Until recently, Buffalo's "CryWolf" crackdown on false alarms was living up to its name in a dubious way.
The high-tech tracking program was trumpeted more than a year ago as one that would slash the number of false alarms by this summer. Then a staff shortage was blamed for a lag in enforcing it.
But city officials say the program is now producing results.
Last summer, the city beefed up efforts to register and track false alarms and bill persistent violators, but the program stalled for a few critical months after the two staff members trained to operate the system left the office. One was laid off, while the other found another job.
Despite the shaky start, Inspections Commissioner Raymond K. McGurn thinks that CryWolf is poised to perform well. While it might take six months or longer before the city sees a significant drop in the number of false alarms, McGurn said, early indicators are positive.
The city has collected nearly $140,000 in alarm registration fees, including more than 1,000 previously unregistered alarm systems. The blitz has red-flagged nearly 270 false alarms since Jan. 1, and the city has collected about $8,000 in fines.
A decade-old law requires that alarm systems be registered with the city at a cost of $20 every two years. If emergency crews answer more than three false alarms at any site in a given year, the owners are supposed to pay fees ranging from $50 to $100 for each alarm, depending on the number of violations. But processing backlogs and staff shortages resulted in fewer than 20 percent of all alarm penalties being collected.
Last summer, Buffalo bought a new software system and training package for CryWolf. "As people become aware that we can now track these alarms, I think you're going to see a big drop" in false alarms, McGurn said. Mary Zizzo, the city's license supervisor, and Judy Doyle, a clerical employee, run the CryWolf program.
In some years, city police and fire crews responded to more than 27,000 avoidable alarms, most of them involving burglar alarms that were accidentally triggered.
As the police force continues to shrink through attrition, and with the likelihood of some layoffs in the Fire Department later this year, officials said that it is more important than ever to reduce the number of false alarms. The $5.3 million that the city estimates it spends responding to such alarms would be enough to pay the salaries and fringe benefits of nearly 70 police officers or firefighters.
Officials think that the program, which is being used in dozens of other cities, could conservatively reduce the number of false alarms by 10 to 18 percent in the first year.
Roger L. Lander, the city's homeland security chief, said the cost of coping with false alarms is only one concern. "Every time you send a crew and equipment out to a false alarm, there's also a risk factor involved," he said.