The Hidden Cost of False Alarms (Ep. 69)

(Photo: Scott Davidson)

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?

You’ll hear from Temple economist Simon Hakim, who has been studying this topic for years. Here’s one paper on the economics of false alarms, coauthored with Erwin A. Blackstone and Andrew J. Buck:

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?


Off the top of my head, I think that a fee could be charged to alarm companies by the police department for every false alarm. $100 per call, or something like that.

I imagine the companies would pass at least some of the cost on to the customers, but the smart companies would figure out a way to cut down on their false alarms, and thus manage to have fewer expenses than their competitors, giving them some combination of fatter profits and lower charges to their customers compared to their competitors.

If an alarm company is generating 2 false alarms per year per household, that will be roughly an extra $200/year per customer that the company would need to either swallow or pass along. That's a pretty strong incentive for the company to lower their false alarms and for the customer to find a company with fewer false alarms.

It might also make an incentive for police departments to check up on every alarm if they can pad their budget a bit. At the very least it will reduce the incentive they have to assume an alarm is a false alarm (and thus possibly miss out on the real alarm).

The costs would be born by the proper people as far as I can tell - the companies and the people who are using the alarm systems.

I don't know if $100 per false alarm would be too much or too little, but I'm sure someone with more access to relevant data could make a better estimate of an appropriate amount.



A better approach would be to fine the homeowner for false alarms; my observation has been that nearly all false alarms are due to negligence/carelessness on the part of the homeowner, not the alarm company. If we fine the alarm company, they're likely, as you note, to spread the cost of those fines over all customers, rather than the customers who deserve it.

Like other commenters, I'd also disagree with the idea that opportunity cost is all that high here. If a police department is adequately staffed, false alarms drawing them away from real police work suggests poor triage on their part. I have no doubt that false alarms draw police away from revenue generating activities such as traffic enforcement, but the idea police are going to respond to a burglar alarm before they respond to an armed robbery or a 911 call from a human is preposterous. At least I hope it is.


Here are some factors to consider (I didn't listen to the podcast yet).

1) Insurance companies have some bearing on the incentives. I got an alarm for two reasons, and neither of them are because I think the alarm will deter burglaries. First is because the amount I pay for the alarm is offset by reductions in my home insurance premiums (likely more to do with the integrated fire alarm). Second, because the sign outside my house announcing the presence of the alarm will hopefully make a burglar choose an easier target.

2) In my jurisdiction, police do not respond to alarm calls. If there is an alarm tripped, somebody (home owner, etc) has to go check, and if nobody can be found, then the alarm company will send somebody. The police won't do anything until a human has confirmed a break-in. I heard that the best way to get somebody to show up at your house if you're in danger is to trip the fire alarm. Then I believe at least the fire department may show up with sirens blaring.



"Second, because the sign outside my house announcing the presence of the alarm will hopefully make a burglar choose an easier target."

Which suggests that there should be a ready market for alarm company signs, and perhaps faux alarm boxes.


There is.


My town instituted a three strike rule -- after three strikes you get paid a fine.

In my town, the policy is every alarm, burglar or fire, must be responded to. Since we are volunteer fire and first aid, this is an enormous hassle.

The other question is, what are the false alarms from? I know one friend whose problem was simply the system -- the alarm company had some glitch or something in the installation was calling in false alarms. Other people walk through the door and forget to key the code or do it wrong or whatever.

Another major issue was with the school system, which were getting either pulled fire alarms or false positives. Since everyone rolls for a school fire, all hands on deck, it was an enormous hassle. The town started fining the schools, figuring it was their problem, and it was a big political brouhaha.

Another factor is, in many small communities, emergency vehicles, especially fire rigs, last a long time, a decade or more. due to the ability to keep mileage remarkably low. a perhaps a half a mil a clip, that factors in, too.


