When someone calls 911, no matter how panicked they are or how brief the call, they're usually able to give police dispatchers some idea of what's going on.
When an automatic alarm goes off, police are given an address — and usually nothing more.
The implications of that for police costs and, more importantly, for police officer safety, are what prompted the to ask the city for a new ordinance requiring residents and businesses that have automatic alarm services to register and update their information annually and pay a $20 yearly fee.
The plan also calls for a new $50 fine for any call to an unregistered alarm once the ordinance is in place.
The proposal came Tuesday night to the Common Council's Budget and Finance Committee, which voted 5-1 to recommend it.
"This is in essence a brand new fee," said Police Capt. Dale Weiss. "We've been looking at this for about two years. It would create a registry of all the alarms in the city, with fees to offset the costs."
Currently, anyone can contract with an alarm company to install an automatic system without the police having any idea it exists. The companies monitor the systems, calling police when an alarm is triggered.
Police take note when they get alarm calls, and so they've created a partial registry of their own, but one that Weiss called "outdated and inadequate."
"Even if we know there's an alarm installed," he said, "we may not know who the keyholders are, whether there's a dog on the premises, whether there are neighbors watching the home or who have keys, who the alarm companies are."
Weiss said that the police know of about 1,700 alarm systems in the city, with about two-thirds of those installed at businesses.
"Likely there are more unregistered," he said.
Weiss said the police answer about 1,000 automatic alarm calls a year.
Ald. Dennis McBride suggested it might be more appropriate to require the alarm companies, rather than residents and business people, to register the systems they install.
City Attorney Alan Kesner said that was within the city's power to do, but he doubted the companies, which he said were scattered all over the country, would be inclined to provide the degree of information police needed.
Police Chief Barry Weber seconded that, saying that no one would know better than the property owner the information police officers need most, nor would they be likely to bear the cost of updating that information every year.
One citizen and one alderwoman expressed doubts about putting the onus of a required registration and a fee on people who were simply trying to protect their lives and property.
Rich Lochrie said that both his home and his business in the Village had been burglarized, and he had alarms installed at both — something everyone ought to be encouraged to do rather than discouraged by new fees.
"You want more people with alarms," Lochrie said. "Incentive-ize people to get alarms and reduce the crime rate.
"The cost isn't that much — it's trivial — it's the mindset. Avoid the fee, that's all I'm saying."
Ald. Cheryl Berdan agreed and ultimately voted against the plan, saying, "I'm frankly troubled by the requirement. These are people who are just trying to be safe."
But Chief Weber said that the fee was needed to offset the cost of creating and maintaining the registry, and that there were high costs to his department in answering unregistered alarms.
"Any alarm call is a minimum two-car response," he said, simply because officers don't have any idea what they're getting into.
Weber's view would prevail with the committee; the proposal will move Dec. 20 to the full Common Council for adoption.