The Hidden Cost of False Alarms (Ep. 69)
Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast is called “The Hidden Cost of False Alarms.” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.)
The central facts: between 94 and 99 percent of burglar-alarm calls turn out to be false alarms, and false alarms make up between 10 and 20 percent of all calls to police.
There are at least three things to consider upon learning these facts:
1. If a particular medical screening had such a high false-positive rate, it would likely be considered worse than worthless; but:
2. With more than 2 million annual burglaries in the U.S., perhaps it’s worth putting up with so many false positives in service of the greater deterrent; as long as:
3. The cost of all those false positives are borne by the right people.
Can you already figure out whether No. 3 is in fact the case?
Ninety-four to ninety-nine percent of all police physical responses to burglar alarm activations are false. In 2000 police responded to 36 million false calls at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion. This paper presents and evaluates ten police policies for dealing with this waste of police resources.
Hakim proposes a public-private market response to fight this problem, including higher fines, education, and registration fees.
You’ll also hear from the police chief of Fremont, Calif., Craig Steckler. He says his department gets about 4,000 alarm calls each year:
You wouldn’t stay in business if 95 percent of the product you put out was a bad product, right? You wouldn’t have customers. … If you buy a washing machine from Sears and it malfunctions, you don’t call the city maintenance department to come out and fix it. So if you buy an alarm, why do you call us to come out when it’s broken or it’s not working?
Some cities have begun to fine homeowners who rack up multiple false alarms, which is one way of introducing accountability. As for the alarm industry? The Security Industry Alarm Coalition says it’s dancing as fast as it can to bring down the number of false positives. Here’s what the SIAC’s Ron Walter told us:
“It’s our number-one priority. This is the one issue that we have decided has to be addressed.”
But as our podcast makes clear, the incentives are misaligned here. The alarm companies are doing quite well by passing along some of their costs to police departments (and, of course, taxpayers). Industry analysts say that industry leader ADT, for instance, has an operating margin of about 25 percent on roughly $3 billion in revenues.
If you were running an alarm company, how much effort would you put into voluntarily lowering the false-positive rate?