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Where's the (Fire) Alarm?

The cost of fire safety just doubled for hundreds of Highland Park businesses and residents.

For several hundred Highland Park businesses and residents, the cost of fire safety just went up.

On Nov. 26, the City of Highland Park approved a new contract with Tyco, including a new fee structure, for fire monitoring service. The request for the new contract came from Fire Chief Pat Tanner and Deputy Chief of Police George Pfutzenreuter.

The city's new contract requires those with city-connected fire alarm monitoring -- most of whom are required to do so by law -- to pay the city's existing annual fee of $325 for for each alarm box, plus a new mandatory maintenance fee of $147. This is an increase of almost 50 percent. The maintenance contract services only one component of the system -- the radio transmitter. 

Chief Tanner's stated objective for the mandatory maintenance program is to reduce false alarms - a reasonable goal. When contacted on this issue, both he and the Deputy City Manager Ghida Neukirch compared the maintenance fee to other nearby communities, indicating that even with the new requirement, Highland Park's fee structure remains low. 

Unfortunately, the story is not quite this simple. 

The new, required maintenance contract does not cover the actual fire detection system, such as smoke detectors. Those with city-monitored fire alarm systems will continue to be responsible for the upkeep of the rest of the fire system components, such as system cleaning and backflow valve maintenance. This individual expense can add hundreds of dollars on top of the nearly-$500 per alarm annual system cost, and may make the "maintenance contract" now required different than other cities.

Among the 500 locations in Highland Park that are serviced by the city's alarm monitoring, the majority are businesses. I can see where Target, or a car dealer, might not be too concerned with an additional $147 maintenance fee; it might seem like a rounding error in terms of their overall expenses. Multi-family condominiums might also feel like the expense is minimal; spread $147 over 24 units, and each owner is paying only an additional $6 per year.

However, for small businesses, and for townhome owners like myself, the combination of being required by law to have a city-monitored fire system, and the city's unfettered ability to raise the fees and costs associated with that system, result essentially in an unregulated tax now approaching $1000/year. The new agreement even requires by law that individual residents and businesses sign a maintenance contract with Tyco, unlike backflow valve inspection--where we can hire our own plumber, at market rates.

There seem to be two basic failings in the new city regulation. The first, as described, is that for an individual business or homeowner who has their own alarm system, the cost has increased significantly, with no ability to control or budget properly as an individual. The second, perhaps more troublesome, is that the justification for the new maintenance fee is questionable.

The Fire Chief's presentation on November 26 claimed that the new maintenance contract would reduce false alarms. Perhaps failing radio transmitters are actually a factor in the high incidence of false alarms in Highland Park. However, through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, I learned that less than 15 percent of all fire department calls are a result of alarm system failure; only some of those are a result of problems with the radio unit now covered by maintenance. Instead of redesigning the system, or finding a more reliable approach, now all system owners are being forced to pay for an insurance policy.

During the December 10 City Council meeting, Mayor Rotering indicated that the city spends too much money responding to false alarms. I get that problem and agree it needs a solution. However, higher individual penalties might provide a stronger incentive for residents to care for their systems on a more frequent basis, or a maintenance contract on the whole system could be the legal requirement - one with real value to individual owners. The citywide system could also be redesigned to eliminate faults and weak points.

From the day I first contacted city officials about the new fire alarm fee, I have been anxious about stirring up this issue. I may be Patch's cynical local opinion writer, but trouble is never my intent. Thankfully, our elected officials have been extremely responsive and understanding that perhaps there is more to this story than was contained in the presentation they received from the Police and Fire Departments on November 26. 

Meanwhile, Chief Tanner has invited interested residents to a series of meetings, "to be held at the headquarters fire station, 1130 Central Ave., with fire department staff and Tyco to answer any of their questions. The meetings will be held on December 19 & 27 and January 10 at 7 pm." My neighbors, among the 61 townhomes in Highland Park forced to pay these fees on an individual basis, attended the December meetings, and more are expected to attend next week.

Meetings are great, and dialog is good, but meanwhile we have an amended ordinance on the books requiring individual residents to sign a contract which might not even make sense. I hope for quick action in the coming weeks. If you are affected by this issue, be sure to leave a comment, and I will follow up directly. I'd like the subsequent column on this issue to tell the happy story of how we collectively worked to do what was right for all of Highland Park, not for Tyco as a contractor.

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Jill Goldstein January 09, 2013 at 02:36 PM
Hi Ed: Thank you for the article. As a town home owner, I completely agree. The other issue I have in regards to the expense created by false alarms is that the building requirements for multi family housing and commercial buildings need to have better ventilation requirements. I have become scared to cook anything on the stove in my house because even smoke from boiling pasta water will trigger the alarm wired to the fire station. Some of the excessive false alarms are from negligence but other false alarms could have been avoided if the construction was better thought out during the building process.
David Greenberg January 11, 2013 at 03:03 AM
This whole Ordinance seems onerous to be certain. Forcing one to sign a contract to pay an essentially uncapped amount seems to be an illegal taking under the 5th Amendment. And it's not the least intrusive method of resolving the issue. False alarms are a pain and diversion of resources to be certain, so why not consider something like this: (all within a 1 yr calendar period) 1st False alarm - get a warning... 2nd False alarm - $100 fine 3rd False alarm - $500 fine 4th False alarm - $1000 fine 5th False alarm - City undertakes condemnation proceedings for the property, redtag it, and consider it unsafe for habitation. Forcing the occupants to move out. Focus on the root causes of the problem - improperly installed and/or maintained systems. Focus on the persons causing those issues. Leave everyone else out of the crosshairs.

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