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Fire Chiefs alarmed by the cost of phony calls

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | First Assistant Fire Chief Will Anderson believes the town code needs revision as it applies to automatic fire alarms.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO |
First Assistant Fire Chief Will Anderson believes the town code needs revision as it applies to automatic fire alarms.

The radio crackles, then sounds a signal and an announcement reports an automatic alarm has gone off at a Shelter Island residence or business.

Sometimes there’s an actual fire, propane leak, smoke condition or other emergency that needs attention. But far too often it’s an alarm set off by weather conditions — too much heat or cold — that results in the alarm calling firefighters and police. Other times contractors inadvertantly set off the alarms.

And the town code dictates that more than one false alarms results in fines for homeowners.

First Assistant Fire Chief Will Anderson told the Town Board last week the code needs revision. He’s not alone. Concerns were initially voiced by the Fire District Board of Fire Commissioners and are shared by the other chiefs.

Second Assistant Chief Greg Sulahian said all agree the code needs to be changed because there are people on Shelter Island who are turning off their automatic alarms to avoid incurring fines from systems that sound when there isn’t an emergency.

“We can’t have that,” Mr. Sulahian said, noting there’s a trend among seniors who leave the Island for the winter and don’t want to chance a false alarm. “It’s too general, too vague,” he said about the current law.

Under the law, while someone who deliberately sounds a false alarm would be fined a minimum of $250, a property owner whose alarm goes off when there isn’t an emergency would be allowed one pass. A second false fire alarm would incur a $100 fine and charges for subsequent false alarms go up an additional $100 each time. Amber Williams, treasurer to the Board of Fire Commissioners, said that the district splits fines with the town and the district has received between $600 and $1,600 per year

Who decides whether an alarm should be classified as false? Police Chief Jim Read said that’s his call. Chief Read said he was surprised to hear Mr. Anderson complaining about the law when the fire department was involved in creating it.

“I was a little dumbfounded,” the chief said.

Mr. Anderson said it’s not the first time a law has been written to address a problem, then needed to be changed because of problems that surfaced that hadn’t been anticipated.

Mr. Anderson and the other chiefs are looking at similar laws enacted by municipalities and is drafting a letter to the Town Board with specific suggestions, he said.

The intent of the original 1997 law and amended in December of that year to include penalties for false alarms, was meant to encourage property owners to maintain their systems correctly and to lessen the number of false alarm calls.

“That hasn’t happened,” Mr. Anderson said. The number of false alarms has remained the same and people on fixed incomes, fearing fines, have turned off their alarms, he said.

Another concern is multiple alarms that come from properties with several buildings but one owner, Mr. Sulahian said. Mr. Anderson pointed out that when he looked back at records of calls at places like the Perlman Music Program two alarms at different buildings would automatically incur a fine. He said places with multiple buildings shouldn’t be penalized.

He also thinks the fire department, not the police, should be categorizing calls.

There should be more leniency given to those who can prove they’ve taken necessary steps to maintain their alarm systems in good working order, he added. The law provides no recourse for those who are fined, he said.

That’s not how Chief Read sees it. If people fail to pay their fines, they will be brought into civil court where they can argue their cases, he said.

That’s not enough because the law doesn’t give the court any options, Mr. Anderson said. It’s up to the court to enforce the law, not interpret it, he said.

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