsburg, Montgomery County, and fines were established in Plainfield Township.
And it's not a new problem. The volume of false alarm responses in Lower Macungie has hovered around 30 percent for many years, according to fire department statistics.
Galiardo said the false alarms often occur in businesses and homes where security systems have been installed.
"It can be a faulty detector, or maybe dust got into it," Galiardo said. "We've had issues where they've pulled boxes in the building [for maintenance] and that sets the alarm off."
In other cases, people smoking in buildings have set off the alarms."
When an alarm sounds, Lehigh County's communications center receives a call from the alarm company and dispatches the fire department.
Galiardo said the fire company is bound to travel to the scene of the supposed fire, even if someone calls them off as firefighters are en route.
FALSE ALARMS BY THE NUMBERS
A breakdown of the false alarm calls that Lower Macungie's fire department responded to in 2012.
Carbon-monoxide related: 16
Assisted living facility: 10
Water flow problem: 4
Source: Lower Macungie Fire Department
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