Mike B

I'd like to know the opportunity cost of a police response. Yes it takes officers' time to respond to a call, but what would they have been doing if that call never came in? Randomly paroling? Writing traffic tickets? Filling out paperwork back at the station? If the level of calls is such that police can respond to alarms without sacrificing other duties there there really isn't much of a need to crack down on them. Towns don't pay police officers by the call...they are paid for the entire shift.


This is a very important point, imo. The numbers being quoted as a "cost" to the police seem to be just the time it takes to respond X pay rate. The officers are getting paid the same whether they are responding to an alarm, patrolling randomly, or whatever else officers do. ;-)

It isn't like they are working overtime to respond to alarms or calling in off-duty officers when an alarm goes off. The cost to the municipality remains the same. Maybe more gas consumed or more wear and tear on police vehicles?

If responding to false alarms is causing crime to go up elsewhere, that is a big opportunity cost. I doubt that is happening, though.

Enter your name...

In a small or rural area, this is probably true, because you can't have less than one person on duty. However, in a city of any size, you could employ fewer police officers if you never had to respond to alarms. A small town might deal with one burglar alarm a week. A large city might get one call an hour.

Joe J

Wondering what the false positive rate is on car alarms. I hear a car alarm go off probably every other day. So often noone even thinks it is an actual car theft taking place.

As to police fining for false alarms, we don't want to over incentivise police, they may begin causing false alarms to gain fine revenue.


What an incredible scam--I get paid for dialing 911 for you...and I get the credit if an actual crime is stopped! I think the next step is to link smoke detectors to a central office. Then, when your smoke alarm goes off, I simply call 911 for you--AND GET PAID FOR IT!

Maybe what the police/fire department ought to do is create their OWN alarm service. If a person has the official police service, there is no charge for answering a false alarm. Otherwise, there would be a $100 charge. To compete, the other alarm services would have to guarantee to pay the fine if their alarm gave a false positive.

Enter your name...

It's a little difficult to reliably identify false alarms. Consider this situation: The last person out of the building sets the alarm before leaving. Several times, we've had people leave without realizing that someone else was still in the building (usually behind a closed office door). At least twice it's been someone who was not authorized to be in the building by himself/herself and therefore had no way to turn off the burglar alarm.

The system worked perfectly: it correctly identified that an unauthorized human was in the building after the system was told that everyone had left for the day. Is that a "false positive"? If that person had simply left the building when the alarm went off, it would certainly look like it.

Shane L

Another kind of cost is also borne by neighbours who live in a community with lots of false alarms. I live in the suburbs at the moment, a relatively safe area, yet I cannot sleep long into the morning at weekends before inevitably being woken by some alarm. Of course it could be that people really are being burgled. But nearly every day? There must be many false alarms and they become very irritating.

They also mean that as neighbours we do not bother to investigate such alarms since we assume they are false.


Point is taken, I have to take out the battery to my smoke detector whenever I cook. But this podcast seems too relevant to the Kenneth Chamberlain case going on right now. The 68yr old veteran was sleeping in his apartment in White Plains, NY when he accidentally triggered his life-alert button which sent one of these false 911 alarms. The police are dispatched just in case, like when there is an injury the fire department for some reason arrives before the ambulance.
Chamberlain told the police not to come in and that he was fine, but they were indignant about having been called for a false alarm and continued to use this as an excuse to force their way in with a bullet-proof riot shield, taser, and shotguns with bean-bag--later live--rounds. Statistically, there is reason to be angry about the way the response system works, but there's a clear need to distinguish that from citizen responsibility.


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The fire department arrives first because there are usually more of them than ambulances and they're almost always positioned better. Furthermore, a lot of them (all of them in my local town) are trained every bit as much as the ambulance crew in emergency medicine, so the only unique medical service that the ambulance provides is the actual transportation. If the FD can have you ready to strap onto a stretcher before the ambulance arrives, then you get transported faster.


I have to agree with several of the posts about the cost versus what would the cops have been doing otherwise? What is the economist take on that? If a city pays 10 cops to patrol what is the additional cost if they actually do work instead of sitting in a doughnut shop?