It happens thousands of times a year: Salt Lake City firefighters scramble to reach a commercial high-rise or a university lab, only to discover that the "fire" was the figment of a faulty, outdated or accidentally tripped alarm system.
"It happens every day," Fire Chief Kurt Cook said Friday, "all over the city."
With the city in a financial pinch, officials are considering charging businesses and institutions that repeatedly sound false fire alarms. Crews now respond to more than 2,000 such calls a year.
Although details about the plan remain sketchy -- there is not yet a proposed ordinance or fee schedule -- the City Council has penciled $50,000 into its 2010-11 budget for alarm-related earnings.
That sum reflects only a half year of collections, which could start in January. Cook suspects the city could recover six figures during subsequent years.
The idea makes sense to Councilman J.T. Martin. He has listened in on fire calls in which multiple stations have been deployed to nonexistent commercial blazes, costing the city time, money and resources.
"If there are habitual false alarms," Martin said, "that were operator error -- someone was just lazy and not doing their job -- I can see us [charging a fee]."
Cook reports that some businesses -- he wouldn't say which -- have logged more than 100 false alarms during the first four months of the year.
"They should bear that cost," he said, not taxpayers.
However, Councilman Luke Garrott warns that the city shouldn't impose a fee that might "dissuade someone from calling 911."
Cook believes his proposal would avoid that problem. The charge would apply to businesses and organizations that trigger alarms because of negligence or poor maintenance, not to places that call in a suspected fire only to find their buildings are safe.
And even if a system glitch were to blame, the city probably would provide one or two free calls before imposing the fee.
Lane Beattie, president and CEO of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, said businesses likely would support a fair fee.
"As long as it treats every one the same," Beattie said, "we would be glad to step up."
While the Fire Department plans to target businesses and organizations that routinely raise false alarms, officials haven't decided whether to put apartment complexes on the list. Houses are not included.
Cook hopes to have an ordinance in place by year's end -- a measure he said would follow a trend toward false-alarm fees nationally. Between now and then, the department plans to evaluate the cost of responding to alarms and potential fees to recoup those expenses.
Elsewhere, Cook said, the charges range from $20 to $300 a call.
Councilman Van Turner plans to support the change. "Every time we are responding to something that is a hoax or a false alarm, that is effort we could be doing something else with."
This year, especially, the city has plenty of other places it would like to spend its cash. Budget cuts could eliminate art programs, shut down greenhouses, lay off employees and bring about service reductions across the city.
Long term, Cook hopes a false-alarm fee would do one more thing for the city: Encourage people to take better care of their alarm systems. In other cities, false calls have dropped by a quarter or more after the fees have taken effect.
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