Living Smart: Reduce costly false alarms with your security system

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

The occasional security system false alarm may seem like a minor homeowner hassle, but itís actually a nationwide problem you can help solve.

In researching this topic recently, our team found that more than 90 percent of alarm activations that trigger a police response are false alarms activated by user error, pet movement, poorly maintained equipment or other causes that donít involve criminal activity or danger.

All that crying wolf wastes about $2 billion in police resources, our team learned, and lengthens the time it takes officials to respond to actual crises. And it can cost you, if you own one of the estimated 36 million home systems in the country. More than 3,000 U.S. municipalities charge false-alarm fines. First offenses are often forgiven or fined $25 to $35, but multiple instances may cost hundreds of dollars or more.

The key to reducing fines and wasted emergency response time is in your hands. Common mistakes include inputting incorrect codes, not alerting the security monitoring company to new contact information, and not knowing the correct passwords when the company calls about an alarm.

The user error rate tends to be highest in the first hours and days after system installation. Be aware that as a result, some company contracts specify a grace period during which they wonít call police if the alarm is activated.

Security pros offer these tips for reducing the chance of a false alarm:

Train everyone with access to your home on how to disarm the system, how to contact the monitoring company, and which code words are needed to cancel an alarm by phone.

Test your system monthly. Check backup batteries annually.

Keep motion detectors clear of debris, such as spider webs and bugs. Make sure air drafts donít move curtains, plants or decorations. Check that protected doors and windows close correctly.

Alert the alarm company when youíre out of town, change your contact information, have a remodeling project or a new pet (new systems factor in pets according to size).

Keep equipment in good repair and consider upgrading. Recently developed technology helps reduce the chances of false alarms by making them easier to use. Examples: disarming a system via text message, monitoring it by video or interacting with it via wireless key fob. Such features can cost from $500 to $2,000 for equipment and installation.

If youíre installing a new home alarm system, determine your financial responsibilities regarding false alarms. Also, be sure to work with a reputable, reliable company. Only consider those that are appropriately licensed and registered with proper local or state authorities. Check their online reputation and take time to contact references. Donít neglect to read your contract carefully before signing.