Burglar and fire alarms: costs and benefits to the locality

Fire and crime which occur in homes are costly and demoralizing events that affect every residential community. Victims suffer financial loss, days lost from work, and a dramatic decrease in the quality of life when their privacy is invaded and their homes are no longer regarded as safe havens. All citizens are affected by higher insurance premiums and higher taxes to pay for stepped-up police and fire protection. Neighbors of fire and crime victims also experience a decrease in their quality of life associated with the alienation and despair that accompanies the fear of crime and the apprehension of fire in a community (Krohm, 1973; Sesnowitz, 1972, 1973; Brantingham and Brantingham, 1975; and Jarrell and Howsen, 1990). Sometimes crime and fire are directly associated as in the case of arson. In other cases, invasive crime can take many forms independent of arson. In any event, criminals cause everyone to pay for their criminal acts, either directly or indirectly.

Consider the case of residential burglary. Alarms may change residential burglaries into attempted burglaries which although still a crime, do not make the victims suffer as great a loss since the actual crime of residential burglary is prevented. The National Crime Prevention Institute (1986) operationally defines crime prevention as the practice of crime risk management. "Crime risk management involves the development of systematic approaches to crime risk reduction that are cost effective and that promote both the security and the socioeconomic well-being of the potential victim" (2). Note that this definition includes both social and economic costs of crime.

In the case of residential alarms, the key phrase in this operational definition is "cost effective." It can be argued that residential alarms would not be cost effective if the owners were required to pay the true costs of servicing these alarms by the police and fire departments, including the false activations. Much of the costs of servicing residential alarms is paid for by the general public who support the police and fire departments from their general tax base. Furthermore, not all the residents of a community can afford or choose to install residential alarms. If the costs paid by those residents who do not own alarms were to accrue to the alarm owners, the question of whether residential alarms are cost effective would be answered directly. But these costs are borne by the entire community, owners and non-owners of alarms. Non-alarm owning residents experience few of the benefits, although they share in the costs of servicing the alarms. This article assesses whether or not the community as a whole benefits from the existence of the alarms.

In the case of residential burglary, there is the added question of whether alarms increase or decrease the burglary rate in other non-alarmed houses. This is referred to as the spatial displacement of crime (Meithe, 1991). There are, at least two possibilities: First, the burglar skips the protected house and goes to the unprotected, as a result, total burglary rate remains the same or diminishes somewhat perhaps because of the time factor. Thus, the victims have merely changed. The second possibility is that burglars cannot tell which houses are protected (unprotected houses may have fake alarm notices, for example) but do know, by experience, what fraction of houses in the neighborhood are protected. This experience is referred to as "learning by doing" (Deutsch, Hakim and Spiegel, 1990). If burglars have a feel for what percentage of houses in a community have alarms, then the alarms serve two functions. One is to stop a burglary in progress (only for alarm-protected houses in communities in which burglars feel the proportion of alarmed houses is low enough to exploit). The second is to deter attempts (in communities in which burglars feel the proportion of alarmed properties is too high to exploit), and this works equally well for protected and unprotected houses.

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